By the fall of 1944, 23-year-old Charles Coolidge was already battle-hardened from fighting in Italy during World War II. The Army technical sergeant had gone ashore in Salerno, crossed the Rapido River to attack German forces at Monte Cassino and later landed at Anzio, helping to clear a path for the liberation of Rome.
He received the Silver Star for his actions in Velletri, where he repelled an enemy attack with his machine-gun section, and once traversed a minefield with his fellow soldiers by forcing sheep through first at bayonet point. In quieter moments, he had dined on watermelon and cantaloupe while marching through the countryside, busting open fruit with his boots.
Now he was in eastern France, wet from the cold rain and tasked with holding a tree-covered hill. Coolidge was a mere enlisted man, but with no officers on the battlefield he took command of an inexperienced, overmatched group of about 30 machine-gunners and riflemen, leading them through a harrowing four-day firefight against a much larger group of Germans.
“It’s interesting how the world changes complexion,” he later told the Nashville Tennessean, recalling the fighting that led him to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration for valor. “And what you do to survive.”
Coolidge, 99, was the country’s oldest-living Medal of Honor recipient when he died April 6 at a hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His death leaves only one remaining recipient from World War II, Hershel Williams, 97, who was recognized for his bravery as a Marine Corps corporal on Iwo Jima.
The Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, which opened last year in Chattanooga, announced the death but did not give a cause. Coolidge had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the early 1970s.
Serving in the 36th Infantry Division, Coolidge arrived in France in August 1944 and quickly advanced toward the German border. The fighting was “a picnic,” he later recalled, until the division reached the Vosges Mountains, where Coolidge was ordered to take Hill 623, near the little town of Belmont-sur-Buttant, to protect the right flank of the division’s 3rd Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment.
Coolidge did just that. But on Oct. 24, while trekking into the woods to coordinate machine-gun positions with George Ferguson, a sergeant who spoke German, he encountered a group of German forces about the size of an infantry company. Coolidge decided to bluff his way into persuading the Germans to surrender.
“I said, ‘George, ask him if they want to give up,’ ” he recalled in an interview with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. “He started talking to them. And all at once I saw one of the Germans behind a tree getting ready to shoot George. I took my carbine and shot him. And then shot another one.”
The Germans opened fire, shooting Ferguson in the arm. In a 2010 interview for the Veterans Oral History Project, Coolidge said he dragged Ferguson to an aid station and regrouped with the rest of his men, most of whom were replacements seeing action for the first time. Rallying their spirits, he spent the next several days striding back and forth in the face of enemy fire, “calming and encouraging his men and directing their fire,” according to his Medal of Honor citation.
While separated from the rest of the battalion, Coolidge and his men repelled repeated attacks. But on Oct. 27, the first of two tanks rolled within 30 yards of his position. A German soldier popped out of the tank turret – “I can still see him doing it,” Coolidge recalled – and addressed him “in perfect English,” saying: “You guys want to give up?”
It was the same message Coolidge had asked Ferguson to deliver days earlier.
“I looked him right square in the face,” Coolidge recalled, “and I said, ‘I’m sorry Mac, you’ve gotta come and get me.’ He put the turret of that tank down. He turned that 88 right where I’d been standing and he fired point blank.”
Running between trees, Coolidge said he dodged five shots from the tank. Then he picked up a bazooka and took aim. It would not fire, so he tossed it aside and began lobbing grenades while yelling instructions to his men. A sergeant with him that day later told the Associated Press that Coolidge, a talented softball pitcher, threw perhaps 70 grenades; by one estimate, he killed 20 Germans before coordinating his men’s withdrawal.
Coolidge was the last to leave the position. None of his men died in the fight. (In a far better-known battle nearby, the regiment’s 1st Battalion – later known as the Lost Battalion – was surrounded by German forces for days before being rescued by the Japanese American soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.)
Coolidge remained in combat long after the battle, advancing into Germany with the division before receiving the Medal of Honor from Lt. Gen. Wade Haislip on June 18, 1945, at a bombed-out airfield near Dornstadt.
“As a result of TSgt. Coolidge’s heroic and superior leadership,” the citation concluded, “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.”
Charles Henry Coolidge was born in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, on Aug. 4, 1921. He suffered from a severe speech impediment as a child, which he overcame with several years of tutoring, according to a National Medal of Honor Museum biography.
After graduating from high school in nearby Chattanooga, he became a book binder at his father’s business, Chattanooga Printing & Engraving. He was drafted in 1942 and suffered his only Army wound while in basic training, when he accidentally cut his leg with a bayonet. An infection nearly forced doctors to amputate the leg.
Coolidge received the Bronze Star Medal for his service in Italy, where he said he refused a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant.
“I went away an enlisted man, and I wanted to return as one,” he told the Chattanooga Times after doing so in 1945.
Later that year, he married Frances Seepe. They had three sons, William, John and Charles Coolidge Jr., who is a retired Air Force lieutenant general. Coolidge’s wife died in 2009. Survivors include his three sons; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
Coolidge worked briefly for the Veterans Administration before rejoining his family’s printing company. In 2006, France made him a knight of the Legion of Honor for his war service. A Chattanooga highway and park bear his name, and in 2013 he was one of a dozen Medal of Honor recipients featured on the cover of U.S. Postal Service stamps.
In interviews, Coolidge said he had other things on his mind than personal safety.
“My first concern when I was a platoon sergeant was my men,” he told the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
“I didn’t care what happened to me, but I wanted to protect my men, under any circumstances. I always referred to them as my men – not anybody (else’s), not the company’s.
“They were strictly my men, and I’d do anything for them.”
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