NASHVILLE — Tennessee's Senate on Thursday paid homage to the late Charles Henry Coolidge Sr. of Signal Mountain, a World War II hero and recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor. Coolidge died Tuesday in a Chattanooga hospital.
"While it is a sad day for those of us in East Tennessee — and really all across America — it is also a great day to celebrate a wonderful life of 99 years, an amazing life of 99 years by, like so many of the Medal of Honor winners, just an ordinary guy doing his job," Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, told the 33-member chamber.
Watson recounted to colleagues how Coolidge, a U.S. Army sergeant during World War II, won the medal for his role in October 1944 while leading a section of heavy machine guns with a platoon of less than 30 men at a critical position near the French and German border when German forces showed up.
Over four days with little ammunition, Coolidge and his men survived six counterattacks from the Germans, who were trying to make it up the hill. On the fourth morning, Oct. 27, the Germans brought up two tanks for a seventh counterattack.
Citing an account in Thursday's editions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Coolidge's heroics that day, Watson read how a German commander called on the Americans to surrender. Coolidge looked him in his face and said, "I'm sorry, Mac. You've got to come and get me."
After Germans opened fire with an 80 mm gun, Coolidge scrambled for a bazooka, which proved not to work. Undeterred, Watson continued, Coolidge grabbed nearby grenades, pitching as many grenades as he could to hold off the Germans from taking the hill. After ensuring his men retreated safely, Coolidge was the last soldier to leave the hill.
The Chattanooga community over the years has paid tribute to Coolidge, establishing the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center for the deeds performed not only by Coolidge but for all of the 3,526 Medals of Honor awarded to 3,507 individuals since the decoration's creation during the American Civil War.
Noting he had had the "privilege of going to school with several of Mr. Coolidge's children," Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, told colleagues, "You would never have known he had served in the Army except for all of the accolades that he got."
Gardenhire pointed to a 1946 photo republished in Thursday's Times Free Press showing four Tennessee Medal of Honor recipients with World War I honoree Alvin C. York driving the vehicle. The others in the vehicle were World War II recipients Paul Huff of Cleveland and Raymond Cooley of South Pittsburg.
The senator noted that Chattanooga's annual Armed Forces parade, initiated in 1949, is the nation's longest-running parade honoring the military members and veterans. In 1977, Chattanooga News-Free Press staff photographer Robin Hood received the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for a photo he took of a legless, Black veteran sitting in his wheelchair at the parade with a child in his lap.
Until this week, Coolidge was one of the last two living World War II Medal of Honor recipients.
Joining Watson and Gardenhire on the Senate floor was Tennessee National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Scarlett Bernier, who will serve as a member of the military funeral honors detail at Coolidge's funeral.
"They're heroes of such a grave nature. We can't even explain," Bernier said, her voice sometimes breaking. "For us today, heroes are musicians and pop stars and football players. But these men, just like you said, are ordinary men that on one extraordinary day behaved with such valor and heroism that they are awarded our nation's highest military honor. It's such a blessing that we get to honor them."
Watson reminded colleagues that a year or so ago Tennessee lawmakers signed a resolution that requested the president provide a state funeral to the last living World War II Medal of Honor recipient when he died. That includes having the deceased member lie in state at the U.S. Capitol.
"Only the president of the United States can request a state funeral," Watson said.
He noted that both Coolidge and the last surviving World War II recipient, U.S. Marine Corporal Hershel 'Woody' Williams of West Virginia, who was awarded the medal for his heroic actions at the Battle of Iwo Jima against Japanese forces, were enlisted soldiers.
"If the president bides by our request, it will be the first time that an enlisted solider has ever been recognized by a state funeral," Watson said.
He plans to return with a resolution for the General Assembly to approve honoring Coolidge.
Earlier this year, Tennessee's two U.S. senators and nine congressmen wrote a letter to President Joe Biden requesting he honor the nation's last surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipient with a state funeral when he dies.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.
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