On April 7, 2021, the United States of America lost one of its two remaining Medal of Honor recipients from World War II—heroes of the Greatest Generation. Charles Henry Coolidge was born on August 4, 1921, in the town of Signal Mountain in Southeast Tennessee. Raised in humble surroundings, Charles overcame a speech impediment to become a skilled bookbinder after graduating from high school in 1939. With war stirring in Europe, he decided it would be a waste of time to go to college, since he was sure to end up in uniform. “It don’t take any smart individual to go over there and shoot Germans!” he joked.
Called to service in June 1942, Coolidge was assigned to the 36th “Texas” Infantry Division and sent to fight in Europe. Over the course of intense combat in Italy in 1943-1944, he became known for his courage and devotion to his fellow soldiers. “I didn’t care about me,” he said. “I cared about my men. I’d do anything for them.” He also professed never to feel real fear, and unlike almost everyone else in his unit, he was never wounded. Coolidge attributed his lack of fear and his good fortune to his faith in God. “I would go anywhere, do anything, never worried that they were shootin’ at me,” he remembered. “I still stay the Lord must’ve curved many a bullet that I knew absolutely they were shooting at me.”
In August 1944, Coolidge landed with his division in the south of France; by October of that year, he was fighting against heavy German resistance in the Vosges Mountains not far from the German border. From October 24-27 he distinguished himself in close quarters fighting against repeated enemy backed by tanks, demonstrating courage above and beyond the call of duty that resulted in his receiving the Medal of Honor.
Returning home, Charles Coolidge returned to his work as a bookbinder in Tennessee. Always humble and as devoted to privacy as he was to his family and his community, Coolidge nevertheless understood how effective his example could be in inspiring others to service and love of country. For most the better part of five decades leading up to his death at age ninety-nine, Coolidge suffered from the effects of Multiple Sclerosis, but he showed the same quiet and steadfast bravery in combating this disease as he did in combat. His example will–we hope and expect–shine on long after his passing.
Ed Lengel is the Chief Historian at the National Medal of Honor Museum; Arlington, Texas