On this day in 1944, Charles H. Coolidge begins a four-day ordeal that would ultimately earn him the Medal of Honor. At the time, he barely even knew what the Medal was! He’d heard of it only because Sergeant Alvin York had grown up about 100 miles away from his hometown in Tennessee.
Coolidge had joined the Army mere months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He’d fought in Italy as Allied forces sought to recapture it from the Germans, but he soon found himself with American forces working their way across France.
By October 24, he was with his platoon of machine-gunners. They’d been ordered to hold an important hill near the French-German border. Coolidge’s small force took the hill, with no resistance.
Well, there was no resistance at first.
“And here comes a German platoon, or squad or whatever,” Coolidge later recounted, “going through the woods like they were looking for the enemy.”
Coolidge made a quick and bold move. Could he pull one over on the Germans and bluff them? With a “show of assurance and boldness,” as his citation would later note, Coolidge offered to let the Germans surrender.
It might have been a brave and bold move, but it didn’t go so well. The Germans opened fire. Coolidge immediately returned fire, wounding two Germans. “We had a little firefight,” he later reported matter-of-factly.
It would turn out to be just the opening salvo in a long, multi-day conflict. Coolidge kept calling for reinforcements that never came.
On October 27, things finally came to a head. The Germans received reinforcements in the form of two tanks and some infantry.
The lead tank came within yards of Coolidge’s position. An officer demanded that Coolidge surrender.
“I’m sorry, Mac,” Coolidge responded defiantly, “you’ve got to come and get me.”
“He put the turret of that tank down. He turned that [gun] right where I’d been standing, and he fired point blank. . . . I watched the barrel of that tank, and if he went that way, I’d go this way. And so he fired five times, point blank.”
“I guess he thought it would do the job,” Coolidge concluded, “but it didn’t.”
Instead, Coolidge found a bazooka and walked straight toward the enemy, intending to fire. But the bazooka wasn’t working! He threw the bazooka aside and began throwing hand grenades instead. “And I kept throwing those grenades,” he said, “and I was still hollering at my men what to do, going man to man and telling them, if you got grenades, throw them out there. They can’t come through that.”
In the end, Coolidge and his men were forced to retreat. But the American forces, led by Coolidge, had killed 26 of the enemy and wounded 60.
Why did he do it?
“[M]y first concern when I was platoon sergeant was my men,” he said when interviewed a few years ago. “I didn’t care what happened to me, but I wanted to protect my men, under any circumstance. . . . I’d do anything for ‘em.”
A sentiment that would have been expressed by so many in the Greatest Generation, wouldn’t it? Heroes, all of them.
Jessica Bliss, Tennessee’s bravest man refused to surrender in WWII (The Tennessean; August 7, 2015)
Medal of Honor citation (Charles H. Coolidge; WWII)
Medal of Honor: Oral Histories (Charles Coolidge, Medal of Honor, WWII)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)