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America’s Last Living WWII Medal of Honor Recipients Are the Example Our Nation Needs

At 99 and 97 years old, respectively, Charles H. Coolidge and Hershel W. Williams have lived remarkable lives. We could learn a lot from them.

Nov 1 2020
Jack Burke | National Review

Of all the attacks on American monuments that have happened this year, the vandalism of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., certainly ranks among the worst. Nothing better illustrates the senselessness of the current assault on American heritage than this insult to the veterans of the Second World War, who gave their lives by the hundreds of thousands to destroy the very fascism that the Left claims to oppose.

It was on May 31, after a night of unrest in the capitol, that the National Park Service announced “numerous instances of vandalism to sites around the National Mall,” including the World War II Memorial. The previous night, one of the many agitators making their way through the city streets had spray painted, in black, “Do black vets count?” on the edge of the memorial’s fountain pool. This question did not go unanswered for long. The same day as the Park Service’s announcement, the group Friends of the National World War II Memorial wrote that, “YES, the . . . Memorial remembers & honors the 1 million Black men & women who served.” In fact, black veterans of the war have been honored alongside their white brethren.

At this point, one may be inclined to ask: If a monument dedicated to those who risked and lost their lives battling against Hitler and General Tojo is not safe from the mob now trying to defame American history, what is safe? The answer, of course, is that nothing is, which means that the mob deserves no support from Americans. It is true, of course, that African Americans have not always been treated well over this country’s history, but the image of American veterans doing their part on foreign battlefields should have been enough to make this anonymous vandal take pause. If this spray-painter was so unwilling to show respect, why should anyone respect his or her message? As George Washington said in a July 1791 letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, amid the massacres of the French Revolution: “The tumultuous populace of large cities are ever to be dreaded. . . . Their indiscriminate violence prostrates for the time all public authority, and its consequences are sometimes extensive and terrible.” Indiscriminate destruction proves nothing, and often makes its perpetrators guilty of the same offense they claim to be outraged by.

In this moment of national unrest, we’d do well to remember two living monuments to America’s struggle during the Second World War: Mr. Charles H. Coolidge and Mr. Hershel W. Williams, aged 99 and 97 years old, respectively. Mr. Coolidge, an Army veteran from Signal Mountain, Tenn., who still works at his family printing business, and Mr. Williams, a Marine Corps veteran from Quiet Dell, W.Va., who still makes regular public appearances, bear a singular distinction: They are, as of 2020, the last living World War II veterans who received the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration, for their service.

Mr. Coolidge was born on August 4, 1921, to Walter and Grace Coolidge of Chattanooga, Tenn., and was drafted into the Army on June 16, 1942, eventually rising to the rank of technical sergeant, the equivalent of sergeant first class in today’s Army. Technical Sergeant Coolidge’s Medal of Honor citation recounts how on October 24, 1944, he led a “section of heavy machine guns supported by 1 platoon of Company K,” to take “a position near Hill 623, east of Belmont sur Buttant, France.” After fending off repeated German attacks over the next several days, Coolidge and his men found themselves faced with a “determined attack” of infantry supported by two tanks. As the Chattanooga Times Free Press described in a February 2020 article, Coolidge was 23 at the time and the most seasoned soldier in the group. Earlier, he had told his men that the bank in front of them was wide enough to accommodate a German tank, and sure enough, by October 27th, the tanks were coming. Coolidge, remaining at the front of his unit, found himself facing the lead tank when its turret opened and, in perfect English, the leader of the Germans asked him and his men if they wanted to give up. “I’m sorry, Mac,” Coolidge replied. “You’ve got to come and get me.”

The German promptly closed the turret and opened fire. As he dodged the tank’s 85mm shots, Coolidge had his boot torn by shrapnel that luckily failed to break the skin. Arming himself with a bazooka, he advanced to within 25 yards of the assaulting tanks and prepared to fire. Discovering that the weapon didn’t work — its ignition battery had been removed — Coolidge then threw it aside and, securing “all the hand grenades he could carry,” continued the fight, inflicting serious casualties on the advancing enemy.

Eventually, faced with “greatly superior” German numbers, Coolidge and his fellow soldiers were forced to retreat. After conducting an “orderly withdrawal” while displaying “great coolness and courage,” Coolidge himself was the “last to leave the position.”

The Medal of Honor Society reports that, on being told he was nominated for the medal, Coolidge quipped to his superior officer that he would prefer to return home to Tennessee. “I’m not ashamed to admit it: I didn’t want to go to war,” he later recalled. “But it was my duty as a citizen.” After being nominated for the medal, he spent two more years in the Army, serving “on the line” in Italy, France, and Germany. He was presented his medal in a bombed-out airfield near Ulm, Germany on June 18, 1945, by Major General Frederick Haislip, just over a month after the end of the war in Europe.

In 2006, the French Consulate awarded Coolidge the Legion d’Honneur in a ceremony at Coolidge Park, a Chattanooga park named for him and opened in 1999. To this day, Coolidge works at his family printing business, which celebrates its 110th anniversary this year.

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Mr. Hershel W. “Woody” Williams was born on October 2, 1923, in Quiet Dell, W.Va., to Lloyd and Lurenna Williams. He originally had no desire to join the military, believing that he would be a farmer for the rest of his life. But after being impressed by the sight of two Marines from his town in their dress-blue uniforms — “it’s different than any other uniform,” as he put it in a 2014 Stars and Stripes interview — he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve on May 26, 1943, at the age of 21. He never expected to go overseas.

Williams told Stars and Stripes that before the war, he didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was, had “never heard of the Japanese,” and “didn’t even know we had a South Pacific.” “I’m just going to stay right here in the United States,” he recalled thinking at the time. “All of us will be here, and we just dare anybody to come try to take our country. Because they’re not going to get in, you know?”

He was in for a rude awakening. In February 1945, he found himself deployed “to the South Pacific, to some islands I never knew existed.” And so it was, that on February 23, 1945, during the Battle of Iwo Jima, he undertook the action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. As his Medal of Honor citation describes, he was “quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through . . . reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines, and black volcanic sands.”

Williams “daringly went forward alone” to address the “devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions.” Over the course of four hours of horrendous fighting, he obtained flamethrowers, prepared demolition changes, and, under the cover of only four riflemen, advanced repeatedly to enemy lines and wiped out “one position after another.” Two Marines sacrificed their lives protecting him as he carried out his mission that day. He did not learn of their deaths until after the campaign was over.

Williams’s citation says that “his unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism . . . were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strongpoints” of the battle, “and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective.”

On October 5, 1945, during a ceremony at the White House, President Harry S. Truman presented Williams his medal. “I’ve said many times, I don’t know if I was more scared then than [when] I was in combat,” Williams told Stars and Stripes of the medal ceremony. “I know my body shook more. . . . That’s the way I was when I went up to the president.” Upon hanging the medal on his neck, President Truman told Williams: “I would rather have this medal than to be president.”

Williams stayed in the Marines after the war, eventually rising to the rank of chief warrant officer 4 before retiring in 1969. In between, he suffered from what is now called PTSD, but which was then known as “psychoneurosis.” One day in 1962, while at Pea Ridge Methodist Church with his family, he had a Christian awakening that put a stop to his suffering. On that day, Williams told Stars and Stripes, God spoke to him and made him understand: “Hey. You’re here because I let you be here. You’re here because I saved your life.”

From that moment on, he dedicated himself to God. Grateful for having survived the war, he feels that he was left alive to represent and remember all the men who weren’t so lucky. “I finally came to the full realization,” Williams told Fox News, “that [the medal] doesn’t represent me — it represents them.”

* * *

Today, both Coolidge and Williams are active and continuing their work.

Coolidge sits on the honorary board of the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, which opened in Chattanooga earlier this year. The Coolidge Center is dedicated to recognizing all Medal of Honor recipients, and features a collection of more than 6,000 items that commemorate their lives. It also offers volunteer opportunities and organizes events in an effort to “memorialize the history of our nation’s highest military award for valor” and “educate future generations of Americans.”

To date, Williams and the Louisville, Ky.-based Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation have been responsible for erecting 72 Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments across the country. He continues to give interviews and make appearances in which he speaks about his life.

In October of last year, National Review published a piece by Victor Davis Hanson about “How We Pale to Previous Generations.” Amid today’s cultural doldrums, Hanson wrote,

“We of the 21st century . . . look back at our own lost epic times and wonder about these . . . giants who left behind monuments that we cannot replicate, but instead merely use or even mock.” “Does anyone,” he asked, “believe that contemporary Americans could build another transcontinental railroad in six years?” We are surrounded, Hanson wrote, by great creations we cannot understand or emulate, made by men of great stature who are no longer among us today.

Yet, looking at Charles Coolidge and Hershel Williams, it is clear that some such lions are still very much with us. In the confusion of our present times, when even a monument to the veterans of World War II is a target of vandalism, we would do well to learn from the remarkable lives of these two men. One would be hard-pressed to find better examples of the American determination and heroism we so badly need today.