published Thursday, November 14th, 2013

U.S. Postal stamp to honor Charles Coolidge

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    Medal of Honor recipient Charles Coolidge attends a ceremony and reception Wednesday at the Signal Crest United Methodist Church. The event marked the first day of issue of a commemorative stamp honoring World War II Medal of Honor recipients.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

Charles Coolidge’s war hero legacy will now live as long as his commemorative postal stamp declares:

“Forever.”

The 92-year-old Medal of Honor recipient’s gold Astro van cut along the familiar curves of Signal Mountain en route to the Signal Crest United Methodist Church on Wednesday morning.

The boxy vehicle — with a vanity plate reading “Medal of Honor - 2” ­— hung a left into the parking lot then pulled around to the auxiliary entrance. Coolidge and his power scooter were guided inside by his son, Charlie, as the 200 people inside the Crest Center gymnasium flocked toward the aged veteran.

Except for his World War II service, Coolidge has spent his entire life on the mountain. He’s lived for almost 50 years in a house in Del Mar, a neighborhood near the bottom of Signal.

“I wouldn’t go anywhere else in the world,” he said. “It’s time for me to enjoy where I am, when I am.”

Coolidge was recognized by the U.S. Postal Service at noon Wednesday as part of its World War II Medal of Honor stamp collection, which rolled out Monday in Washington, D.C., as a national Veterans Day tribute.

Coolidge’s face is the first portrait featured among 12 medal recipients in a booklet commemorating the 464 recipients of the nation’s highest military award. Most special-edition USPS stamps are limited to 30 million copies, but Coolidge and the WWII Medal of Honor series stamps — which show both the Army and Navy medals’ designs — merited printing 80 million units.

As family and admirers filled the Crest Center to witness the stamps’ unveiling — and give Coolidge two standing ovations — the rugged patriot reiterated that his actions were not a choice.

“When I heard that my number was drafted, only one thought crossed my mind,” the stoic Coolidge said with his hands folded. “I had to go. There was no question about it.”

Starting in 1942, Coolidge served 22 months in the Army. He landed in North Africa, then traversed north through the Mediterranean into Italy and France.

By now, nearly all of Chattanooga has heard of Coolidge’s heroics: When his bazooka failed him on the battlefield in Belmont-sur-Buttant, France, on Oct. 24, 1944, he fought off a group of German M-18 tanks with armfuls of grenades, all the while commanding and preserving the safety of his 141st Infantry Regiment.

His group of 12 Allied soldiers held tight — The Associated Press reported they killed 26 Germans in the battle, and wounded 60 more.

“Fighting’s a dangerous business,” Coolidge said. “You’ve got to kill them before they kill you.”

Wednesday’s ceremony began with a presentation of colors by the Signal Mountain Sea Cadets, who placed the powder blue Medal of Honor flag next to Coolidge and his power scooter on stage. Coolidge beamed a polite smile, straightened his spine against the scooter’s leather seat and adjusted his tie around the medal that has accompanied him for 68 years.

“We are here today to truly honor a hero,” said Jim Wade, executive director of the National Medal of Honor Museum of Military History. “He’s representative of the ‘greatest generation,’ truly and appropriately named.”

Coolidge’s fortitude in war may have earned him the Medal of Honor, as well as France’s “Legion of Honor” knighthood equivalent in 2006, but community members say the lifelong Signal Mountain resident remains humble.

“My mother joked that Charles’ expertise in throwing hand grenades came from when he threw mud balls at the neighborhood girls as a kid,” said Carrington Montague, former owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts and self-proclaimed Coolidge admirer.

•••

The lore surrounding the military hero still finds ways to alter his daily life.

When the memory of fellow Medal of Honor recipient Charles George was honored Saturday at halftime during the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s football victory against Wofford, Coolidge was there.

He met with descendants of George, a Cherokee and Army private first class who threw himself on a grenade during the Korean War in 1952. George died so others in his battalion could stay alive and keep fighting.

George’s niece Patty Buchanan drove three hours from North Carolina to deliver a handmade Cherokee scarf to Coolidge on behalf of her tribe.

“I can see you’re already shaking,” she said, placing the scarlet wrap around his pale neck. “You must be so cold out there.”

Warren Dupree, the operations sergeant for American Legion Post 143, stepped in with a quick reminder.

“This man survived the Battle of the Bulge,” Dupree said. “It was minus 20, with 30 mile-per-hour winds. … He can handle this.”

All the same, Coolidge turned his eyes toward the woman who dedicated such a personal gift to him. He clasped his hands around hers, lowered his head and gently said the two words people have said to him all his life:

“Thank you.”

Five minutes later, Coolidge would be due in the Chancellor’s Box, the guest of UTC’s Steve Angle and his company of public figures. Coolidge gave a gentle goodbye wave to the room — a particular nod to Buchanan — and left through the blue door of Suite 214 a silk memento richer.

“I already adore him,” Buchanan said. “God bless that man.”

•••

But on Wednesday, the crowd surrounding Coolidge was familiar. From the second he wheeled into the Crest Center at 11:46 a.m., he was beckoned for photographs and firm handshakes. Even after the 25-minute presentation, the silver-haired statesman was flooded with thankful people wishing to share a few kind words.

It’s the latest chapter in a story that could have ended on a French battlefield in 1944 — yet, Coolidge and his bronze, five-pointed medallion greeted each incoming face with the same welcoming phrase:

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow him on Twitter at @PressLaFave.com.

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