Charles “Chuck” Caldwell lived a long life full of adventures and artistic accomplishment, but his most treasured possession was a battered helmet that he wore during the 30 months he spent stationed in the Pacific with the United States Marine Corps in WWII.
After his retirement in 2007, Charles “Chuck” Caldwell converted the space of his Gettysburg home into a small museum of sculptures he made at his former shop, Caldwell’s Originals on Baltimore Street, and items he has collected over the years.
The helmet sat among an array of sculpture he had created over the decades.
In November of 2014, Chuck told Gettysburg Times reporter Abbey Zelko that he remembered being in his room at the University of Alabama when he learned that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.
He knew right then that he had to enlist, but joked that it was exam time, he was not prepared, and figured signing up was a way out of that pickle.
He signed up with the USMC on Dec. 29, 1941. Five weeks later, Uncle Sam was ready to send him off to a series of places in the Pacific that he had probably never heard of. After five weeks of boot camp, he prepared to go overseas for 30 months on July 6, 1942.
During this time, he spent a month at Tulagi, followed by four months at Guadalcanal, where he reported enduring two or three bombings daily by Japanese forces.
“Caldwell said he remembers standing on a strip of land six miles wide and four miles deep on the island of Guadalcanal, protecting the Henderson Field. The Japanese attacked several times, he said, but the largest battle happened from Nov. 11-13 of 1942,” the Times article said. “On Friday the 13th, Caldwell said the Japanese were along the coast, attacking Henderson Field. Shells were tearing down coconut trees in the plantation all around them, he said.
“He wanted to get to the covered air raid shelter he built a few days before the battle. He had dug a five-foot hole in the ground with seats made of dirt along the side and rolled coconut logs and sandbags on the top for cover, he said.
“He began counting the number of seconds from the time he heard the Japanese guns go off until they hit Henderson Field, and then he made a run for it…By his calculations, he had about six to eight seconds before another round would be fired.”
His timing was off. Caldwell was hit in his knee and left eye by shrapnel.
He told the Times reporter that he didn’t spend too much time feeling sorry for himself, considering that thousands of Navy men had washed up on the beach that same day from a huge sea battle offshore.
The Battle of Guadalcanal was a massive fight that stretched out over four days. The only two U.S. Navy admirals to be killed in a surface engagement in the war were lost in that fracas.
Chuck was wounded a second time, this time by a bullet, on Guam in August of 1944.
Caldwell finished his four years of service Dec. 29, 1945. He received two Purple Hearts, two Presidential Unit Citations for his service in Guadalcanal and Tarawa, a Bronze Star for his service in Guam and a Combat Action Ribbon, among other honors.
In 1945 he married Navy WAVE, Jackie Murphy, and returned to the University of Alabama in September 1946 on the G. I. Bill, graduating in 1949. He began working with the Institute of Nuclear Studies in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In 1950 he was recalled to active duty for the Korean War. In 1952 he began work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and participated in the 1957 and 1958 atomic bomb tests at the Nevada Test Site.
While in Oak Ridge he was an Elder and Sunday school teacher in the Presbyterian Church, taught water safety and life saving for the Red Cross for 22 years and organized the Oak Ridge Civil War Round Table. Out of this group grew the 1st Tennessee Infantry reenactment unit, which during the Civil War Centennial years participated in 41 reenactments in 11 states, including the 100th Anniversary in Gettysburg during 1963. Between April 3-8, 1965 the unit walked the 110-mile route of Heth’s Division from Petersburg to Appomattox, Virginia.
Jackie introduced Chuck to a new material called “Sculpey” in 1966, and his career as a sculptor was born. In 1968, he resigned his job at the Oak Ridge National Lab to work in sculpting full-time. In 1980 his love of history brought him to Gettysburg where he opened “Caldwell’s Originals” which he operated for 28 years, closing only when Jackie died in 2007.
Chuck’s love of the Civil War began in 1938 Chuck, when he visited Gettysburg for the 75th Anniversary of the battle and spent four days talking to actual veterans of the battle.
Chuck was born on November 26, 1923 in Princeton, Illinois, the son of Rev. George W. Caldwell and Ellen Hawk Caldwell, RN, and raised in Cameron, Missouri; Penney Farms, Florida; and Orrville, Ohio.
He was a life member of the Marine Corps League 705, Guadalcanal Campaign Veterans, Military Order of the Purple Heart, 2nd Marine Division Association, VFW Post 15, American Legion Post 202 and the Adams County Allied Veterans Honor Guard. Chuck’s life is captured in a book by author James Rada titled, “Clay Soldiers: One Marine’s Story of War, Art & Atomic Energy”.
Chuck was 95 when he was reunited with Jackie on the evening of February 7. His remains were donated to the Anatomy Gifts Registry. A memorial headstone for Chuck and Jackie Caldwell has been placed in Evergreen Cemetery (Section T-6).
He is survived by son David, wife Becki and grandson Nicky in San Diego, California; son Robert, granddaughter Krystine and great-granddaughter Rene in Texas; daughter Shonna Shelley and granddaughter Jesse and great-grandson Brandon in Gettysburg; and son John living in Gettysburg and his daughter Aubrey in Kansas.
Attempts to reach family members in the area were unsuccessful.
The family has asked that any memorial contributions may be made to the Gettysburg Presbyterian Church, 208 Baltimore Street, Gettysburg, PA 17325 to support Mission trips.