General Clifton Bledsoe Cates, 19th Commandant of the Marine Corps, was born on 31 August 1893 in Tiptonville, Tennessee. After elementary education in country schools, he was sent to the Missouri Military Academy, where he became an honor student and a four-letter man in sports. His Bachelor of Laws degree was obtained at the University of Tennessee in 1916. On 13 June 1917, as a second lieutenant in the reserves, he reported for active duty at the Marine Barracks, Port Royal, South Carolina, and sailed for France the following January.
As a young lieutenant with the 6th Marine Regiment in World War I, he fought in the Verdun defensive sector, at Bouresches and Belleau Wood in the Aisne defensive, at Soissons in the Aisne-Marne offensive, in the Marbache sector of the St. Mihiel offensive and in the Blanc Mont and Argonne-Forest engagements of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. He was awarded the Navy Cross, Army Distinguished Service Cross and an Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a second Distinguished Service Cross for heroism in the Bouresches and Belleau Wood fighting, in which he was both gassed and wounded. He earned the Silver Star Medal at Soissons, where he was wounded a second time, and an Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a second Silver Star Medal in the Blanc Mont fighting.
Apart from those decorations and the Purple Heart Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, the French Government recognized his heroism with the Legion of Honor and the Crois de Guerre with Gilt Star and two palms. He also was cited twice in the general orders of the 2nd Division, American Expeditionary Force (AEF), and once by the Commanding General, AEF, and was entitled to wear the Fourragere awarded the 6th Marines.
After participating in the occupation of Germany, 1stLt Cates returned to the United States in September 1919, and during the next year, he served in Washington, D.C., as a White House aide and Aide-de-Camp to the Commandant of the Marine Corps. He then served at San Francisco, California, as Aide-de-Camp to the Commanding General, Department of the Pacific, from October 1920 until June 1923, when he began a tour of sea duty as commander of the Marine Detachment aboard the USS California. That assignment was completed in April 1925. A month later, he began a year of service with the 4th Marine Regiment at San Diego, California.
In March 1928, after serving on recruiting duty at Spokane, Washington, and Omaha, Nebraska, Capt Cates was named a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission at Washington. He served in that capacity until May 1929 then was ordered to Shanghai, China, where he rejoined the 4th Marines. Three years later he was detached from that regiment to return to Washington D.C. for study in the Army Industrial College. Completing his course in June 1933, Maj Cates reported the following month to Quantico, where he served with the 7th Marines and completed the Senior Course in the Marine Corps Schools. He returned again to Washington D.C. in September 1935 and was assigned to the War Plans Section of the Division of Operations and Training at Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC). In August 1937, LtCol Cates sailed for Shanghai as a battalion commander with the 6th Marine Regiment, serving with that unit until he rejoined the 4th Marines in March 1938. Again the following year, he was brought back to Washington for instruction in the Army War College. That course was completed in June 1940, and he reported the next month to the Philadelphia Navy Yard as Director of the Marine Officers Basic School.
In May of 1942, Col Cates took command of the 1st Marines, which he led at Guadalcanal. After commanding the 1st Marines in the Guadalcanal-Tulagi landings and the capture and defense of Guadalcanal, he fought as commander of the 4th Marine Division in the Marianas operation, the Tinian campaign and the seizure of Iwo Jima. He won the Legion of Merit with Combat “V,” at Guadalcanal, the Distinguished Service Medal at Tinian and a Gold Star in lieu of a second Distinguished Service Medal at Iwo Jima.
With the invaluable experience obtained in that campaign, Col Cates was returned to the United States the following March for his first tour of duty as Commandant of the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico. He continued in that capacity until June 1944. The following month he took command of the 4th Marine Division, leading that organization in the Pacific theater until the end of the war.
Ordered back to the United States in December of 1945, MajGen Cates became President of the Marine Corps Equipment Board at Quantico, holding that position for six months before he was named Commanding General of the Marine Barracks, Quantico. He held that command until 1 January 1948, when he was advanced to the rank of general and sworn in as Commandant of the Marine Corps.
At the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, despite the Marine Corps being down in strength to 75,000 officers and men, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade was on its way to South Korea within nine days. Carrying out his predecessor's objective of obtaining a well-defined statutory position for the Marine Corps, Gen Cates contributed to the passage of Public Law 416, which set the Corps' active strength at three divisions and three aircraft wings. Also during his tenure as Commandant, he directed the Marine Corps in the development of a doctrine for the employment of helicopters in vertical envelopment and a practical test of their use in the Korean War.
When Gen Cates completed his four-year term as Commandant, he reverted to the rank of lieutenant general and began his second tour as Commandant of the Marine Corps Schools, Quantico. He retired on 30 June 1954 after two and a half years with the schools and was again promoted to general.
General Cates died 4 June 1970 at the U.S. Naval Hospital, Annapolis, Maryland, after a long illness. He was buried with full military honors on 8 June 1970 at Arlington National Cemetery.
One of the few officers of any service who had commanded a platoon, a company, a battalion, a regiment and a division under fire, he won nearly 30 decorations. In addition to the decorations already mentioned, Gen Cates’ medals and decorations include: the Presidential Unit Citation ribbon with three bronze stars (Guadalcanal, Tinian and Iwo Jima); the World War I Victory Medal with Aisne, Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne and Defensive Sector clasps; the Army of Occupation of Germany Medal; the Expeditionary Medal (China-1929-1931); the Yangtze Service Medal (Shanghai-1930-1931); the China Service Medal (China-1937-1939); the American Defense Service Medal; the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Medal with one silver star in lieu of five bronze stars; the American Area Campaign Medal; the World War II Victory Medal; the National Defense Service Medal and the Netherlands Order of the Orange Nassau with crossed swords and rank of Grand Officer.
General Cates also held doctorial law degrees from the University of Tennessee and the University of Chattanooga.