Bruce Cottington, of Litchfield, is one of a rare, and unfortunately dying breed. He is one of the kids who enlisted in the U.S. military service illegally because he was only 15 years old at the time. He was sworn in the Navy on January 23, 1943 — one day after his 16th birthday. He was only 14 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 and the U.S. entered WWII. “A date which will live in infamy” according to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “I was a sophomore in high school,” Cottington recalled. In order to serve in the armed forces of the U.S., men must be at least 17 years old and women 20 years old. But for patriotic or desperate reasons thousands of youngsters bypassed recruiting requirements by altering various documents in order to enter the military service. According to his story in the third volume edition titled “America’s Youngest Warriors,” Cottington was born on a dairy farm near Forest City, Iowa on Jan. 22, 1927 and was the 10th of 13 children of Gertrude and Levi Cottington. When he was only nine years old his father died and his mother had to raise nine children who were still living on the farm and continued to run the farm. She sold the farm and moved to Des Moines, Iowa in 1944, after five of her six sons entered the service.
Six brothers in the U.S. Military Cottington wanted to join the service for patriotic reasons and he wanted to follow the footsteps of his two brothers who had already joined the service. Rex was in the Army Air Corps during WWII in the South Pacific and Keith was in the Army, Red Bull Division 34th Infantry, during WWII in Europe and Africa. After Bruce joined the Navy, his brothers Richard, WWII, South Pacific, and later Levi, Korean War, enlisted in the Navy. Lyle joined the Marines during WWII and also served in the South Pacific. All six brothers became members of the Litchfield VFW where there is a plaque with their pictures honoring them for their service. According to Cottington this is the only United State’s VFW post that had six brothers on the roster. Rex and Bruce are the only brothers left of the six Cottingtons. Rex lives in Phoenix, Arizona.
Cottington joins Navy When Cottington went to enlist the Navy Chief asked him how old he was and Cottington responded with the question: “How do you get to be 17?” The chief asked him if he had a birth certificate and Cottington said he did not have a birth certificate. So the chief gave him a form that his mom had to sign and then had to have it notarized stating that he was 17 years old. “Mom knew I was determined to enlist so she signed the form,” Cottington said. “The notary public, Joe Rood, was a local banker and he knew I was not 17 but he signed it anyway. He could have lost his license as a notary public if someone found out he was lying about my age. In those days they had lots of people go into the service without birth certificates. I turned in the form and the chief said ‘raise your right hand, you’re in.’ ” “I was sent to Farragut, Idaho, for boot camp and trained as a radioman. After turning down an offer to be a radio instructor, I was assigned with the Marines at Camp Pendleton, California. I was with the 4th Marine Division from December 1943 until August 1944. From there I was shipped to Hawaii with the 4th Marine Division where I was trained as a military amphibian — which was the early version of the Marine Seals. I was assigned to a Landing Craft, Infantry (LCI) until October 1945. I was on a troopship off Saipan, made three landings in the Philippines and was involved in the last battle of WWII at Okinawa on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945. I was discharged from active duty in March 1946 and returned home to Des Moines, Iowa. I joined the Naval Reserve and volunteered for active duty in 1950 for the Korean War. I was discharged from the Navy for the second time in August 1952.” Bruce Cottington earned seven battle stars during World War II and one during the Korean War.
Veterans of Underage Military Service Cottington is a member of a national organization called Veterans of Underage Military Service (VUMS). VUMS was started in June of 1991 by Allan Stover of Ohio, who was only 14 when he quit school and became a Marine. At one time there were more than 22,000 members in VUMS but because of members dying and the crackdown on entering the service before the required age, active membership in 2012 was 1139. In Minnesota there are only nine VUMS members. “One of our Minnesota VUMS members is General John Vessey,” Cottington said. John Vessey, Jr., was born in Minneapolis on June 29, 1922 and enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard when he was 16 years old. He served as the 10th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from June, 1982 to September, 1985. VA reports that more than 1100 WWII Veterans pass away each day. The VUMS organization’s national reunion in 2013 was held in Lafayette, Louisiana in April. For more information about VUMS, call the Commander toll free 1-888-653-8867 or visit the web site www.oldvums.com.
Post military achievements and awards Cottington graduated from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa with a degree in business administration. He started in the grocery business with Kroger Company in Kansas City, Mo., and then in 1957 he joined Super Valu in Minneapolis to start a general field supervisor and new dairy department. In 1968 he became a partner with the Super Valu store in Litchfield. He was inducted into the Minnesota Future Farmers of America Hall of Fame recently for his commitment to agriculture and educational leadership. In 2006, Minnesota Milk awarded the first ever “Friend of Dairy” award to Bruce Cottington. Since then, the name of the award has been changed to the “Bruce Cottington Award” in honor of Bruce Cottington’s name and legacy. This award is given out on select years to individuals that have gone above and beyond the call of duty fostering the goals and ideals of Minnesota Milk through their own personal efforts. Additional criteria for the award also includes their involvement in Minnesota’s dairy industry, display of leadership, and community involvement. On February 1971, Cottington started the Sister-City exchange Peanut Butter and Milk Festival in Litchfield with the thought it would be a one-time promotion for his store. The festival is in its 42nd year and has developed into a sister-city relationship with Hartford, Alabama. On one of his sister-city visits to Alabama, Cottington met with Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy who owned a peanut farm. He received correspondence from several U.S. presidents including Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Gerald Ford. This year he received a Christmas card signed by President Obama, his wife Michelle, two daughters Malia Ann and Sasha, and their dog, Bo. He also received congratulation letters from presidential candidates Mitt Romney, John McCain and a book written and signed by Sarah Palin. Cottington remains active with the Litchfield American Legion, VFW, is the current secretary/treasurer and past commander for the Litchfield Military Honor Guard, which provides military rites for deceased veterans, and is the state commander for VUMS.