Oldest Medal of Honor recipient Charles Coolidge dies at 99


When Charles Coolidge was growing up outside of Chattanooga, his high school class was visited by Sgt. Alvin York, the Tennessian famous for the exploits of the First World War which earned him the Medal of Honor.

In the aftermath of World War II, it was Sergeant Coolidge who toured his home state, recounting another heart-wrenching firefight in France, this one bringing him the country’s highest decoration for his bravery at full fledged.

Celebrated in Chattanooga with a park and highway and at the Charles H. Coolidge Medal of Honor National Heritage Center, Mr. Coolidge died there on Tuesday. He was 99 years old and the longest-serving recipient of the highest national honor for bravery.

The heritage center announced his death.

Mr. Coolidge’s death leaves Hershel W. Williams, 97, as the medal’s longest-serving recipient. Mr. Williams received it for his exploits fighting with the Marines on Iwo Jima during World War II.

“We have both been blessed by God with long, long lives,” said Mr. Williams, who last had contact with Mr. Coolidge about five years ago, on Wednesday.

During the last week of October 1944, Sergeant Coolidge and some thirty outnumbered soldiers in his rifle and machine gun section were wiped out by German troops with tanks in a major battle in the Vosges in eastern France, near the German border.

Sergeant Coolidge had fought with the 36th Infantry Division in Italy before it moved to France, and most of the troops under his command in the fall of 1944 were replacing those killed or wounded over the long division work. They had little or no combat experience.

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His unit was nevertheless ordered to hold back the German forces which threatened to attack the right flank of the third battalion of the division, the 141st Infantry, which was massing with two other battalions outside the small town of Belmont. -on-Buttant.

During the first day of his unit’s confrontation with the Germans and over the next three days, Sergeant Coolidge’s men fought for control of what was called Hill 623 in the face of repeated attempts by the Germans to invade them. . All the while, Sergeant Coolidge sought to calm them down and direct their fire.

At one point, two German tanks approached him within 25 meters. A tank commander shouted, “in perfect English,” Do you want to give up? Mr. Coolidge recalls in a 2014 interview with the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee. His response: “I’m sorry, Mac, you have to come get me.”

After that, he said, the Germans “shot me five times.”

“When a shot was going one way, I went the other way,” he added, recalling how he dodged the fire by moving from tree trunk to trunk. tree.

“Then I found a bazooka,” he continued. “But it didn’t work. Someone had removed the batteries. You use what you have. I started to throw grenades.

On the fifth day of the standoff, Sergeant Coolidge orchestrated an orderly retreat, allowing his men to rejoin the Third Battalion a few hundred yards away.

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But the first battalion, surrounded by Germans for a week, seems on the point of being annihilated.

Then came a feat long remembered. The Japanese-American soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, having already suffered heavy losses in Italy and France, broke the siege of what became the lost battalion, saving more than 200 men.

(The original lost battalion, doughboys of the 77th Infantry Division, kept out the Germans who had trapped them in the Meuse-Argonne campaign of World War I.)

Sergeant Coolidge received the Medal of Honor on June 18, 1945, at a ceremony near Dornstadt, Germany.

“Thanks to the heroic and superior leadership of Tech Sergeant Coolidge,” the quote read, “the mission of his battle group was accomplished during four days of continuous combat against numerically superior enemy troops in the rain and cold and in the middle of dense woods.

Charles Henry Coolidge was born August 4, 1921 in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, near Chattanooga, to Walter and Frances Coolidge. He had a sister, Mary. He graduated from high school in 1939 and worked as a bookbinder at Chattanooga Printing & Engraving, a company his father had founded.

He entered the army in June 1942 and traveled to North Africa with the 36th Division in April 1943. He was awarded a Silver Star for leading his machine gun section in a firefight in Italy in May 1944.

During all his fighting time, he was never injured. After his release at the end of the war, he returned to the family printing house.

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In 2013, the Postal Service honored Mr. Coolidge and 11 other Medal of Honor recipients by displaying their photographs on the cover page of 20 WWII Medal of Honor packets. (Mr. Coolidge has been shown top left). The stamps themselves bore reproductions of the Army or Navy versions of the medal.

“I take this as a compliment to everyone who served in WWII,” he said.

The National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, which opened in February 2020, focuses on the history of the Medal of Honor, which the first recipient, Private Jacob Parrott, earned for his part in the Great Locomotive Chase, an 1862 raid by the Union Army. which found outside of Chattanooga.

Credit…Mark Gilliland / The Bharat Express News

Mr. Coolidge is survived by three sons, John, William and Charles, retired lieutenant general; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. His wife, Frances (Seepe) Coolidge, whom he married in 1945, died in 2009.

Upon returning from combat, Mr. Coolidge sought to emulate Sergeant York’s post-World War I speech campaign. “I spoke for a year,” he said, “once or twice a day to Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions clubs,” telling stories about life on the front lines.

“You see your boyfriend getting killed” and sleeping on the floor “every night in all weather,” he said in the 2014 interview. “There are a lot of people who are afraid of death. , especially if you are a replacement and have never fought. ”

As he said, for all the adulation he received, “there is no glory in the infantry.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.


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