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Tennessee lawmakers ask Biden for state funeral for last surviving WWII MOH recipient

By ANDY SHER | Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. | Published: March 19, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Tribune News Service) — Tennessee's two U.S. senators and nine congressmen are urging President Joe Biden to accord a state funeral to the nation's last remaining World War II Medal of Honor recipient when the time comes.

In their letter to Biden, the federal lawmakers wrote that "as you read this letter, only two Medal of Honor recipients from WWII are living today: U.S. Army Technical Sgt. Charles Coolidge of Tennessee and U.S. Marine Corporal Hershel 'Woody' Williams of West Virginia."

Coolidge, 99, lives in Signal Mountain. Williams is 97.

On Friday, Coolidge is scheduled to be awarded the 2021 George Marshall Award at the Chattanooga center that bears his name — Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center.

The award is sponsored by the State Funeral for World War II Veterans and recognizes a prominent American who best celebrates the sacrifice, resilience and service of the 16 million women and men who served in the Armed Forces during World War II. The group also advocates for presidents to provide for a state funeral upon the death of the last U.S. veteran of that war.

Attendees expected at the local event at noon Friday include U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee.

The federal lawmakers said "honoring the last surviving WWII Medal of Honor recipient with a state funeral would serve as a final salute to his gallantry and to the service and sacrifice of all those who fought during WWII. A state funeral is the highest honor that can be posthumously granted to an American citizen."

The letter says "it is fitting, then, that this distinction be bestowed upon a veteran who earned the military's highest honor while fighting to preserve the freedom on which this nation was founded."

Coolidge and Williams are two of just 472 men serving during World War II who were awarded the Medal of Honor. Since it was created in 1861, the medal has been bestowed on just 3,525 service members.

According to the heritage center, Coolidge was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in October 1944 while in charge of a group of machine-gunners and riflemen who held a key hilltop position in France east of Belmont-sur-Buttant near the German border.

During four days of attacks, Coolidge and his men staved off attacks from German infantrymen supported by two tanks. At one point, according to the heritage center's website, Coolidge armed himself with a bazooka, advanced within 25 yards of the tanks and, after his bazooka failed, grabbed as many hand grenades as he could. Crawling forward, he "inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing enemy," according to the account.

When it became evident the enemy would overrun them, Coolidge directed his men to retreat in orderly fashion, becoming the last to leave.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican, said he was more than happy to participate in the letter request.

"A state funeral will allow our nation to come together to honor the sacrifices of those who dedicated their lives in service of our nation," Fleischmann said in a statement. "Our WWII veterans valiantly fought to protect our freedoms, and those of our allies, from the tyranny of fascism. We shall never forget their bravery and sacrifice."

A state funeral typically involves the honoree lying in state in the U.S. Capitol. According to the U.S. Senate's website, 35 people — a list that includes presidents, senators, congressmen and others — have received that honor in the Capitol's rotunda.

Among them was the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, in 2020. The late U.S. Surpreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg also lay in state last year in the Capitol's National Statutory Hall.

The George Marshall award was given last year to West Virginia's Williams. Williams received his Medal of Honor for his actions at Iwo Jima in February 1945, when he and fellow Marines charged enemy positions. Williams shoved a flamethrower nozzle into a pillbox and fired, killing all of the soldiers inside. He returned to his company area several times to refuel and came back and destroyed six more pillboxes, according to the Department of Defense's website.

In their letter to Biden, the Tennessee lawmakers wrote that "as these warriors continue to advance in age, we urge you to take decisive action to honor their heroism."

Besides Blackburn and Fleischmann, U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, also a Republican, signed the letter to the president, as did U.S. Reps. Scott DesJarlais, Tim Burchett, John Rose, Diana Harshburger, Mark Green and David Kustoff, all Tennessee Republicans. Democratic Reps. Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen of Tennessee signed the letter as well.

asher@timesfreepress.com

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