General Patton and the Desert Training
It was in the middle of southeastern California’s Mojave
Desert… a bleak, inhospitable, remote, vast expanse of cactus,
scrub and sand. Temperatures ranged from below freezing to 120 in
the shade. There was little water and vegetation. Dust storms could
blind men and cloudbursts were frequent. The area’s elevation
ranged from the desert floor to 7,000 feet above sea level.
But to Major General George Smith Patton Jr. U.S. Army, the land
was nothing less than enchanting. It was in early March of 1942
when Patton, commander of the Army’s First Corps and his staff
surveyed the area. Patton had been ordered by the War Department
to locate, establish and command a training center to train troops
for desert warfare. The Army’s rationale was that American
forces soon would be required to fight the German enemy in North
Africa. France had been defeated. The British had failed to hold
the Balkans and Greece. And German General Rommel had arrived in
Libya to join their Italian allies. The U.S. military felt that
North Africa was the first place they could get at the enemy.
So, Patton, enamored with the area’s endless terrain and
superb suitability for armored combat training, established the
Desert Training Center in late March, 1942, making his headquarters
at Camp Young, near Shavers Summit, (now known as Chiriaco Summit),
which today is the locale of the Patton Museum.
Construction of the Desert Training Center soon was underway and
troops began arriving at once. The area was expanded in size and
scope and ultimately was 350 miles wide and 250 miles deep, ranging
from Pomona, California eastward to Phoenix, Arizona. And from Yuma,
Arizona to Boulder City, Nevada. The area’s name was changed
to the California-Arizona Maneuver Area and consisted of Patton’s
headquarters at Camp Young and 10 other camps; Camp Coxcomb, Camp
Iron Mountain, Camp Granite, Camp Essex, Camp Ibis, Camp Hyder,
Camp Horn, Camp Laguna, Camp Pilot Knob and Camp Bouse. The camps
were massive tent cities containing tanks and repair shops, hospitals,
aviation facilities and anti-aircraft and field artillery units.
The Camps trained nearly 1 million American servicemen and women.
CAMA was the world’s largest military installation in both
size and population. In late July of 1943, for example, there were
10,966 officers, 514 flight personnel, 604 nurses and hospital attendants
and 179,536 enlisted personnel assigned to the camps, for a total
Training at the camps was rigid and exacting. Soldiers were required
to run a mile in 10 minutes while carrying rifles and full packs.
Troops trained throughout the hot days and sought shelter in tents
at night. Water was strictly rationed and salt tablets were issued
to ward off dehydration and heat prostration. Food was standard
field rations. Scorpions, tarantulas and rattlesnakes were held
at bay by pouring diesel fuel on the ground near messing and living
areas. Sand was everywhere…it found its way into food, water,
weapons, engines, bedrolls, clothing, tents and trooper’s
eyes and mouths. Choking clouds of dust were omnipresent as tanks
and other vehicles raced across California, Arizona and Nevada deserts.
Patton commanded the camps for four months, departing in early August
of 1942 to lead "Operation Torch", the allied assault
on German-held North Africa, which began in November of that year.
His contributions to the training, discipline and regimen at CAMA
Often piloting his own plane, he crisscrossed the Maneuver area,
giving orders by radio to the tank crews below. He even covered
much of it by foot. Forsaking comfortable quarters in Indio, 30
miles to the west, he lived and worked in tents and Spartan wooden
structures covered with tar paper. He called in experts on the desert
who lectured him on living in that difficult environment. Noted
among them were Roy Chapmen Andrews, the famed explorer of Asia’s
Gobi Desert, and Sir Hubert Wilkins, the Australian-born authority
on tropical clothing.
On April 30, 1944, two years after its inception, the California-Arizona
Maneuver Area (CAMA) was closed by the Army and the camps were abandoned
to the mercies of the desert. But their legacy and the legacy of
General George S. Patton remain, as manifested in the General George
S. Patton Memorial Museum, which has risen in the California desert
near his headquarters at Camp Young.