In early 1942, after the U.S. was drawn into World War II in Europe, the War Department believed the first place to confront the enemy would be in North Africa. U.S. Army Major General George Smith Patton Jr. selected 18,000 square miles of California’s Mojave Desert as a training ground for realistic war games under climatic and geographic conditions similar to Libya to prepare American soldiers for combat against the German Afrika Korps.
Patton established the Desert Training Center in March 1942 and administrative headquarters at Camp Young, named for Lieutenant General S.B.M. Young, the first Army Chief of Staff.
Eventually, more than one million troops in eight armored divisions and thirteen infantry divisions trained in eleven sub-camps in the California-Arizona Maneuver Area (CAMA) making it the world’s largest military installation in size and population.
Tent city camps contained field artillery units, tanks and repair shops, hospitals, aviation facilities and anti-aircraft units. The population of 191,620 included officers, flight personnel, nurses and hospital attendants, and enlisted personnel.
Temperatures ranged from below freezing to 120 degrees in the shade. Sand found its way into eyes, food, water, clothing, bedrolls, tents, weapons, and engines. Elevation ranged from the desert floor to 7,000 feet above sea level.
Within one month after arrival, every man had to be able to run one mile in 10 minutes wearing a full back pack and carrying a rifle. Water was rationed at one canteen a day. Standard field rations and salt tablets were issued. Diesel fuel poured on the ground around living areas discouraged rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas. Troops called the Mojave “a desert designed in hell” and “the place God forgot.”
Patton lived with his troops in the same primitive conditions. Within 23 days he conducted 13 tactical exercises, including some with two nights in the desert. His contributions to the training and discipline at the camps included piloting his own plane as he crisscrossed the maneuver area giving orders by radio to the tank crews below.
In a very important sense, many battles of WW II were won on the Mojave Desert during those maneuvers.
In late July 1942, Patton was ordered to Washington to plan, then sent overseas to lead, “Operation Torch”, the Allied assault on North Africa in November that resulted in a decisive Allied victory.
On April 30, 1944, the Army closed the CAMA and abandoned the camps. Access to most camps, some of which now include private lands, is limited to four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Accessible sites in Riverside County:
General George S. Patton Memorial Military Museum
At Chiriaco Summit 30 miles east from Indio on I-10
Camp Young Headquarters Desert Training Center, California Historic Landmark 985
I-10 exit Cottonwood Springs Road N 0.3 mi;
E on dirt road 8 miles
Camp Coxcomb Desert Training Center, California Historic Landmark 985
I-10 exit Desert Center N 16.8 miles on Hwy. 177
(9.8 mi S of Hwy 62)
Blythe Airfield constructed in1942 as the Army Air Force Base to train heavy bomber crews. Four squadrons of the 390th bombardment group B-17s joined the 8th Air Force in England and completed 301 bombing missions over Europe between August 1942 and May 1945.
I-10 exit Mesa Verde North to Blythe Airfield; plaque placed by Billy Holcomb Chapter E Clampus Vitus and Riverside County Board of Supervisors in front of FBO building.
San Bernardino County sites:
E-bound I-40 at Fenner Rest Area
2.4 mi E of Hwy 177 on Hwy 62
Iron Mountain Divisional Camp
0.2 mi E of Camp Granite plaque on Hwy 62