CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — He was Chattanooga’s hero of World War II. He was a symbol for all of the heroic sacrifices of the city’s servicemen and women in the 1940s.
Those are not Charles Coolidge’s words. He was humble to a fault. But he was undeniably proud of his place in our city’s history, and that of our nation.
Charles H. Coolidge died Tuesday, April 6, at age 99. He was four months shy of his 100th birthday on August 4.
His death leaves only one surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipient, 97-year-old Woody Williams of Virginia.
Governor Bill Lee ordered the flags over the Capitol and all State office buildings lowered until Friday in honor of Coolidge.
The Medal of Honor recipient will be buried near his Chattanooga home on Friday.
The praise that Coolidge received from his peers in the military, from journalists, and from those who admired him was hard earned.
The shy young man who had been described as the best rock-thrower in the neighborhood blossomed into a leader of men. At age 23, he found himself unexpectedly as the senior enlisted man leading a group of young recruits against a German infantry. Coolidge’s troops were outnumbered 4-1.
Photos: The 15 men awarded the Medal Of Honor for heroics on Dec. 7
It was in France, on Oct. 24, 1944, and the standoff would continue for three days. Despite a German commander’s demands for the Americans to stand down, Coolidge would not surrender. Calling it self-preservation, Coolidge led his band of 30 soldiers, and he wouldn’t back down.
“Come and get me,” he said.
He dodged German tanks, hiding behind tree trunks, tossing hand grenades along the way. Coolidge and his men killed 26 enemy soldiers, wounding 60 others. Coolidge was the first to approach the Germans and the last to leave.
Ten months later, he received a hero’s welcome at a packed Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium. It was Charles Coolidge Day in Chattanooga honoring the city’s only Medal of Honor recipient, and we still celebrate him every day, at the park and the highway named in his honor. Had fate not intervened, he would have been perfectly happy as an anonymous book binder at his family’s printing company, still in business, 111 years after its founding.
Instead, he became a larger than life symbol of heroism, courage, and patriotism. The Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga stands as a lasting tribute, sharing Charles Coolidge’s story with those who remember the sacrifices of the greatest generation, and those who are too young to recall a nation truly united in its quest for freedom.
Charles Coolidge’s life spanned almost a century, surprising no one more than Coolidge himself. He never forgot staring down near certain death during those days in France, and throughout two years of constant danger. He often said he was lucky to be alive. Maybe so, but we are really the lucky ones.
Memorial service details will be released later.