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Charles Coolidge, oldest medal of honor recipient, dies at 99

When Charles Coolidge was growing up outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, his grammar school class received a visit from Sgt. Alvin York, the Tennessean famed for World War I exploits that brought him the Medal of Honor.

In the aftermath of World War II, it was Sgt. Charles Coolidge making the rounds of his home state, telling of another harrowing firefight in France, this one bringing him the nation’s highest decoration for valor in his own right.

Celebrated in Chattanooga with a park and a highway and at the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, Coolidge died there Tuesday. He was 99 and the oldest living recipient of the nation’s highest award for valor.

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The heritage center announced his death.

Coolidge’s death leaves Hershel W. Williams, 97, as the oldest surviving recipient of the medal. Williams received it for his exploits fighting with the Marines on Iwo Jima in World War II.

“We both have been blessed by God with a long, long life,” Williams, who had last been in touch with Coolidge about five years ago, said in a phone interview Wednesday.

In the last week of October 1944, Coolidge and some 30 outnumbered soldiers in his rifle and machine-gun section faced annihilation by German troops with tanks during a major battle in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France, near the German border.

Coolidge had fought with the 36th Infantry Division in Italy before it moved into France, and most of the troops under his command in the fall of 1944 were replacements for those who had been killed or wounded in the division’s long slog. They had little if any combat experience.

His unit was nevertheless ordered to hold off the German forces threatening to attack the right flank of the division’s 3rd Battalion, 141st Infantry, which was massing with two other battalions outside the tiny town of Belmont-sur-Buttant, France.

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Through the first day of his unit’s confrontation with the Germans and over the next three days, Coolidge’s men fought for control of what was known as Hill 623 in the face of repeated attempts by the Germans to overrun them. All the while, Coolidge sought to calm them and direct their fire.

At one point, two German tanks came within 25 yards of him. A tank commander shouted, “in perfect English, ‘Do you guys wanna give up?’” Coolidge recalled in a 2014 interview with the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media. His reply: “I’m sorry, Mac, you’ve gotta come and get me.”

After that, he said, the Germans “fired five times at me.”

“When a shot went one way, I went the other way,” he added, recalling how he had dodged the fire by moving from tree trunk to tree trunk.

“Then I found a bazooka,” he went on. “But it didn’t work. Someone had taken the batteries out. You use what you do have. I started lobbing grenades.”

On the fifth day of the standoff, Coolidge orchestrated an orderly retreat, enabling his men to rejoin the 3rd Battalion a few hundred yards away.

But the 1st Battalion, surrounded by Germans for a week, appeared on the verge of being wiped out.

Then came a long-remembered feat. The Japanese American soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, having already incurred heavy casualties in Italy and France, broke the siege of what became known as the Lost Battalion, rescuing more than 200 men.

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(The original Lost Battalion, doughboys from the 77th Infantry Division, held off Germans who had trapped them in the Meuse-Argonne campaign of World War I.)

Coolidge received the Medal of Honor June 18, 1945, in a ceremony near Dornstadt, Germany.

“As a result of Technical Sergeant Coolidge’s heroic and superior leadership,” the citation read, “the mission of his combat group was accomplished throughout four days of continuous fighting against numerically superior enemy troops in rain and cold and amid dense woods.”

Charles Henry Coolidge was born on Aug. 4, 1921, in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, outside Chattanooga, to Walter and Frances Coolidge. He had a sister, Mary. After graduating from high school in 1939, he worked as a bookbinder with Chattanooga Printing & Engraving, a company his father had founded

He entered the Army in June 1942 and went to North Africa with the 36th Division in April 1943. He was awarded a Silver Star for leading his machine-gun section in a firefight in Italy in May 1944.

For all his combat time, he was never wounded. After his discharge at the war’s end, he returned to his family printing firm.

In 2013, the Postal Service honored Coolidge and 11 other Medal of Honor recipients by displaying their photographs on the cover sheet of packets of 20 “World War II Medal of Honor Forever” stamps. (Coolidge was shown at the upper left). The stamps themselves carried reproductions of the Army or Navy versions of the medal.

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“I take it as a compliment to everybody who served in World War II,” he said.

The National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, which opened in February 2020, focuses on the history of the Medal of Honor, whose first recipient, Pvt. Jacob Parrott, earned it for his part in the Great Locomotive Chase, an 1862 raid by the Union Army that concluded outside Chattanooga.

Coolidge is survived by three sons, John, William and Charles, a retired lieutenant general; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. His wife, Frances (Seepe) Coolidge, whom he married in 1945, died in 2009.

(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)

When he came home from combat, Coolidge sought to emulate York’s post-World War I speaking campaign. “I spoke for a year,” he said, “once or twice a day, to Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions clubs,” telling stories of life at the front.

“You see your buddy get killed,” and sleep along the ground “every night in every kind of weather,” he said in the 2014 interview. “There are a lot of people scared to death, especially if you’re a replacement, never been in combat.”

As he put it, for all the adulation he received, “there’s no glory in the infantry.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.