In today’s world, where young people come unglued when they can’t find their cell phones, Charles Coolidge personified valor above and beyond the call of duty, earning him the nation’s highest decoration of valor, the Medal of Honor for bravery and heroism in France.
Following last year’s death of Francis Currey, Coolidge is one of two living Medal of Honor recipients from WWII. He is the only surviving Army soldier to have received the Medal of Honor during WWII, as well as the only surviving recipient from the European Theater of that great war.
Testing His Mettle
During a time that tried men’s souls, U.S. Army Technical Sergeant Charles H. Coolidge found himself catapulted into his own do or die situation that tested his mettle—and he passed with flying colors.
As a result of T/Sgt. Coolidge’s heroic and superior leadership, the mission of his combat group was accomplished throughout four days of continuous fighting against German enemy troops in rain and cold amid dense woods in France.
For his service above and beyond the call of duty, Lieutenant General Wade H. Haislip presented Coolidge with the Medal of Honor at a ceremony at an airfield near Dornstadt, Germany.
A Young Man Finds His Destiny
Charles Henry Coolidge was born in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, a Chattanooga suburb, on August 04, 1921, to Walter and Grace (McCracken) Coolidge. He graduated from Chattanooga High School in 1939, and worked at his father’s printing business as a bookbinder.
On June 16, 1942, the 21-year-old was drafted and mustered into the U.S. Army in Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia. After completing his basic training at Ft. McClellan, Alabama, and a stint at Camp Butler, North Carolina, the young man found himself at Camp Edwards, in Massachusetts, where he was assigned to M Company, 3rd Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division.
“When I heard that my number was drafted, only one thought crossed my mind,” the stoic Coolidge said in a recent interview. “I had to go. There was no question about it.”
Coolidge would serve 22 months in the Army.
A World of Chaos
In April 1943, his travels took a global turn when he was shipped overseas to Algeria to participate in the North Africa Campaign.
In 1944, his heroic actions in Italy as a machine gun leader and sergeant garnered him the Silver Star for gallantry in action.
After he left North Africa, he then traveled north through the Mediterranean into Italy and France.
He and his comrades were little more than boys barely out of their teens, but they were young men who had left ordinary jobs to save the world.
Rendezvous with Destiny
T/Sgt. Coolidge’s rendezvous with destiny came on a cold, rainy October day in 1944, along a ridge in Belmont sur Buttant, France.
He went forward with a Sergeant of Company K to reconnoiter positions for coordinating the fires of the light and heavy machine guns when they ran into an enemy force of Germans escorted by tanks in the woods.
As he unexpectedly found himself to be the senior enlisted man on the field of battle, T/Sgt Coolidge took command of the group of replacement soldiers who were experiencing their first taste of battle.
He led a section of heavy machine guns supported by 1 platoon of Company K to take a position defending Hill 623 with the mission of covering the right flank and supporting the actions of the 3d Battalion.
“I just took over,” Coolidge affirmed. “It was self-preservation.”
Though outnumbered and untested, the soldiers led by Coolidge mounted their machine guns and fearlessly countered the enemy.
T/Sgt Coolidge attempted to bluff the Germans with a show of brazen assurances and called upon them to surrender, whereupon they immediately opened fire at close range.
Armed with a carbine, Coolidge returned fire and wounded two of them.
Self-Preservation and Survival
When called upon the Germans to surrender, the 23-year-old technical sergeant brazenly defied them saying, “I’m sorry, Mac, you’ve got to come and get me.”
Unmindful of the enemy fire, for three harrowing days, Coolidge walked up and down the front line encouraging his men and directing their fire.
On the fourth day of the battle, the Germans launched repeated attacks supported by two tanks, and sprayed the area with small enemy arms, machine gun and tank fire.
Coolidge armed himself with a bazooka and advanced to within 25 yards of the tanks.
When his bazooka failed, he threw it aside and grabbed as many hand grenades that he could carry and crawled forward to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy.
Their response was to deliver a full-on assault against the weary forces.
He dodged five point-blank shots from an 85 mm tank gun aimed at him and then advanced, running from tree to tree ahead of the slow-moving vehicle.
When Coolidge saw they were fighting more men with superior odds and their position was to be overrun by the Germans, to save his men, he orderly withdrew. He himself was the last to leave.
“It’s interesting how the world changes complexion,” he said, “and what you do to survive.” His son notes his disapproval with today’s disrespect of the military as riots and chaos ravage the nation.
He stressed that his actions were all about taking care of his men. It was later reported that Coolidge and his men had killed 26 German soldiers and wounded 60.
A Lifetime of Service
When the war had ended, he wrote to his future wife:
“Things from this side of the ocean are steadily improving, perhaps in the next couple of years we will all be able to start home.”
He arrived back to Chattanooga amid great fanfare, but the world was different. The City of Chattanooga declared August 08, 1945 as “Coolidge Day” and his celebrity grew.
“My mother joked that Charles’ expertise in throwing hand grenades came from when he threw mud balls at the neighborhood girls as a kid,” said Carrington Montague, former owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts and self-proclaimed Coolidge admirer in a Chattanooga Times interview.
In the Chattanooga area, two parks, a highway and a heritage center are named after Charles Coolidge.
The 98-year-old is among a dozen World War II Medal of Honor recipients whose youthful photos are featured alongside one another in a set of Forever stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service.
In 2006, France made Coolidge a knight of the Legion of Honor, that country’s highest honor. While Coolidge felt honored to represent those who received the award through the new stamp set, he has continued to say his actions in Belmont sur Buttant were “only about his men.”
Two other local World War II Medal of Honor recipients include Rising Fawn, Ga., resident Desmond Doss, who died in 2006, and Cleveland native Paul Huff, who died in 1994.
Coolidge resides in Signal Mountain, where he was born, in a house he’s lived in for 50 years. He is now retired from the family business, Chattanooga Printing & Engraving, which had celebrated its 100th anniversary ten years ago, but has since been closed, according to his son, Bill Coolidge.
The decorated hero has personally battled multiple sclerosis and lives life undaunted, even though he does it from a wheelchair. The nonagenarian will celebrate his 99th birthday in August.
“When you talk about ‘the greatest generation,’ you couldn’t pick a better model than Charles H. Coolidge,” said Jim Wade, executive director of the National Medal Museum of Military History in Hixson.
The Congressional Medal of Honor
Eight criteria have been established as the basis for receiving the Medal since its creation following the Civil War. Also known as the Congressional Medal of Honor because it is awarded by Congress, the Medal is awarded for setting a personal example under fire that inspires others; devotion to duty under fire; accepting danger; saving life; overcoming one’s injuries; defeating great odds; taking command; and seizing an opportunity to strike a blow to the enemy.
Most Medal of Honor Recipients meet at least two of the requirements. However, Coolidge satisfied seven; he came through the battle unscathed.
When the great Babe Ruth said, “Heroes get remembered but legends never die,” little did the world know that it would be privileged to be in the presence of greatness epitomized by Charles Coolidge.
His unselfish life of service to his country and his community has defined him as a true American hero, a rare breed these days.
His legacy is secure. His stamp says it best, “Forever.”