The following is excerpted from “I Will Hold” (Caliber Publishing, 2016) by James Carl Nelson about Clifton Cates (Knoxville 1916), who fought in the trenches during World War I and later became the 19th commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. To find out more, visit the book’s Facebook page.
Some came out of the carnage of Belleau Wood and Soissons bitter, shaken, their worlds gone mad, the well of their core beliefs—in mother, in God, in country—evaporated.
Some turned the bitterness inward, and took to drink, or sought ways out of the war—they went AWOL, they sought a million-dollar wound just bad enough to put them out of the war but not kill them, they dared a lifetime in the brig and shot themselves in the foot.
Others went on enduring the unendurable and wondered at themselves, at their minds. . . .
The scenes of bloody horror in the Bois de Belleau, in those fields before Vierzy, were enough to break even the strongest of men, turn their minds numb, and leave them brooding and bitter for life.
But not Cliff Cates.
The still quite sane and ever-optimistic Cates was less haunted than beguiled—hell, energized—by all that had happened, all that he had seen, on July 19.
Cates had dodged death over and over, and come up grinning, writing just days afterwards:
I wouldn’t sell the memory of that day for any amount of money. It was truly wonderful, even if it was a living hell that day. I wish I could paint a vivid picture of it, but it is beyond me.
He understood that his men had signed on to be Marines, just as he had. They had signed on to fight in a grand cause, and for a noble purpose, and days such as July 19, 1918 had to happen, had to be endured.
Some men died, that was war; some men lived, and that was also war. Cliff Cates hadn’t hardened his heart to the deaths of his men so much as just learned to expect and accept that some—many, perhaps—would die. Hell, maybe even him. He’d been born unflappable, unsentimental, and with the flinty soul of a warrior; his was a spirit that sought challenges among the worst, the most dangerous, experiences men could experience. They fed him; they made him feel alive; he was born, he was beginning to see, to lead men in battle—no—to have men follow him unflinchingly into battle.
He didn’t threaten, he didn’t yell, he didn’t have to push or pull men. He simply led the way. Men, seeing his courage and how he fairly laughed in the face of Death, naturally followed; they were ashamed not to.
At Soissons he’d seen and finally realized what war is: grand armies on the march, soldiers clashing in the open, and men of all stripes dying. Where others saw horror he saw something grand that exceeded all other human endeavors.
It was truly wonderful, he’d written. . . . Even if it was a living hell.