UTC honors Cherokee war hero

UTC honors Cherokee war hero

November 10th, 2013 by Jeff LaFave in Local Regional News

A bagpipe group is led onto the field during a veterans ceremony at halftime of the Mocs' football game against Wofford on Saturday at Finley Stadium

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

In a traditional Cherokee burial, the family stays up all night with its deceased loved one. The act is a period of closure for both the soul of the departed and the mourning clan.

Patty Buchanan, a Cherokee from the Eastern Band in North Carolina, made the three-hour trip to Saturday's UTC football game with her family for a similar reason -- to see the university honor her uncle, Medal of Honor recipient Pfc. Charles George, at halftime.

Buchanan had never seen an NCAA football game. The ceremony for her uncle on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Military Appreciation Day, however, would be witnessed by 12,090 people -- the largest home finale crowd in Finley Stadium history.

While the masses of Mocs fans applauded kilted bagpipers and the presentation of the colors, Buchanan and her 10 guests were taking video of the field ceremony on their cellphones. Buchanan sat awe-stricken in suite 214, her hands clutched together and a tender smile on her face.

"Oh, wow," she said. "That's just so pretty. We've seen so many burials, it's so nice to see this."

Her uncle George is widely considered a Cherokee hero. As an Army 20-year-old fighting in the Korean War, the Cherokee, N.C., native protected his comrades by jumping on a live grenade in Songnae-dong, Korea. He absorbed the full blast without screaming in pain -- so as not to give away his company's position -- and was fatally wounded.

His courageous deeds on Nov. 30, 1952, earned him the Medal of Honor and a Purple Heart.

Although George decided in his fateful moment of self-sacrifice to be silent, the ceremonies designated to honor him would be anything but.

The bagpipes skirled the bittersweet "Scotland the Brave," and a 21-gun salute preceded the haunting melody of taps. And after every Mocs score, armed servicemen fired a blank cannon powerful enough to rattle the stadium's bleachers and windows.

Warren Dupree, service officer of American Legion Post 143 in Cherokee, N.C., read the presidential declaration of George's Medal of Honor.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to know that I will boom this speech out," Dupree said. "They will hear us in Atlanta, I guarantee you that."

Out came the leaders in support: Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. Congressman Chuck Fleischmann. UTC Chancellor Steve Angle. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger.

The most revered guest of all in attendance, though, spoke directly to Buchanan and her family: 92-year-old Charles Coolidge, a fellow Medal of Honor recipient.

As the legend wheeled into the box to acknowledge the service of Buchanan's uncle, people fell silent and attentive. Buchanan presented Coolidge with a dark red, symbolic Cherokee scarf, and Coolidge softly shook Buchanan's hand in return with a poignant, silent moment of mutual gratitude.

And as the Mocs would go on for a 20-10 victory on a day embedded with military symbolism, the Buchanan family left Chattanooga with the closure its tribe typically strives for in a burial.

"This whole ceremony makes us proud," Buchanan said. "What my uncle did goes to show just how unselfish he was all these years ago."

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.