General Clifton Cates: West Tennessee’s most decorated hero
Posted: Wednesday, July 7, 2010 4:24 pm
The Press 7.7.10 A marker on Hwy 641 South proclaims: General Clifton Cates Hwy. Some may be unaware that this Lake County native was the first Tennessean to become a 4-Star General, and was the most decorated Marine officer of WWI.
Coming from the smallest county in Tennessee, Cates rose to the highest ranking in the Marine Corp, serving as their l9th Commandant from 1948-1952. He was in five major engagements in WWI and five in WWII. He commanded a platoon, company, battalion, regiment and a division, all while under fire.
During his 37 years in the military which spanned the Korean War, he received 29 decorations including 10 Bronze Stars, and the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre from France. He was gassed in the trenches, wounded seven times, and received the nickname “Lucky.”
He received accommodations from three presidents and a public apology from President Truman who had referred to the Marine Corp as the ‘Navy’s police force.’ After a public uproar, a testy Truman complained ‘that the Marine Corp had a propaganda machine almost equal to Stalin’s.’
Born Aug. 31, 1893 on a cotton farm at Cates Landing near Tiptonville, Cates attended country schools before enrolling in Missouri Military Academy, a preparatory school across the river where he was an honor student, lettering in sports.
He played varsity baseball and football at the University of Tennessee, graduating in l916 with a law degree. The US was entering WWI and Cates was offered a commission as a 2nd Lt. in the Marine Corp Reserves.
“The Marine Corp—what’s that?” he asked a recruiter. He quickly found out after intensive training at Fort Royal. (Parris Island) He remembered, “There wasn’t any of it any good, outside the rifle range.”
As a platoon leader with the 96th company of the 6th Marines, Lt. Cates was wounded in his first battle in France, but took temporary command when the commanding officer was killed, holding the village with a handful of men. He would take command on 4 other occasions.
At Belleau Wood, waves of Marines from the 6th Regiment advanced across wheat fields behind French tanks, ‘the most beautiful attack’ that Cates had ever seen.
He was gassed and wounded again for the third time. Holding a captured trench he sent a message to his battalion commander stating that he only had two men left out of his company and 20 out of other companies.
“We need support, but it is almost suicidal to try to get here as we are swept by machine gunfire and a constant artillery barrage is upon us. I have no one on my left and only a few on my right. I will hold.”
During the battle at Blanc Mont, the Marines charged over a German fortified ridge, crossing trenches in the dark that were filled with dead soldiers, ‘whooping like Indians and putting the fear of God into the enemy. ‘
When he was recommended for his first Medal of Honor, Cates wrote his mother that there were others as deserving—if not more so—than he.
However, he thrilled to the position of leadership–‘to be out there in front of a bunch of men that will follow you to death.’
After the war, he served as an aide in the White House, did recruiting duty, sea duty and held various other positions before becoming Commandant of the Marine Corps Schools in Quantico, Va., advancing up the chain of command.
In Shanghai, Cates served as battalion commander of the 6th Marine Regiment. He considered athletics a great morale booster and wherever he was stationed had highly competitive games which he believed encouraged leadership.
Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi where he where he swam, fished, hunted and excelled in sports during school, he enthusiastically threw himself into the sporting events, whether baseball, football or rugby.
When he sponsored a championship rugby team, playing teams from all over the world, he added modestly that, “Of course, in other sports we were just as good.” Spectators always cheered when he walked out to the pitcher’s mound or had confrontations with the umpires.
A young officer recalled how impressed he was when he first saw Cates, dressed in his summer uniform with the green and red fouragerre of the 6th Marine Corp on his shoulder, a braided and knotted cord honoring the battles fought in France.
He held his trademark long cigarette holder in his hand. Lt. Simmons thought that Cates ‘was exactly the picture of what a Marine general should be.’
Cates and his wife Jane, whom he married in Washington D.C., were often seen zipping about town in a black Ford convertible coupe with red leather seats. Rank was beginning to have its privileges.
In 1942, Colonel Cates led the First Marine Regiment to victory at Guadacanal. He commanded the 4th Marine Division in 1944 as they landed on Iowa Jima, a strategically located 8-square mile island needed as an airbase for fighter escorts.
The Marines were under constant bombardment from enemy guns located on the hills high above.
In the 36-day assault, Cates visited his front lines daily, ‘rallying and inspiring his troops as they advanced through shifting, volcanic sands, leading his men in heroic effort,’ in the greatest battle of Marine Corp history.
With the demobilization of the Marine Corp in progress after WWII, Cates was instrumental in passing a bill giving the Marines 3 regiments with 3 airwing divisions.
To rally support for the Marines, Commandant Cates even flew to Hollywood, persuading John Wayne, everybody’s favorite, to star in the 1949 movie “Sands of Iowa Jima.”
It would almost have seemed un-American to disband the Corp after seeing the movie based on the famous photo of the Marines raising the American flag.
Cates lobbied for the Commandant of the Marine Corp to have equal status with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also pushed for the development of technology regarding the design and use of helicopters during the Korean War and readied a brigade to be sent to General McArthur in nine days.
After retiring from active duty, Cates became Commandant of the Marine Corps School in Virginia for the third time, enjoying the rewards of his illustrious career, visited by Presidents, Generals, and Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“And the football and baseball teams continued doing well.”
Cates also served as National Campaign Chairman for the USO. The last time Simmons saw the retired general, Cates was wearing a ‘Harris tweed coat and Tyrolean hat, the very model of a southern country gentleman.’
Cates died from emphysema in l970 at the age of 75 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. His wife died in l988 and is buried beside him. They were survived by two children: Captain Clifton Cates, Jr. USN, and Mrs. Ann (Joseph) Hilbish, Jr
On April 9, Congressman Tanner introduced a resolution asking the US Navy to name a ship in honor of General Cates. In l998, State Senator Roy Herron sponsored a bill naming the National Guard Armory in Tiptonville for General Cates. A historical marker stands near the Court House in Tiptonville, and a marker on the campus of University of Tennessee at Knoxville also commemorates his achievements.
From the cotton fields of West Tennessee into the lofty pages of history, General Cates’ legacy of bravery, determination, leadership, and vision, may best be exemplified by his immortal promise: I will hold.
When driving down Highway 641 South and noting the markers bearing his name, give a heart-felt salute to General Clifton Bledsoe Cates, USMC– West Tennessee’s most decorated hero.
East Tennessee’s Sergeant York was the most famous soldier of WWI. Audie Murphy from Texas was honored as the most decorated WWII hero with 33 medals received in 27 months. David Hackenworth of California received 90 medals while serving in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.
Note: Biography courtesy of the United States Marine Corps.
Editor’s note: Joyce Billingsby is a published author who resides in Latham.