Army’s Last WWII Medal of Honor Recipient
by U.S. Army Lt. Col. Randall Stillinger
August 6, 2020
While driving the rental car up Signal Mountain outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee, my nerves get me wondering why I’m here. A late winter snowfall grows heavier as I climb into the hills, making Highway 27 wet and slippery. I passed a marker on the side of the road that caught my attention. With some extra time before my interview, I double-backed to check it out.
Standing in the wet grass, I brushed the snow off so I could read what it said. The sign provided a brief story of a heroic man and his actions during bloody battles on the European continent over 75 years ago. It marked a wooded park area named after Medal of Honor recipient Tech. Sgt. Charles H. Coolidge, who lives just a few minutes away.
I’ve been privileged to meet several recipients of our nation’s highest award for valor in combat over the years. A chance meeting of Army Aviator Chief Warrant Officer 4 (Ret.) Michael J. Novosel at the Fort Rucker Officers Club during Flight School was my first opportunity. First Sergeant (Ret.) David McNerney, also a veteran of the Vietnam War, was the second recipient I was honored to meet as we coordinated an AH-64 “Apache” familiarization flight for him. Both of these heroes have since passed away, but it was the landing of a one-of-a-kind civilian job, managing American Airlines' Military and Veterans Initiatives program, that allowed me to meet about 55 of the 69 Medal of Honor recipients who are living today.
My mission in Chattanooga was twofold.
Primarily it was to represent American Airlines, which sponsored the dedication ceremony for the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center that bears Coolidge’s name.
My second mission was to interview one of two living Medal of Honor recipients from World War II, Coolidge himself. Having served in the same division, I wanted to tell the story of the last remaining of the 14 recipients who hailed from the 36th Infantry Division.
I’m nervous for a few reasons.
First, I’m about to meet one of two living recipients from our Greatest Generation. Ninety-six year old Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer 4 (Ret.) Hershel “Woody” Williams being the other. Most remaining World War II veterans are in their 90s. Some have reached 100 and beyond, but they are leaving us at an astounding rate nonetheless. Coolidge is a mentally tough man, but is physically fragile at 98-years old. His 99th birthday is in August.
The second reason I’m nervous is that his life over the last 54 years has been less than easy. Showing symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) as early as 1966, and being officially diagnosed in the early 1970s, he has faced significant challenges far beyond the battlefields of Europe.
My conversations with his sons Charlie and John leading up to the interview gave me some insight into his physical condition. The disease caused him to start using a mobility device in 1983 and now he’s mostly confined to a bed with very few exceptions. I was warned that our conversation might not happen or last very long since he goes in and out of sleep during the day. I was uneasy because I felt I was intruding into the life of a legendary man, who may not want to be bothered with an interview.
Coolidge was actually born on Signal Mountain in 1921, in the same area that he lives today. Life was not easy growing up in the Depression years, but the family always got by. His father operated a printing company that was subsequently handed down to each generation, and remains in the family today. His father, sticking to strong principles, never laid anyone off during those lean years. He paid them for a few hours, even if it was just to put a little food on their tables.
Coolidge worked at the shop as a teenager, learning the family business and a strong work ethic from his father. After the war, and after working for a while at the Veterans Administration, he rejoined his father and brother in the printing company as a bookbinder. Coolidge became a master at creating leather-bound books with ornate gold leaf designs along the edges and backbone. He made a name for himself as one of only a few people who had this unique skill and his handiwork contains the Hamilton County records inside the courthouse.
Coolidge’s work in the industry continued for several more decades as he worked at the same printing company on a daily basis until 2005 at the age of 84. He kept coming to the office regularly until 2016 when he was 95.
Having been drafted into the Army on June 16, 1942, Coolidge headed to Ft. McClellan in Alabama for Basic Training. It was at Camp Edwards in Massachusetts where he was assigned to M Company, 3rd Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment of the historic 36th Infantry Division (Texas Army National Guard). In April of 1943, his unit shipped off to North Africa to prepare for the eventual invasion of Europe.
In September of that year, the 36th was the first U.S. combat unit on the European continent when they landed near Paestum, Italy to inaugurate the ensuing Battle of Salerno. After the beach landing, Coolidge and the division withstood numerous counterattacks to hold their ground, despite taking over 1,900 casualties. Four 36th Infantry Division Soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their actions during that battle alone.
The 36th fought vigorously across Italy over the course of the next several months. They were embroiled in battles at places called Anzio, Mount Lungo, San Pietro, the Rapido River, Monte Cassino and the eventual taking of Rome. It was in May of 1944 that Coolidge’s actions for gallantry in Velletri earned him a Silver Star, an award that would be overshadowed by his actions in October of that same year.
John Coolidge, the youngest of his sons, said, “Dad has never been bashful about telling stories of his men and what they endured. As kids, we three boys heard a lot of his stories. Some had happy endings like when he asked the Germans to surrender (and they did). Others weren’t quite so good.”
On one occasion, he talked a buddy into going back to an aid station to get some coffee. On his way back out of the house, he stepped out of the door only to be instantly killed by the shrapnel from an exploding German 88mm shell. Coolidge, who was following close behind, caught his body as it was thrown back into his arms by the concussion.
Another story tells of how he was determined to sleep in a bed on the ground floor of a house that his unit had taken shelter in. His Soldiers begged him to come down to the basement due to a continuous barrage of German gunfire. He finally gave into their pleas, walked down the stairs, and just as his head cleared the floor line, a round from a German 88mm made a direct hit on the back of the house. Shrapnel ripped holes throughout the bed he had been lying on just a few seconds before.
At Monte Cassino, Coolidge and his unit were ordered to climb the mountain and attack the monastery from the rear. When the unit got into place, they were notified that the attack had been called off. When he asked how they were supposed to get back to friendly lines, he was told that it was “every man for himself.” It was dawn and he knew that the dangerous daylight mission required all of his senses to get his men back. As he went to remove the machine gun tripod off his back, his helmet fell off and clanked down the escarpment. The Germans, hearing the racket, opened fire on the helmet as it went down. Coolidge had a hard time hearing while wearing the helmet anyway, and opted not to wear one for the rest of the war, despite strong advice from others.
Earning the Medal of Honor
While many of the bloody battles fought by the 36th took place in Italy, it was in France where the 23-year old Coolidge conducted valorous actions that earned him a special place among just over 3,500 U.S. military service members.
A month after capturing Rome, the division was pulled off the line to help spearhead the Aug. 14, 1944 invasion of Southern France, known as “Operation Avalanche.” As the division worked its way towards the German border, enemy resistance stiffened and the weather got worse as summer gave way to fall.
On Oct. 24, Coolidge’s 12-man squad was tasked to clear several hills East of Belmont Sur Buttant near the German border. They met no resistance clearing Hill 623 and were told to dig in upon arrival at the top.
An enemy unit then came through the thick woods searching for the Americans. Coolidge calmly went out to meet them with one of his Soldiers, George Ferguson, a New Yorker who spoke enough German to get by. He told Ferguson to ask them if they wanted to surrender. During the conversation, Coolidge saw that one of the enemy hiding behind a tree was getting ready to shoot. He instantly lifted and fired his Carbine first, taking out two Germans, and then “all hell broke out.” The ensuing firefight lasted the better part of four days as they fought to hold the hilltop as ordered.
On the fourth day, German tanks rolled up the hill with more infantry behind. The lead tank was within 25-35 meters of Coolidge’s position when the tank commander opened the hatch. Coolidge stood up and looked the tanker directly in the eye. The German then said, in perfect English, “You guys wanna give up?” Coolidge calmly responded, “I’m sorry, Mac. You’ve got to come get me.” The tank’s turret was turned towards where he was standing and fired, but narrowly missed.
The tank fired five times at Coolidge at that close range, missing each time. As the turret swung right, he went left, and vice versa. He used trees as a shield to prevent the shrapnel from tearing into him. When a bazooka that he found lying nearby didn’t fire due to a missing battery, he started throwing grenades. He then went man to man, yelling, giving guidance and encouraging them all while throwing as many grenades as he could.
Unable to withstand the enemy’s overwhelming force, Coolidge eventually ordered his squad to come off the hill, ensuring that he was the last one holding his position. It was later reported that he and his squad, which mostly contained new replacement Soldiers, killed 26 enemy and wounded over 60 on Hill 623. Coolidge was recommended for the Medal of Honor because of the leadership and courage that he showed in the face of the enemy.
In regards to the actions that earned him the medal, Coolidge said that he was saving his own life as well as others. “I didn’t care about me,” Coolidge said. “I cared about my men. I’d do anything for them.”
He credits the strong religious faith of his family for surviving 22 months on the front lines of the war without being killed or wounded, like so many who became a casualty within weeks of arriving. He knew that his parents, who took their kids to church every Sunday, prayed for him daily.
When asked if he’d like to send a message to the men and women of the 36th Infantry Division, who still wear the same “T-Patch” that he wore 77 years ago, Coolidge thought for a little, then with quiet resolution, said “tell them that they can serve with pride.”
Family Pride and Love
My time with Mr. Coolidge ended with sons Charlie and John bringing out the actual medal that was awarded to him in 1945 by Lt. Gen. Wade H. Haislip at an airfield near Dornstadt, Germany. I held it briefly before handing it to back to the rightful owner. His sons then placed it around his neck, something that isn’t done very much these days as his public appearances are extremely rare. I could tell that they remained tremendously proud of their dad and his accomplishments over the years.
Charles H. Coolidge (front) is joined by his sons (left to right) Air Force Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Charlie Coolidge Jr., John Coolidge and Bill Coolidge during the dedication of the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center on February 22, 2020. (Photo by Bradford Coolidge)
The following day he was scheduled to join nine fellow recipients of the Medal of Honor for the dedication of the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, whose mission is to educate future generations about the meaning behind the medal and the men (and one woman) who have received it. His sons speculated that it may be his last public appearance.
His son Charlie, himself a retired Lt. Gen. in the U.S. Air Force, later said that he’d asked his father if he still wanted to attend the dedication ceremony. He nodded yes. To be sure, he asked him one more time. He looked Charlie in the eye and said a firm “Yes!” They knew it was going to be a very special day for him, the whole family, the city of Chattanooga, and for everyone who traveled from out of town for the occasion.
After some time speaking to his sons, I took one final glance at the World War II hero on my way out of the house. He was lying in his hospital bed in what was once a living room with a full-time nurse by his side. A patriotic blanket with the colors of our nation helped keep him warm as he looked out over the same mountain where he was born. A flag pole was installed in the backyard so he could keep an eye on the colors that he and so many had fought, bled and died for.
During the two days spent getting to know Coolidge and his family, I saw the tremendous pride his sons felt for their dad, pride in his military service, and pride in the medal with the blue ribbon that put their dad in an elite club of Americans. I could also feel their tremendous love for him as they provided exquisite care for the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor, especially considering the health struggles he has faced for the last five decades.
For those of us in military service, recipients of the Medal of Honor are our celebrities. They’re our heroes (even though they don’t like being called that), and the incredible stories of their heroism make them larger than life.
In all honesty, it’s tough to witness firsthand the vulnerable side of those you look up to, but seeing the love and care provided to a 98-year old living legend was inspirational to say the least. A final salute was in order before I left the house and drove back down Signal Mountain, the long-time home of one of America’s heroes.
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