Thirty years before becoming Marine Commandant, Clifton Cates earned a Navy Cross and a reputation as the Corps' luckiest man during the brutal three-week Battle of Belleau Wood.
The village shone like alabaster in the late afternoon sun, a sharp contrast to the tawny open field that splayed before it for 600 yards. Just to the left, a stand of black woods, a former hunting ground for the wealthy, blocked the way for the U.S. Marine Corps, its ravines and rocky ledges having been occupied by more than 1,100 men of the German 237th Division’s 461st Regiment, who had turned the refuge into a veritable fortress.
It was 6 June 1918—a D-day for the Marine Corps and for one junior lieutenant with its 6th Regiment: Clifton Bledsoe Cates.
From the Mississippi to France
Cates, destined to one day become the 19th Commandant of the Corps, was on that day 24 years old, the scion of a family of farmers who owned a riverboat landing in northwestern Tennessee. As a boy he had roamed the shores and swampland along the Mississippi River, spending his long summers hunting and fishing and learning a degree of self-sufficiency before he had to grow up and leave.
Cates attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, studied law, and had intended to hang out his shingle, perhaps somewhere near his home or perhaps in Memphis. But a world war intervened, and after the United States entered the conflict against Germany in April 1917, he applied to become a reserve officer in the Marine Corps, was accepted, and trained at the new grounds at Parris Island, South Carolina, and Quantico, Virginia.
In February 1918, Cates found himself in France and in command of the 4th Platoon of the 96th Company, 6th Marines, 2d Division. He and his men had received some trench experience in a quiet sector of the Vosges Mountains, enduring almost daily bombardments and beating back a few German attacks, even losing several men.
By the end of May, the Marines had moved north of Paris, where they spent Memorial Day, 30 May, as they liked, playing games, strolling the countryside, and writing letters home. All were expecting to be moved north soon to relieve the 1st Division in the lines around Cantigny, which in the previous three days had been seized in the first large-scale U.S. assault of the war. But at 1700, the war called them elsewhere.
On 27 May, a huge German offensive had spilled from the Chemin des Dames above the Aisne River and swept aside all opposition as it hurtled south across the river and to the gates of the Marne River town of Château-Thierry. The progress of the Germans threatened to reach Paris, now just 30-odd miles away as the crow flies, and end the war that had been raging since August 1914.
The attackers attempted to cross the Marne at Château-Thierry but were rebuffed by Doughboys of the 3d Division. The German drive soon was on the march along the northern bank of the Marne and heading for a square-mile blob of woods known locally as the Bois de Belleau—Belleau Wood.
Since U.S. forces had begun arriving in France in October 1917, General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, had fought off all attempts by the Allies to have his troops sent piecemeal into the fray, instead insisting on maintaining an all-American army. But by late March, the situation on the Western Front was dire, and Pershing finally acquiesced to Allied demands for immediate help. The 1st Division had gone into action, recapturing Cantigny on 28 May.
And so now, too, would Second Lieutenant Cliff Cates and the Marine units—the 5th and 6th Marines and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion—that made up half of the 2d Division. On the night of 30 May, camions driven by Southeast Asians (Anamites, the men called them) began arriving, loading, and racing off at the breathtaking speed of between 10 and 15 miles an hour to the east to meet the German threat. By the next day, they were encountering hordes of refugees, French peasants warning the young Americans that the “Boche” were coming, and la guerre est finie.
The convoy of Marines continued east, feeling for the German advance, and by the end of 1 June had spread themselves just south of the Bois de Belleau, from which retreating soldiers of the French 43d Division, some carrying bottles of pilfered wine instead of weapons, continually streamed, the Germans on their heels. They, too, warned the Marines that the Boche were coming, and urged them to retreat as well. “Retreat, hell!” one Marine officer replied. “We just got here!”
Facing Belleau Wood
Ignoring French entreaties to retreat, the Americans instead dug into the flinty soil. On the morning of 2 June, enemy soldiers came into view and the Marines—sharpshooters all—leveled their rifles and dropped German after German.
As the Marines continued to consider their options, however, the Germans quietly took over Belleau Wood and the key village of Bouresches, from which the woods could be enfiladed. Brigadier General James Harbord, an Army veteran just recently promoted to command of the 2d Division’s all-Marine 4th Brigade, steadfastly refused to believe the woods were occupied, and so made no move to take it until 6 June, when the brigade was ordered to make a general advance.
Early that morning, Marines seized Hill 142, about a mile west of Belleau Wood. At 1700, the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, attacked the west side of the woods while the 3d Battalion, 6th Marines, assaulted the forest from the southwest, with the goal of continuing on to Bouresches. Cliff Cates and the 2d Battalion, 6th Marines, meanwhile, were to advance on the right flank. When the attack by the 3d Battalion, 6th Marines, bogged down, Cates’ company was ordered to storm Bouresches.
The 96th Company did not receive battalion commander Major Thomas Holcomb’s orders to advance until 1645. From the Clerembauts Wood a half-mile in back of their line of departure, the Marines hurried forward.
At 1730, company commander Captain Donald Duncan blew his whistle, and the thing was on. Cliff Cates led his men on the left of the company line, toward Bouresches through a storm of steel over ground “literally covered with machine gun bullets,” he would write.
Quickly, men fell. “A lot of men went down; most of them wounded, but a few dead,” he wrote. Among them was Donald Duncan, who was hit in the abdomen by a bullet. He had been dragged to safety and was being tended to when an 8-inch shell exploded, killing him and three others. Cates and his platoon, meanwhile, advanced bent over as if forging through a hail storm. Men continued to fall to the right and left. And then, 200 yards short of Bouresches, a bullet clanged off Cate’s tin hat, knocking him out.
When he awoke, his first impulse, he would admit years later, was to run for the rear. But he gathered himself and, seeing some men from his platoon in a ravine on the right, staggered through shot and shell toward them. He jumped in. Seeing that Cates was still reeling, Sergeant Tom Orgo began pouring wine from his canteen over the lieutenant’s head. Cates stopped him. “Don’t pour it on me,” he told the sergeant. “Let me drink it.”
Restored somewhat to his senses, Cates picked up a rifle that had been cast away by a retreating French soldier, and, his small squad in tow, began crawling through the ravine toward Bouresches. They soon saw “a bunch of Germans on the edge of town,” he would recall. “We let go at them and they ran.”
Cates also saw First Lieutenant James Robertson, now in command of the 96th, leaving the west end of the village with about 20 Marines. Cates waved him over, and Robertson told him to take the Marines into Bouresches while he went for reinforcements. “Which I thought was a hell of a thing,” Cates would say many years later, still wondering why the company’s senior officer would, in essence, abandon his command in the face of the enemy instead of leading it in the attack.
Cates did as ordered, and stormed the town with only 24 men. They spread and quickly cleaned out machine-gun nests while pitching grenades into any open doorway they ran across. “We took heavy firing going down the streets,” Cates remembered. A bullet clanged a second time off his helmet; another, coming from the tower of the village church, clipped a shoulder strap, severing it and knocking off a gold bar—earning the young lieutenant the sobriquet “Lucky Cates.”
“Every street had its fight,” Corporal Harrison Cale would write, “sticking—slashing—banging. Machine guns in the doors of the buildings, in the church steeple, behind piles of rubbish, and sharp shooters in every . . . vantage.” Cates’ orderly, Private Herbert Dunlavy, took out the tower sniper, and soon the remaining defenders were running north “like rabbits, dropping equipment as they ran,” Cates wrote.
Where others became muddled and indecisive in the swirling confusion of battle, Cates at those times found nothing but great mental clarity. He demonstrated it for the second time that day by ordering his men to set up four-man “Cossack posts” throughout the village that would guard every possible entryway. Knowing his small force was badly outnumbered, he also had them shift and move positions constantly so the Germans “couldn’t tell how many men were in the town,” Sergeant Joseph Stites would recall.
As evening descended, the survivors of the 96th Company’s three other platoons filtered into town. Cates counted heads among his own fourth platoon and found that 32 men out of the 56 he had led into the battle had been killed or wounded. “All the men should get decorations and the men of my platoon will get more than one,” he would write home. “I am very proud of my men and they deserve a lot of credit.” Cates himself would receive the Navy Cross and the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross for his “extraordinary heroism” on 6 June.
The carnage was widespread that day. Major Benjamin Berry’s 3d Battalion, 5th Regiment, had been badly cut up while advancing on the west side of Belleau Wood. Major Berton Sibley’s 3d Battalion, 6th Regiment, had had a little more luck in its attack on the southeast end of the wood, with the 82d and 83d Companies managing to get a toehold in the forest. The 3d Battalion’s 84th and 97th Companies, meanwhile, had no chance of advancing over the open ground between Bouresches and Belleau Wood, from which the enemy was able to enfilade their lines. They went to ground in a sheltering ravine and spent most of the night trying to dodge an intense bombardment.
By the end of the day, Cates would have some 600 men with him in Bouresches. Captain Randolph Zane’s 79th Company, also from Holcomb’s battalion, was among the reinforcements, and Zane assumed command from Cates.
Holding the Town
Over the next few days the defenders of Bouresches endured intense shelling and beat off nightly German attempts to retake the village through infiltration. The cacophony of battle rose even further on 8 June when the Marines holding the slim margin of ground in Belleau Wood were withdrawn to its southern edge and the 2d Division’s artillery began blasting away at the German defenses.
That same night, a particularly heavy shelling woke Cates from a deep sleep in a villager’s home, and, sensing that a final all-out attack was imminent, he raced outside. “Shells were falling all around us,” he would write. Soon, “one exploded right on top of us.” The impact flattened the lieutenant and nearby Marines, and when they came to their senses all but one—Cates’s orderly Private Dunlavy—stood up. Herbert Dunlavy, who’d taken out the gun in the church tower, was dead. “There wasn’t a mark on his body,” Cates remembered.
“They are dropping a shell about every minute into the town just now—they are tearing it down,” Cates wrote on 10 June. “I am pretty well worn out, as I have had only four hours of sleep the last four days.” Later that day, Holcomb’s battalion was relieved by elements of the 5th Regiment’s 3d Battalion. Cates and his comrades fell out in the rear and spent the next two days at their leisure while other battalions of the 5th and 6th Regiments took up the ever-costly work of rousting the Germans from Belleau Wood.
But in the early morning hours of 13 June, reports came that Bouresches had been retaken. General Harbord ordered Holcomb to send two of his companies to assault the village. The major went looking for the 96th Company’s Lieutenant Robertson, but he was nowhere to be found. Instead he found Cates and asked him, “Can you take Bouresches again?”
Cliff Cates gulped hard before finally answering, “Yes.”
He set off with his company and the 79th Company, but the attack was called off when it was learned the village was, in fact, still in U.S. hands. Cates and his men retired to a small wood near Lucy-le-Bocage, south of Belleau Wood, where the battalion’s 78th Company joined them.
The Insidious Gas
That afternoon, Cates was called to action once more. Holcomb ordered the 96th and 78th Companies to relieve the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, in Belleau Wood early the next morning. But as the men lined up at their company kitchens at midnight for their pre-relief dinner, German high-explosive and mustard-gas shells rained down without warning among them.
Amid the hell of explosions and gas, it was every man for himself. Cates searched vainly for his gas mask before remembering Private Virgil Hall, who had picked up a German mask back in Bouresches. Cates frantically called to him through the bursts of shells and darkness and retrieved the mask. He then jumped into Hall’s shallow hole and waited out a five-hour bombardment that, he would later write, left his company virtually “defunct.”
The mustard gas was deadly, insidious; it sought out every cranny on one’s body, and blinded, burned, and seared its victims. For the 96th and 78th Companies, the barrage was catastrophic. Together, the units suffered 31 men killed and 351 gassed and wounded out of a force of fewer than 500 men.
Cates would rue that he did not order his men to try to get out of the targeted area at once, instead of staying in their holes and taking it. But his own famous luck had again held. He had some burns on his legs, arms, and neck but was well enough to join the relief in the woods, now being performed by Holcomb’s 79th and 80th Companies.
He stripped, soaped himself off, aired his clothing, and then entered the woods, where he would spend the next few days attached to the 80th Company. That unit’s Private Carl Brannen would later say that Cates was “the most optimistic person I ever saw. . . . His lion courage in the face of any danger was enough to bolster one’s morale.”
On the night of 15 June, Cates joined in as the 80th beat back a German assault. “Today the bodies of Boche are laying all over the woods—it’s suicide to get out to bury them, so we let them stay,” he would write. The next night, the unbloodied 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment, U.S. 3d Division, arrived to relieve the Marines. As they did so, “all hell broke loose,” Cates wrote. “The Boche in our rear started firing, we answered, then both their artillery and ours opened up. . . . Imagine the poor army boys that have not been under fire before.”
It would be nine more days before the Marines secured Belleau Wood. By then, Cates and his men—a few from the original cadre and many green replacements—were themselves back in the woods. Also by then, Clifton Bledsoe Cates was well on his way to becoming a Marine legend. He would go on to lead the 96th at Soissons, Blanc Mont, and the Meuse-Argonne through that summer and fall; in World War II, he would lead the 1st Marine Regiment at Guadalcanal and the 4th Marine Division at Tinian and Iwo Jima.
Fearless, energetic, ever optimistic, the would-be attorney Cliff Cates found his calling on that awful day before Bouresches. He also found a new name: As one fellow Marine would say years later, “He was the luckiest man that ever was in the Marine Corps.”
The main source for this article is “Some Personal Letters and Notes of General Clifton B. Cates, USMC,” part of the Clifton B. Cates Papers (COLL/3157) at the Marine Corps Archives and Special Collections Branch, Library of the Marine Corps, Gray Research Center, Quantico, Virginia. Cates’ interview with Benis M. Frank, found in the Marine Corps Oral History Collection, History Division, Quantico, Virginia, was also used. Secondary background information comes from Robert B. Asprey’s At Belleau Wood (University of North Texas Press, 1996) and Devil Dogs: Fighting Marines of World War (Presidio Press, 1999) by George B. Clark.