On Tuesday, Hamilton County resident Charles H. Coolidge, Medal of Honor recipient, and his family will celebrate his 99th birthday. In a nation of more than 330 million, there are less than 70 living Medal of Honor recipients and Charles H. Coolidge is one of only two living World War II recipients and the oldest recipient. It will, indeed, be a day of celebration at his home on Signal Mountain and across our county, Tennessee and the nation.
While the Coolidge name is identifiable with several local sites including Coolidge Park and Coolidge Highway and many residents may know that Mr. Coolidge is a Medal of Honor recipient, most are unfamiliar with the actions which resulted in Mr. Coolidge’s recognition. His 99th birthday celebration offers an ideal time to recount his service to this nation, his valor in combat and his commitment to his community.
“I’m sorry, Mac, you’ve got to come and get me.” The Coolidge story often begins with his October 1944 encounter with a German tank commander and his utter disregard of the commander’s demand that Coolidge and his men surrender. Instead, Charles H. Coolidge’s World War II experience began much earlier. Following his training stateside, Coolidge would later recount that the bloodiest fighting he encountered occurred in 1943 as he fought his way up through the underbelly of Europe, beginning with a landing at Salerno, Italy that would eventually lead to a fierce fight against the Germans at Monte Cassino. The path northward was difficult and, at one point, included maneuvers involving captured sheep and heavily mined fields, an action necessary for the U. S. forces to move safely forward in the field.
By late summer 1944, Coolidge was a seasoned veteran who had refused battlefield promotions, choosing instead to remain a Technical Sergeant, U. S Army, serving and leading alongside ‘his boys’. At age 23, Coolidge had gained the respect of his troops after actions at Anzio, Rome and Naples, with the new objective, France, looming on the horizon. After landing at Cannes in mid-August, the U. S. forces began chasing the retreating Germans across the unfamiliar terrain. It’s difficult to imagine today, but the U. S. troops covered more than 500 miles in only sixty days so that on October 24 Coolidge and his men were on the crest of Hill 623 near Belmont-sur-Buttant. It is at Hill 623 that the action for which Coolidge received the Medal of Honor began.
During a quick reconnoitering move to establish possible machine gun positions, Coolidge and another sergeant ran into a group of German soldiers. Coolidge and his fellow sergeant, who spoke German, approached the soldiers and demanded their surrender, unsuccessfully, and an exchange of fire occurred with Coolidge taking out two of the German soldiers as he and his comrade ran back to their troops.
As the ranking man in the unit, Coolidge assumed command of the unit and began organizing and encouraging the men, directing their fire as the Germans approached their site. After countering the Germans initial attach, Coolidge and his men fought valiantly the next three days to hold their position against unfavorable odds. On October 27, German tanks, supporting the German infantry, moved closer to the Americans’ position and the tank commander, standing in his open turret, demanded that they surrender. Coolidge, standing in front of the tanks in the open space, responded with his now famous quip, “I’m sorry, Mac, you’ve got to come and get me.” What follows those words now guarantee Charles H. Coolidge’s place in World War II history.
As the tank commander took aim at a zig-zagging Coolidge and fired repeatedly, Coolidge retreated and grabbed a bazooka, aimed at the tank and fired, but the bazooka failed. He would learn later that the batteries had been removed to power their communication radios. Not to be defeated, Coolidge pivoted and grabbed all the grenades he could find, crawling forward, skillfully lobbing them at the infantrymen huddled around the tanks. While his actions held the Germans at bay, he was eventually forced to evacuate his men to a safer position.
The four intense days of fighting and Coolidge’s calm leadership resulted in his nomination for and award of the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military combat award. The recipient would later admit that he had heard of the Medal of Honor only because he was a Tennessean and had heard the stories of Sergeant Alvin C. York from Pall Mall. In an interesting chapter to Mr. Coolidge’s story, he and the famed WWI Sergeant would become friends and remain in contact until York’s death in 1964, including a now famous appearance in the Chattanooga Armed Forces Day Parade along with MOH recipients Paul Huff and Raymond Cooley.
While Charles H. Coolidge in now the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, he has often said that he would most like to be remembered as a good father, a man of faith and a citizen who contributed to his community, including the veterans’ community. It is certain that his legacy serves as an inspiration for young students who participate in the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center’s and the National Medal of Honor Foundation’s Character Development Program. The six characteristics identified as core traits of all Medal of Honor recipients - - commitment, courage, citizenship, sacrifice, integrity and patriotism - - have remained central to Mr. Coolidge’s life of service.
A birthday celebration will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 4, at the Heritage Center, 2 Aquarium Way, complete with banners and cupcakes. The public is invited to participate and the Center will be open for tours, including the Coolidge exhibit. Tickets are available and appropriate safety precautions are in place, including available face masks and hand sanitizer along with social distancing protocol. The Center will be open from 10 am – 6 pm.
Linda Mines is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Historian, the vice-president for Education, Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center and Regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.