Happily, I get to break my silence today with an interview I recently conducted with James Carl Nelson about his latest book I Will Hold: The Story of USMC Legend Clifton B. Cates, from Belleau Wood to Victory in the Great War.
I vividly remember when Mr. Nelson burst upon the scene of First World War literature back in 2009 with The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War, which was given an Editor’s Choice Award as one of 2009’s seven best history books by Booklist. I was working on what became the exhibit Ready To Do My Part: Henrico County & World War I and was voraciously consuming anything that had to do with the AEF and World War I. To say that The Remains of Company D stood out would be quite the understatement.
Nelson went on to publish Five Lieutenants: The Heartbreaking Story of Five Harvard Men Who Led America to Victory in World War I in 2012 and his latest book tells the story of Clifton B. “Lucky” Cates’ exploits with the United States Marine Corps during World War I.
I’d like to thank Mr. Nelson for taking the time out of his busy schedule to do an interview with me and I think you’ll enjoy what he has to say!
JP: Please tell us a little bit about yourself – what is your background?
JCN: Even as a child I was interested in military history, and at age seven I even had a notion to try to get into West Point. The remainder of the 1960s and the early 1970s pretty much wiped that idea from my head – as did the fact that I’m terrible at math. I grew up in a Chicago suburb, and always having had some talent for and a strong interest in writing, I gravitated towards journalism while at the University of Minnesota, where I worked for the student paper, and then upon graduation headed off to a job in The Miami Herald’s Keys bureau. I’ve been in my present job as a journalist for 30 years.
JP: How did you come to be interested in the First World War?
JCN: I actually had a personal interest – my grandfather, a Swedish immigrant to Chicago, was drafted in 1917 and sent to France as a replacement soldier. He was assigned to Company D, 28th Regiment, US 1st Division after its assault on Cantigny in May, 1918 – and then he was shot through the abdomen by a German machine gunner on July 19, 1918 during the Soissons offensive while he and his battalion were assaulting the village of Ploisy. He laid on the field all night, then was rescued by a couple of French Colonial troops – he always said they were Algerians, but I think they were more likely from a West African nation – who brought him to an aid station. He spent nine months recovering, but he lived to be 101. After his death, I became consumed with trying to discover what had actually happened to him, and his small story, and the larger story of the men with whom he briefly served, became the basis for my first book The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War, which was published in 2009.
JP: The book opens, “He has already spent one night sleeping almost atop the bodies of dead men, French and German, dead for days and weeks and thankfully unseen now in the blackness, though there was no mistaking their odious, putrid smell.” Quite an introduction! Could you give us some insight on how you go about the process of crafting such evocative writing? How do you “get in the zone,” so to speak?
JCN: I believe in grabbing the reader right away, and that means jumping into the story at the greatest dramatic point. With I Will Hold, there were many such points, but I liked the imagery of the dead bodies – it just really evoked the brutality and the slaughters of the Great War and what Clifton Cates and the Marines experienced. I worked from several descriptions of that night that are out there, and then put my own imagination and words to the horrific scene. As for getting into the zone, it’s hard to describe. I usually don’t have to labor over such scenes because often the words just come to me, from where I don’t know for certain. It’s just the artistic process, I guess.
JP: What in particular drew you to the story of Clifton Cates?
JCN: I actually had a great interest in a stand-alone book about the battle of Soissons – which involved the 1st and 2nd Divisions, including the Marine Fourth Brigade -- and threw together a 50-page proposal over one weekend in 2012 and sent it to my literary agent, James D. Hornfischer. He had just published his third book Neptune’s Inferno, about the naval battle off of Guadalcanal in 1942, and the name Clifton Cates was familiar to him. He suggested I get away from the 1st Division – my second book Five Lieutenants focused on a small group of officers who also served in the division in WW1 – and he was the one who suggested a biography of Cates. A quick check revealed that Cates has a large collection of papers at the Marine archives in Quantico, and so off I went. I was very happy and enthused to tackle the Marine experience in WW1, though starting out I knew very little of it outside of Belleau Wood. Ironically, I actually stumbled across Belleau Wood in 2008 while in France researching my first book, but still had only a very sketchy idea of exactly what went on there.
JP: Readers of I Will Hold may be surprised to learn that that United States Marine Corps of 1917 didn’t have the same reputation as an elite fighting force that the modern Corps enjoys. Cates himself once recalled of his pre-war training, “Outside the rifle range part of it, there wasn't any of it any good." How was Cates able to have such marked success on the battlefield, given the steep learning curve that faced his Marines when they were deployed on the Western Front?
JCN: Yes, Cates was also somewhat derisive about the training, saying most of it wasn’t worth a “hoorah,” but the Marines AND the leaders of the American Expeditionary Forces were certain that once Americans got to France in large enough numbers the stalemate of the trenches would quickly be broken. The Marines in particular espoused the theory that massed rifle power would provide a breakthrough. But the reality was that the machine gun and powerful, massed artillery was king Over There. Cates and the Marines found that out at Belleau Wood, Soissons, and St. Mihiel, but by the battle of Blanc Mont in October, 1918 and then in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in November, the Marines had learned the value of employing a standing artillery preparation followed by a creeping barrage that was followed closely by the men. As for his personal success, he was known as “Lucky Cates” for the numerous bullets and shells that hit him but did not kill or severely wound him – this happened at least 10 times -- which wasn’t the case for many men in his company, the 96th, which took more casualties than any other American unit, or for the Marine Brigade in general, which lost 1,342 men killed in action and another 8,292 to wounds. But Cates’ success was due also to his smarts, his dash, his utter bravery and his frame of mind. One Marine called him “the most optimistic man I have ever met.” He was just a natural-born leader – he was one of those combat leaders who are most clear-headed in the thickest part of the action.
|Cates in 1918|
JCN: Despite his wartime success, Cates actually was planning to leave the Corps after the First World War and had resigned in 1919. He probably would have become an attorney – he had a law degree from the University of Tennessee -- but the then-commandant of the Corps, George Barnett, convinced him to stay and made him his assistant. That shows how highly valued he was regarded in the Corps. But as I say several times in I Will Hold, I really believe Cates found himself, and his calling, on the battlefields of World War 1. He loved the action, he loved and cared for the men of his company, he loved the camaraderie, and he certainly loved the Marines – but as one Time magazine writer said simply when Cates finally retired from The Corps, “He liked the work.”
JP: What are your thoughts on the centennial commemoration thus far?
JCN: I have to be honest, I’m not really that up on the plans for the commemoration. I guess I feel my three books are personally my own best commemoration of the American experience in World War 1. But I’m very happy that efforts are being made to note the centennial. World War 1 has in the U.S. always been something of an afterthought, and existed too long in the shadow of World War 2; when I was working on The Remains of Company D I can’t tell you how many people told me that people didn’t want to read about the Great War. That’s obviously not true, at least anymore, as we can see by the constant stream of excellent books that have come out in recent years, among them Mitch Yockelson’s Forty-Seven Days and Matthew Davenport’s First Over There. A new generation of writers is discovering the many terrific, untold stories from within that war and are now carrying them forward and, happily, publishers are showing more and more interest in their books.
JP: What are you working on now?
JCN: I have discussed an idea – also World War 1 – with my agent, and one of these days I’m going to get off my rear and write a proposal for it. It has something to do with an American division in the war that isn’t the 1st or 2nd, and that’s all I want to reveal right now.