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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
Charles H. Coolidge's Medal of Honor Citation
| More Heroes
America's Best | America's Greatest
Our Valiant Troops | Veterans |
Answering The Call |
Honoring The Fallen |
Don't Weep For Me |
Remember The Fallen |
Tears For Your Fallen |