September 28, 2007

General Patton’s Desert Shrine

By Valerie Porter
American Heritage

A visitor examines a World War II tank at the General Patton Memorial Museum, in California. (Nik Wheeler/Corbis)

CHIRIACO SUMMIT -- The middle of the Mojave Desert might seem an unlikely place for a museum dedicated to Gen. George Patton, “Old Blood and Guts.” But Patton himself became linked to the desolate area in southeastern California, now known as Chiriaco Summit, when he chose it as the headquarters for the Desert Training Center during World War II. It played a major role in preparing soldiers before they marched into the North African desert to stop Germany’s onslaught. During the two years it was operational, nearly a million soldiers took a six-week course there.

Wandering through the General Patton Memorial Museum and the remains of the Desert Training Center makes for a fascinating if somewhat eerie history lesson. Much of the outdoor section remains untouched since Patton’s time.

In January 1942 the Germans had recaptured the Libyan port of Benghazi. Troops under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel were pushing toward Egypt and threatening the safety and future of the Suez Canal. British troops couldn’t stop their progress, and the U.S. War Department determined that American soldiers needed to be quickly trained in desert fighting and deployed to the area.

In February 1942 Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair, soon to become commander of the Army Ground Forces, appointed General Patton to establish and act as first commander of the Desert Training Center. Approximately 18,000 square miles of land in California, Nevada, and Arizona were chosen as home to the base, the largest in the world.

Having been born in California, Patton knew where he wanted the headquarters to be—Shavers Summit, as Chiriaco was then called. It’s about 50 miles from Palm Springs, and 30 miles east of Indio. He named the headquarters Camp Young, in honor of Lt. Gen. Samuel B. M. Young, who in 1903 became the Army’s first chief of staff.

The soldiers called the Desert Training Center “the place that God forgot,” because of its harsh living conditions. The temperature ranged from 120 degrees in the shade (where there was any) during the summer to below freezing in the winter. Dust storms frequently swept through, and diesel fuel had to be poured on the ground to ward off rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas. Living alongside the soldiers, Patton found the area ideal. He said it prevented “soft living.”

That couldn’t have been truer. Men often napped under their equipment after going 36 hours without sleep. Food and water were rationed in order to duplicate desert fighting conditions. Soldiers shaved while sitting in the dirt, their shaving water often at 100 degrees without being heated.

The training center closed in April 1944 and was left abandoned for many years. But in 1988 private donors joined up and reopened it as a museum, with the cooperation of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Joseph Chiriaco, a major landowner in the area who had been one of the first locals to meet Patton when he arrived to set up the training center, was instrumental in establishing the museum.

The former camp entrance is now the museum entrance. Outside are stone boundaries that once marked tent sites. A particularly poignant sight is the partial remains of a stone chapel, where soldiers often prayed before being called to fight overseas.

Tanks are scattered on the grounds as though soldiers might return at any moment to use them. They’re mostly World War II–era, but there are also several from the Vietnam and Korean wars. They give you an excellent chance to see a Patton, Pershing, Sherman, and Stuart up close.

Inside, you can view a 26-minute film on the center’s history and Patton’s life, and watch Patton tell the soldiers at the center, “I’m not training you to die for your country. I’m training you to make other people die for their country.”

Throughout the museum, remnants of soldiers’ lives past and present, including uniforms, a chaplain’s case, typewriters, a night-vision periscope, saddles, communications equipment, cots, surgical instruments, and ammunition can be viewed. There’s even a jukebox around which men would gather for entertainment on rare occasions when that was possible.

Patton memorabilia abounds, including photos, letters, and one of his jeeps whose license plate reads “4 WILLY 3,” honoring his pet bull terrier. There’s a guest book at the museum’s entrance that’s reserved for vets who served with Patton. The touching and patriotic comments, many from men who trained at Camp Young, are well worth reading.

Soldiers may have thought God forgot the place, but it’s not likely you will forget it.

The General Patton Memorial Museum is at Exit 173 on Interstate 10, 47 miles east of Palm Springs, California. It’s open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $4 for adults, $3.50 for seniors. For more information visit or call 760-227-3483.