Roy Exum: ‘There Ain’t No Way!’

Wednesday, April 7, 2021 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

It’s been about a week since my eye caught a small news item on Chattanoogan.com that Chattanooga Printing and Engraving had been sold in North Chattanooga and, boy, do I remember it well. Matter of fact, I learned a huge lesson there one day during my junior year of high school that I’ve never forgotten. As a junior, I’d go by our family newspaper every afternoon with a very simple directive from my grandfather. “Look for the wheel that squeaks.” In short, find something that needs to be done and do it. Don’t ask permission or expect any praise – just do it!”

One day there was a note that said to go out to “Chattanooga Printing” and pick up some work they’d done for us, so I got my pickup truck and drove out to Hanover Street, just off Cherokee Boulevard, to fetch the order. “Mr. Coolidge” helped me gather it up. He was the nicest man you could ever imagine. Had a gentle smile and an almost meek air about him due to his famous sincerity. While he was rounding up the “due bill” and paperwork, I spied a small flyer that had his picture on it … I guessed taken in World War II … when he was in the war. I was shocked to read he was a Medal of Honor recipient!

“Mr. Coolidge, is this you? Oh, my goodness. Wow!” was about all that I could muster, and he wrapped me up in that smile once more and said, “That was a long time ago.” I drove faster back to the paper than I normally would and found J.B. Collins, a fountain of all knowledge, and yelled, ‘Goo-Bab,’ a nickname my dad had for J.B. I told him I’d been out to the Coolidges’ print shop to pick up some stuff and read where “Mr. Charlie” was a Medal of Honor hero.

“Ain’t no way! He’s the nicest, kindest man in this city and I read he killed something like 30 Germans one day in the mountains as his guys moved from Italy into France.” C’mon, I ain’t stupid. I’d watched John Wayne and Lee Marvin movies. You gotta’ be some kind of tough!  About then Julius Parker, our city editor, walked over and Julius looked every bit the man he truly was - a Master Sergeant who led platoons of American’s most-seasoned fighters from the beginning of “The Bulge” all the way to its end. Two cigar boxes could not hold his medals. “I saw it almost every day … the last guys you would ever expect were heroes time and time again,” Julius said. “I’ve seen them neutralize an entire enemy column and … I’ve seen them give their lives to save their fellow soldiers. They are the backbone of freedom."

He and J.B. then took me back to a room all newspapers called “the morgue.” That’s where old files were stored, glossy pictures from years back, and stories that turned into research gold mines. Mr. Coolidge’s files where thicker than my medical charts. Two or three of ‘em held together with three straps, and my teachers that day centered on an encounter Mr. Coolidge had with a Nazi tank. He had accompanied his platoon leader to the battlefield front for a “look-see” when they ran into advancing Germans.

The platoon leader was shot, so Mr. Coolidge got him to some medics, grabbed a bazooka, and ran back to an advancing tank, easily found by the clacking of its tracks. The fearless Coolidge ran directly towards the tank, stopped 50 feet from it, shouldered the bazooka and ignited the electric trigger. Nothing happened. But from a hatch a German officer’s head appeared. In perfect English, the tank commander yelled over the growl of the engine, “You must and will surrender!” Coolidge countered with a Hollywood line …

“I’m sorry, Mac. You’ve got to come and get me!”

The tank’s 85 mm cannon fired at Mr. Coolidge point blank. And missed. It would miss four more time as Mr. Coolidge played dart-and-dodge making his way back to where he gathered all the hand grenades he could carry, issue orders to about 20 machine gunners and riflemen, and open an industrial sized can of “whoop-a**” … by darkness 26 Germans were dead and another 60 were wounded.

Because of the Germans' superior numbers, Mr. Coolidge was ordered to fall back but every man was quickly aware that he made certain every man was well into the skedaddle before he abandoned post and caught up with the rest. So inspirational was his effort he was only one of two soldiers who were awarded ‘The Medal’ on the European battlefield.

After a very heroic stand against multiple sclerosis for many years, he died Tuesday at Chattanooga’s Memorial Hospital – this just four months shy of his 100th birthday. Funeral services for the nicest, kindest, and most sincere man I have ever known with be on April 16, along with some other celebrations of his life. And let’s be certain, “Mac never could come and get him.” I happen to be assured that Mr. Coolidge’s Lord and Savior had him so surrounded by thorns and thickets that even the devil knew better.

* * *

CHARLES H. COOLIDGE’S ‘MEDAL OF HONOR’ COMMENDATION

It reads:

Rank and organization: Technical Sergeant, U.S. Army, Company M, 141st Infantry, 36th Infantry Division

Place and date: East of Belmont sur Buttant, France, 24–27 October 1944

Entered service at: Signal Mountain, Tenn.

G.O. No. 53, July 1945

Leading a section of heavy machine guns supported by 1 platoon of Company K, he took a position near Hill 623, east of Belmont sur Buttant, France, on October 24, 1944, with the mission of covering the right flank of the 3d Battalion and supporting its action. T/Sgt. Coolidge went forward with a Sergeant of Company K to reconnoiter positions for coordinating the fires of the light and heavy machine guns. They ran into an enemy force in the woods estimated to be an infantry company. T/Sgt. Coolidge, attempting to bluff the Germans by a show of assurance and boldness called upon them to surrender, whereupon the enemy opened fire. With his carbine, T/Sgt. Coolidge wounded 2 of them.

There being no officer present with the force, T/Sgt. Coolidge at once assumed command. Many of the men were replacements recently arrived; this was their first experience under fire. T/Sgt. Coolidge, unmindful of the enemy fire delivered at close range, walked along the position, calming and encouraging his men and directing their fire. The attack was thrown back. Through 25 and October 26, the enemy launched repeated attacks against the position of this combat group, but each was repulsed due to T/Sgt. Coolidge's able leadership.

On October 27, German infantry, supported by 2 tanks, made a determined attack on the position. The area was swept by enemy small arms, machinegun, and tank fire. T/Sgt. Coolidge armed himself with a bazooka and advanced to within 25 yards of the tanks. His bazooka failed to function, and he threw it aside. Securing all the hand grenades he could carry, he crawled forward and inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing enemy.

Finally, it became apparent that the enemy, in greatly superior force, supported by tanks, would overrun the position. T/Sgt. Coolidge, displaying great coolness and courage, directed and conducted an orderly withdrawal, being himself the last to leave the position. As a result of T/Sgt. Coolidge's heroic and superior leadership, the mission of this combat group was accomplished throughout 4 days of continuous fighting against numerically superior enemy troops in rain and cold and amid dense woods.

* * *

AMONG HIS OTHER AWARDS

* -- In November 2013, Coolidge's was the first one of 12 portraits of Medal of Honor recipients on the cover sheet of a United States Postal Service "World War II Medal of Honor Forever Stamp" packet of 20 Medal of Honor stamps.

* -- The Charles H. Coolidge Medal of Honor Heritage Center in downtown Chattanooga was named in his honor. It opened to the public in February 2020.

* -- Coolidge Park on the Northshore waterfront was named in his honor. Coolidge Park features a beautifully restored 125+-year-old carousel, a pavilion, an interactive play fountain, the Outdoor Chattanooga Center, and lots of open space.  It is a popular destination for concerts, movies-in-the-park, festivals, and special events. The 1894 Dentzel carousel is a central feature in Coolidge Park. The antique carousel was restored by local master wood carver Bud Ellis and a devoted team of craftspeople and volunteers at his studio "Horsing Around" in St. Elmo.

* -- A nine-mile portion of U.S. Route 27 (Tennessee Route 29) was renamed the Charles H. Coolidge Medal of Honor Highway and was dedicated in his honor on April 10, 1989.

* * *

“It ain’t the size of the dog in the fight that matters … what counts is the size of the fight in the dog.” – Mark Twain.

royexum@aol.com

Charles Coolidge
Charles Coolidge

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