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 of 191,620.
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 were numerous.
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.