John Shearer: Attending Medal Of Honor Museum Ceremony Brings Back 30-Plus Years Of Memories

Sunday, February 23, 2020 - by John Shearer

On almost a whim, I decided to go to the dedication ceremonies of the Charles H. Cooolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center on Saturday morning.


I am glad I did, as attending made me greatly enjoy what was a good program with a smorgasbord of good speeches, including an excellent one by Mr.

Coolidge’s son. And it also made me start reflecting on my past writing about some Medal of Honor recipients and others connected with the museum development.


When I parked my car a few blocks away and began walking through the cold, I assumed it was going to be an outside event, similar to the opening of the Tennessee Aquarium back in 1992.


Maybe I had not read enough of the advance publicity, because a semi-permanent white tent was sitting on the south side of the museum, which is located on the west end of the building that also houses Puckett’s restaurant. Of course, a tent would make more sense because of not only the cold, but also the age of some of the dignitaries.


I quickly walked in one of two entrances a couple of minutes after the program began and found a standing-room-only place by a garbage can. I was squeezed in almost like a sardine. However, realizing I get claustrophobia easy and that this tent room seemed a little hot and stuffy, I opted for emotional comfort over the physical variety and stood outside in the frigid cold.


But a speaker (the electronic kind, not the human variety) was near me and I had a view of the big screen inside. So, I was fine as I watched the late comers arrive and museum officials come and go. Also outside were several police officials and at least one large man who was obviously security – perhaps for Gov. Bill Lee – based on the tell-tale curly cord coming out of one ear.


I enjoyed all the speakers. Mayor Andy Berke talked about being impressed with the character the Medal of Honor recipients have, while Mayor Jim Coppinger talked about meeting with museum spearheads and generals William B. Raines Jr. and B.B. Bell.


“It took all of 30 seconds to say this is a great idea,” he said in reminiscing about the meeting.


He also pointed out that Chattanooga has the longest-running Armed Forces Day parade in the nation. That is neat, I thought, although after living fulltime in Knoxville for 12 years, I realized that city has a very similar annual parade, it is just held on Veterans Day instead.


Gen. Paul E. Funk II, a U.S. Army commanding general, then captured the spirit of equal respect for all servicemen when he told the large audience that he often introduces himself to people by simply saying, “I am Funk, and I’m an American soldier.”


Gov. Lee then sounded quite sincere and touched as well when he said he was genuinely honored to be a part of the ceremonies. “This center will add one more jewel to the crown of our great state,” he said.


And by the time the Ooltewah High School Concert Choir sang a touching number, “Here’s to the Heroes,” after being introduced by emcee and fellow East Hamilton Countian Bill Hullender, I was in full force reminiscing about the times I had written about the Medal of Honor.


About 1985, when I was 25 and had been at the Chattanooga News-Free Press only a year, I realized the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II was being commemorated, I think, and somehow I came across some information about Charles Coolidge Day.


That had taken place on Aug. 8, 1945, when he and fellow area recipients Paul Huff and Ray Cooley were given a parade around town and feted. I called up Mr. Coolidge at his printing company and went over there to interview him one day. I found him in a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis.


He had obviously been interviewed countless times before, but he very graciously talked to me. I remember he mentioned that he was asked by every civic club in Chattanooga to speak when he came back from the war, and that he always mentioned that the Charles Coolidge Day was for all the servicemen, not just him, or something similar.


I also remember how his wife kidded with him, and you could tell they had a good rapport.


On Saturday, the 98-year-old Mr. Coolidge was in attendance.


Then, in 1987, assistant city editor Irby Park Jr. came up to me one day and said that someone had called into the newsroom and pointed out that the 125th anniversary of the Andrews Raiders event and the “Great Locomotive Chase” was coming up. Knowing I was interested in history, he encouraged me to write a story.


I think I had a week or so to work on it, so I actually went down and saw the General train in Kennesaw, and the woman at the museum jokingly told me they have a lot of visitors from Chattanooga who say they are coming to see “their” train.


“And I tell them ‘our’ train is fine,” she said with a laugh, referring to the late 1960s’ dispute over whether Chattanooga or Georgia could rightfully claim ownership of the historic train that was hijacked in the raid by the Union spies led by James Andrews.


And then in 1988, I decided to write a story on all of the Medal of Honor recipients buried at the time at Chattanooga’s National Cemetery. I became especially intrigued with Ray Duke, who received his medal posthumously during the Korean War, and Lt. William Zion, who received his during the Boxer Rebellion but died in 1919 while stationed at Fort Oglethorpe.


Mr. Zion’s death was due to what some historical sources have called an accidental gunshot wound while cleaning his weapon. I remember finding the Chattanooga newspaper article, and it did not seem completely clear to me how he died.


I remember both Mr. Duke and Mr. Zion had graves in somewhat inconspicuous places in the National Cemetery.


I think I did those stories then because plans were starting to get underway for a large Medal of Honor museum. At that time, I became acquainted with Leo Smith, who was the executive director of the then-infant museum and who certainly deserves a lot of credit for his early work.


He had a retired sergeant’s type of personality, but I enjoyed him, and he kindly told me he had sent my stories I wrote to the National Archives. Whether they accepted them or threw them in the trash, I have no idea.


I happened to meet Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss’ outgoing first wife, Dorothy, about that time, too, and she was kind to say she had seen my stories. I never took the time to try and talk much with Desmond Doss, in part because of his hearing problems.


I never dreamed he would years later be the subject of an Academy Award-nominated movie, despite his obvious heroism.


While living in Knoxville in more recent years, I also had the opportunity to interview one of recipient Alvin C. York’s sons, who was retiring from working at his father’s historical site. I remember he had the most easily approachable manner.


Some of Mr. York’s family was in attendance Saturday, as was Desmond Doss Jr., who had come all the way from Washington state and was introduced by Medal of Honor recipient Charles Hagemeister.


Of the Medal of Honor recipients, I seemed to have taken a special liking to the story of Ray Duke dying heroically on the cold battlefield of Korea. I remember interviewing some of his family at some point, and a few years later went over to his hometown of Whitwell for some kind of ceremony recognizing him.


I remember someone there was reading a proclamation or something similar about him, and he seemed to have trouble reading it out loud. I later asked someone who that was, and the person said he was the mayor.


So, the moral of that story is do not let someone’s colloquial manner fool you.


On Saturday, I thought about all these stories, as well as the late former News-Free Press colleague and friend and former Vietnam veteran George W. Brown, who almost exclusively chronicled a lot of the early stories about the museum’s grand plans.


While the museum did not become Tennessee Aquarium in size as was maybe initially envisioned, I am sure Leo and George would be darn proud of what it looks like.


During the Saturday event, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles H. Coolidge. Jr. gave perhaps the most touching speech to me. He was sandwiched between Maj. Gen. Bill Raines Jr.’s thanking of people – including my old Baylor football teammate, fund-raiser Frank Hughes – and Gen. B.B. Bell’s enthusiastic references to past Medal of Honor recipients, including those from Chattanooga.


Gen. Coolidge, in almost a soft-spoken manner that still had a sense of emotion to it, traced his father’s early life, including working two shifts before going off to the service, the early death of a foxhole mate and his heroism that led to his receiving the Medal.


He then came home, his son said, and taught values to him and his brothers, including to not waste time burning daylight.


The younger Mr. Coolidge also pointed out that his father folded countless flags and presented them to family members at the end of many a burial ceremony at the National Cemetery.


“He never refused a request,” his son said.


But it was perhaps how he described his father today that was most touching.


“He has a remarkable spirit and sound mind,” the younger Mr. Coolidge said. “And he would tell you this center is for all who served and is dedicated to those who made the supreme sacrifice.”


“God Bless America” was then played through the speakers and the ceremony ended. But as I began walking back to my car, the younger Mr. Coolidge’s and the others’ words were still echoing through my body that was cold everywhere except in my heart.

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