By Richard Goldstein, New York Times
When Charles Coolidge was growing up outside Chattanooga, 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 Sergeant 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, Mr. Coolidge died there on Tuesday.
He was 99 and the oldest living recipient of the nation’s highest award for valor. The heritage center announced his death.
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Mr. Coolidge’s death leaves Hershel W. Williams, 97, as the oldest surviving recipient of the medal. Mr. 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,” Mr. Williams, who had last been in touch with Mr. Coolidge about five years ago, said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
In the last week of October 1944, Sergeant 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.
Sergeant 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 Third Battalion, 141st Infantry, which was massing with two other battalions outside the tiny town of Belmont-sur-Buttant.
Through the first day of his unit’s confrontation with the Germans and over the next three days, Sergeant 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, Sergeant 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?’” Mr. 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, Sergeant Coolidge orchestrated an orderly retreat, enabling his men to rejoin the Third Battalion a few hundred yards away.
But the First 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.
Sergeant Coolidge received the Medal of Honor on June 18, 1945, in a ceremony near Dornstadt, Germany.
Read the full article on the New York Times.