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Maj. Gen. Max Haston presents Coolidge Park's namesake, Medal of Honor recipient Charles H. Coolidge, with a flag on Friday. Coolidge received the special flag in recognition of his actions during World War II.

Charles H. Coolidge has considered well what his legacy will be.

Coolidge will be remembered for many things. At the top of the list will be as a war hero who fought for four days in northeast France while leading 27 infantrymen against the German military in October 1944.

For good reason, the name Coolidge will always be synonymous with bravery. He is undoubtedly a war hero, a revered Army veteran who embodies sacrifice and honor.

But if it were up to him, he'd like to be remembered simply as a father who did the best he could with the cards he was dealt.

Lt. Gen. Charles H. Coolidge Jr., Coolidge's oldest son, said his father has never done anything for the accolades or awards.

"His real legacy will be the hundreds of thousands of lives he touched who benefited in some way," Coolidge Jr. said. "Buildings and parks and highways, those are all things."

Influencing other people and living a life of honor, Charles Coolidge Jr. said, will be his father's legacy.

This month, the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center opened its doors to the public. It pays tribute to the country's 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients and is another crown jewel for a city with a rich military history.

The namesake of the Medal of Honor Heritage Center is a Signal Mountain man who worked as a printer for the family business before he was drafted into the military in 1942.

(Read more: 75 years ago, local hero Charles H. Coolidge earned the Medal of Honor) 

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Charles H. Coolidge

 

A battle-seasoned veteran

For more than 14 months during the Nazi invasion, Coolidge served in Europe, starting with a treacherous boat ride from North Africa to Italy.

After months of firefights, the technical sergeant led a section of heavy machine guns with a platoon of fewer than 30 men to take a position near Hill 623 east of Belmont sur Buttant, France, a crucial position near the German border.

It was Oct. 24, 1944, and 23-year-old Coolidge was by far the most seasoned and experienced soldier in the group. By that time, he had seen months of action while most of the men he was in charge of were fresh-faced and green.

He and his unit were setting up two machine guns when they heard the Germans coming.

Coolidge looked to his friend, George Ferguson, from the Bronx, who spoke German.

"George, call to them and ask them if they want to give up," Coolidge said.

The Germans weren't more than 40 feet away when one of them pointed his rifle at Ferguson.

That's when Coolidge raised his rifle and shot, hitting the German who was pointing his rifle at Ferguson.

A firefight led to Ferguson being hit in the left arm and the battle began.

For 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 the seventh counterattack.

"The situation was desperate," Staff Sgt. Clarence B. Hawkins, a leader of a squad of riflemen, later said. "Sgt. Coolidge saw there was at least a company of Germans and something had to be done. He stepped in front of us and walked right at the Germans, yelling to them to surrender. You'd think he had an Army behind him."

Coolidge had already told his men that there was a possibility the Germans would bring a tank through a bank barely wide enough to accommodate one. That morning, as the unit heard the two tanks rumbling up the hill, Coolidge and his men readied their defense.

When the first tank got about 50 feet away from Coolidge, who remained at the front of the unit, a turret of the tank opened up and, in perfect English, the German troops' leader asked, "Do you guys want to give up?"

Coolidge looked him square in the face and said, "I'm sorry, Mac. You've got to come and get me."

With no other reason to keep the conversation going, the German closed the turret and fired an 85 mm gun at Coolidge five times at point-blank range. Coolidge was able to dodge every shot, ducking between and behind trees.

At one point, the shrapnel from a shot cut the leather on the top of his boot, but it didn't break the skin.

Coolidge got hold of a bazooka to return fire, but as Charles Coolidge Jr. explained, the battery in the ignition system was taken out so his father couldn't get it to work. Thankfully, the seasoned soldier always carried "a case of grenades" with him during battle.

Coolidge pitched as many grenades as he could to hold off the Germans from taking the hill. As his men retreated safely, Coolidge made sure he was the last one on the hill.

"My dad was in combat for 14 months at that point," Charles Coolidge Jr. said. "He knew how they played. He took them out."

From later reports as the Allies inched closer to victory, it was reported that Coolidge and his men killed 26 Germans and injured up to 60 others.

Ferguson survived the attack, and he and Coolidge stayed in touch after the war.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945. Around that time, Coolidge had been notified that he would receive the Medal of Honor. With uncertainty in the White House, and with a mission still to be accomplished, Coolidge passed up on the chance to fly home.

Instead, he was one of only a handful of service members to receive their Medals of Honor on the battlefield.

The award was presented by Gen. Frederick Haislip when Coolidge's unit was still engaged in stamping out the final resistance of the Nazis.

 

An eye on his legacy

Despite all the awards, accolades, dedications and praise, Coolidge prefers to stay out of the spotlight.

His oldest son describes him as a humble man who never let his experiences get in the way of his positive attitude.

Coolidge has battled multiple sclerosis for more than 50 years and lives a quiet life on Signal Mountain. Charles Coolidge Jr. and his son, Brad Coolidge, are helping keep Coolidge's legacy alive every day.

Seventy five years later, Chattanooga and the nation are still finding ways to honor a hero.

Part of U.S. Highway 27 is named for Coolidge, and a permanent marker was recently placed on Signal Mountain to honor him. And the city's largest public space — Coolidge Park on the North Shore of the Tennessee River — is named after him.

Coolidge was also the first Medal of Honor recipient of 12 memorialized on the U.S. Postal Service's Medal of Honor stamps.

That same hero would say he's just another citizen, a relentless optimist even when the world was coming apart, always striving to do the right thing.

Nonetheless, Chattanooga — and the rest of the country — will always honor Coolidge's rich legacy.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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