General Clifton B. Cates, nineteenth commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, was born in Tiptonville on August 31, 1893. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, he joined the marines as a second lieutenant in 1917. During World War I he earned the Navy Cross for heroism at Bouresches and Belleau Wood, where he was gassed and wounded. At Soissons, where he received his second wound of the war, he received the Silver Star. The French government also recognized his heroism with the Legion of Honor and the Crois de Guerre. Cates also was promoted to the rank of captain. His war service began a remarkable record where Cates would become one of the few officers in the American military to command, under fire, a platoon, company, battalion, regiment, and division during his long career.
After the Great War he participated in the occupation of Germany before returning to Washington, where he served as an aide to the Marine Corps commandant and as a military aide to President Woodrow Wilson. The next twenty years he served in various capacities in locales from California to China to Marine Corps headquarters.
When the United States entered World War II, Cates was Director of the Marine Corps Basic School in Philadelphia and held the rank of colonel. He soon left this administrative post, however, for the field, serving with distinction as a colonel in command of the First Marines at the landing at Guadalcanal in August 1942, for which he received the Legion of Merit. His next posting was as commandant of the Marine Corps School at Quantico, Virginia, before he received command of the Fourth Division in July 1944. Cates played a pivotal role in the Tinian campaign and the seizure of Iwo Jima. He led the division for the duration of the war, receiving a Distinguished Service Medal and a gold star for his leadership.
In 1948 Cates was advanced to the rank of general and became the commandant of the Marine Corps, a post which he held for the next four years. After his term ended, he reverted back to the rank of lieutenant general and served a second tour as commandant of the Marine Corps Schools. He was promoted to the rank of general at his retirement in 1954. During his thirty-seven-year career in the marines, he was wounded several times and won almost thirty decorations. Cates died in 1970 and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. A historical marker in his honor was dedicated at the Tiptonville museum in 1998.