When Tech. Sgt. Charles H. Coolidge died April 6, 2021, at 99, he was the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II and the last from the European theater.
Born Aug. 4, 1921, in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, outside Chattanooga, Charles Henry Coolidge faced adversity from an early age. Apart from the formative lessons of growing up during the Great Depression, Coolidge also suffered from a speech impediment caused by a congenital deformation of his tongue. After years of being mocked by his peers and not understood even by his family, Coolidge underwent surgery in the fourth grade that corrected it, but he still had to go through years of diction lessons.
Coolidge’s father, Walter P. Coolidge, Sr., founded the Chattanooga Printing & Engraving Company in 1910, where Charles worked both before and after the war. Even throughout the Depression, Coolidge remembered, his father would care for his employees as best he could. Coolidge learned very young the importance of industry. In addition to working the labor-intensive job at the printing company, where he learned to be an expert bookbinder, Coolidge also sold magazines door-to-door and worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority.
When he was drafted into the U.S. Army on June 16, 1942, at age 20, he was working double shifts at two jobs.
Coolidge was careful to note in interviews how his family’s Christian faith formed him and equipped him for his wartime experience. “My mother and daddy were praying people,” he remembered. “Religion, that was the thing, you were supposed to read the Bible and pray every day, sometimes more than once a day. When they’re shooting at you, you better be praying a whole lot.”
“I’m Sorry, Mac, You’ve Gotta Come And Get Me”
After receiving basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, where he almost lost his leg because of an accidental, self-inflicted bayonet wound, he was sent to Camp Butner, North Carolina. Then he went to Camp Edwards in Massachusetts, where he was assigned to M Company, 3rd Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division.
In April 1943, Coolidge’s unit shipped overseas to North Africa to prepare for the invasion of Europe. When they landed near Paestum, Italy, in September of that year, the soldiers of the 36th Infantry Division were the first U.S. troops to see combat on the continent. As his division pressed their way through the Italian peninsula toward France, Coolidge would go on to receive a Silver Star for his actions as a machine gun section leader at Velletri in May 1944, just days before they entered Rome.
The actions for which a 23-year-old Coolidge received his Medal of Honor began Oct. 22, 1944, when he and his 27 men were ordered to cover the right flank of the 3rd Battalion by securing several hills east of Belmont-sur-Buttant, France, along the German border.
On Oct. 24, while Coolidge and his men were performing reconnaissance on Hill 623, they were met by a group of Germans emerging from a dense forest. Taking with him George Ferguson, one of his soldiers who knew some German, Coolidge went out to meet them and instructed Ferguson to ask them if they wished to surrender. While they were speaking, Coolidge spotted a German behind a nearby tree readying his rifle to shoot them, but he managed to cut him down with his carbine first.
A ferocious firefight then erupted that would span four days, during which Coolidge and his outnumbered platoon repeatedly repelled German forces. Ferguson was wounded almost immediately, and Coolidge dragged him from the crest of the hill to safety. With no officers present, Coolidge calmly assumed leadership of the platoon, many of whom were green replacement soldiers who had never seen combat.
On Oct. 27, the fourth day of fighting, two German tanks rumbled up the hill followed by more infantry. One of the tanks approached Coolidge and stopped within about 30 meters of him before the hatch opened and a German soldier popped out. Coolidge stood up and looked him in the eye.
“Do you guys want to give up?” the tank commander asked in perfect English, echoing what Coolidge had asked the Germans days before.
“I’m sorry, Mac, you’ve gotta come and get me,” Coolidge answered.
He darted between trees as the tank’s turret swung back and forth, firing five times at him in close range but narrowly missing. Shrapnel skimmed the tip of his boot and took off some leather, but he escaped the ordeal unscathed. When a bazooka he found nearby failed to fire, Coolidge resorted to lobbing a volley of grenades at the enemy, all while keeping his head as he issued orders to the other men.
“Finally it became apparent that the enemy, in greatly superior force, supported by tanks, would overrun the position,” Coolidge’s Medal of Honor citation reads in part. “TSgt. Coolidge, displaying great coolness and courage, directed and conducted an orderly withdrawal, being himself the last to leave the position. As a result of TSgt. Coolidge’s heroic and superior leadership, the mission of his combat group was accomplished throughout four days of continuous fighting against numerically superior enemy troops in rain and cold and amid dense woods.”
They later learned that despite the overwhelming odds against them, they had killed 26 Germans and wounded more than 60. After breaking through into Germany over the Vosges Mountains with his division, Coolidge was awarded the Medal of Honor by Gen. Wade H. Haislip in a field near Dortmund on June 18, 1945.
“I didn’t care about me,” Coolidge said of his heroic actions. “I cared about my men. I’d do anything for them.”
“My Mother Was Praying For Me”
Coolidge’s son, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Charles H. Coolidge Jr., recalled to The Daily Wire when he once asked his father how he was able to face down two German tanks without fear.
Clarifying that he was only aware of one tank at the time, his father replied, “Well, my mother was praying for me, so I knew that I was in His hands.”
Coolidge Jr. said faith was an indispensable support to his father and that his life showed it. When he spoke of his wartime ordeals, Coolidge always credited God for his ability to repeatedly emerge from harrowing circumstances unharmed.
“Anything I did do during the war, I give God the credit,” Coolidge said in an interview with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. “I mean, Jesus walked with me every step of the way. You cannot believe what my men — they thought I … [had] lost my mind. Because I would go anywhere, do anything, never worried that they were shooting at me.”
“I still say the Lord must’ve curved many a bullet that I knew absolutely they were shooting at me,” he added. “I mean, I’m positive they were shooting at me.”
Coolidge, who claimed the life expectancy of infantrymen was roughly 12 days, was never even wounded.
During his funeral at First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Coolidge’s pastor discerned the role his faith played in his life. “Long before he was a hero in the European theater, both at Anzio and the Battle of the Bulge, he was a man of faith who knew where he was going for eternity,” he said.
“He couldn’t predict what was going to happen in those European battlefields, in which many men — many right next to him and around him — lost their lives in an instant, but he knew in life and in death, he was the Lord’s and he would be with Him in glory someday soon.”
“Love Thy Neighbor”
After the war, Coolidge returned to Signal Mountain and remained in the area for the rest of his life. “He came back from the war and of course he was a hero, so he was offered many jobs,” Coolidge Jr. said. For a time he worked for the Veterans Administration but was willing to take a salary cut to return to the family printing company when his father asked for help.
“He was very loyal, very family-oriented,” Coolidge Jr. said.
The importance of family was one of the hallmarks of Coolidge’s life. Coolidge Jr. said his father was “very concerned” about where he saw the nation headed and believed most of its problems were attributable to the breakdown of the family, which he saw as the bedrock of a healthy culture.
One of the battles Coolidge had to fight in later life began in his 40s when he started to show symptoms of multiple sclerosis in 1966. The disease afflicted him for 55 years, but “in combating the illness, he showed the same dedication, calmness, deep faith, and good humor that had motivated him during the war.”
Regarding his father’s legacy, Coolidge Jr. described the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga as the capstone of a life that was dedicated to the six values the Medal of Honor represents: courage, sacrifice, patriotism, citizenship, integrity, and commitment. To these Coolidge Jr. adds love, quoting the Scripture that greets visitors at the center: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Listing the many profound problems the country is facing, Coolidge Jr. said his father believed all of them could be “solved with one sentence.”
“Love thy neighbor as thyself,” Coolidge said, referencing the passage in the Gospels when Jesus was asked to describe the greatest commandment. “That my dad’s answer. He said you don’t need new policies, you don’t need any new law. You just need to live by that.”
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