November 11, 2007

Battle Ready: How the desert helped win WWII

At its peak of operation in 1943, the Desert Training Center had 190,000 troops in training. That compares to about 11,000 men and women at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms today.

Keith Matheny
The Desert Sun
Veterans Day

CHIRIACO SUMMIT - A vast expanse of unforgiving desert just east of the Coachella Valley helped save the world two generations ago.

It was here in 1942, during some of the darkest days of World War II, that the Desert Training Center was created.

Developed by one of America's most demanding generals, George S. Patton Jr., the center is considered the largest military training facility in the history of mankind, stretching over 18,000 square miles of rugged terrain from Southern California into Arizona and Nevada.

From 1942 to 1944, some 1.8 million young American men were forged into soldiers here under hellish-by-design training conditions.

From this desert, these hardened and tested men left California to confront legendary German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in the deserts of North Africa, to help free Europe from the Nazis' tightening grip and to fight Imperial Japan to a standstill in grim battles on Pacific islands.

"The men that were trained there helped bring the peace we've enjoyed for so many years," said Margit Rusche, board member and co-founder of the Gen. Patton Memorial Museum at the small desert outpost of Chiriaco Summit. It sits off Interstate 10, about 30 miles east of Indio.

Patton's history at the Desert Training Center is the Coachella Valley's history as well, said former Indian Wells Mayor Walter McIntyre, a Patton museum supporter. Many men and women who trained or worked at the desert camps lived in valley towns, he said.

But it's a part of history that's largely forgotten, generally preserved in black-and-white images and fleeting passages in American history books.

And the training center area today reflects that.

Patchy shrubs and plants dot endless stretches of desert sand under the shadow of distant mountains. The only sounds are of insects, a scampering lizard, an occasional bird. Not a single person can be seen for miles.

The scene contrasts greatly from 65 years ago when thousands of tanks, trucks and self-propelled artillery units thundered across the desert. Roaring units crisscrossed the rugged terrain in a training ground the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined.

Almost all facilities at the camp were nonpermanent, tent cities designed to move. Much of what was left behind was looted, vandalized or lost to the desert sands over the decades since.

Modest monuments to training center camps can be found along rural highways such as state routes 177 and 62. And the careful observer can still find vestiges of the days when tanks rumbled here, artillery was fired, warplanes flew and soldiers marched and camped.

Rusche and other museum supporters, as well as the federal Bureau of Land Management, are fighting to protect the last physical remnants of the desert's role in World War II.

"There's actually a tremendous amount of stuff that's still left out there," BLM archaeologist Rolla Queen said.

"The archaeological remnants of the camp are pretty spectacular. "If you really want to experience what World War II was like, the battlefield experience, the Desert Training Center is probably the closest you can come to it without leaving the United States."

Less than a month after the Japanese, in a shocking attack on Pearl Harbor, had thrust the U.S. into World War II, the War Department saw a need for a specialized training center to organize, train and equip troops to operate in difficult terrain.

The Germans were moving through the deserts of North Africa, threatening to meet up with the Japanese fighting in India. If they joined forces and supply lines, the Axis powers would be in position to attack the Soviet Union from the east, west and south - a possible point of no return for the Allied forces.

The crisis forced top allied leaders to take action. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed Nazi advances could be blunted by Americans trained in desert warfare and then shipped to fight in North Africa.

On Feb. 5, 1942, Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair, chief of staff of the Army's General Headquarters, approved the concept of the Desert Training Center. One of his first moves: Giving command of the facility to Maj. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

'A pint of sweat'

The ex-cavalryman was the nation's first expert in armor warfare. He chose the location for the center in the Southern California desert within a few days.

"This was an area that was just massive," said retired Army Brig. Gen. David C. Henley, a part-time Rancho Mirage resident and author of "The Land that God Forgot - The Saga of Gen. George Patton's Desert Training Camps."

"It was sandy with valleys, rocks, gorges. The summer temperature goes up to 120. In the winter, it gets down to freezing. It paralleled the type of geography and weather we found in North Africa."

Patton's mantra was "a pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood." That creed defined the training center he created.

Soldiers lived in some 100,000 tents, not barracks. They slept on canvas cots or the ground.

They dealt with rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions - and the hard-driving demands of Patton.

Within a month, they were expected to run a mile through the desert in less than 10 minutes with full packs.

Soldiers were allowed one canteen of water a day in soaring summer temperatures.

"The whole idea was you're not going to get a PX (U.S. military base store), you're not going to get all of these amenities when you get to North Africa," said retired Army Lt. Col. Carlo D'Este. The noted World War II historian's books include the biography, "Patton: A Genius for War."

"It all goes back to the way Patton approached war - with proper training, his troops could prevail in any situation they could find themselves in. And to do that, you had to toughen them up."

Patton put it in his own colorful way: "If you can work successfully here, in this country, it will be no difficulty at all to kill the assorted sons of bitches you meet in any other country," he told officers.

This wasn't Hollywood

Charles Markovitz remembered feeling excited that his 6th Armored Division was leaving Fort Chaffee, Ark., for training in California in late fall 1942.

"Everybody was so happy - 'We're going to go to Hollywood,'" said Markovitz, now 87 and living in Hemet.

Their enthusiasm evaporated, however, when their train arrived at the one-building outpost of Rice. There, the men boarded trucks and were driven to Camp Coxcomb north of the small community of Desert Center.

"We dismounted and the officer in charge said, 'There's your new camp,'" Markovitz said.

"All you saw was desert. It was just a wasteland."

Freezing nights, blowing sand

Markovitz recalled nights of marching through the desert.

"We left at about 6 p.m. and marched all night," he said. "You'd march and get a five-minute break every hour. A 25-mile hike.

"When we got back to camp in the morning, we figured we'd have the whole day off. Hell, no. Without any sleep, we'd have to do our regular duties."

Though many soldiers went through the training center in oppressive summer heat, those there in the winter remember bitterly cold nights.

Palm Desert veteran Lyle Sparks remembered sleeping on the ground for three days in December 1942 at Camp Young, the training center's headquarters near Chiriaco Summit, while awaiting transfer to San Bernardino.

"We only got two blankets," he said. "I put paper down, my raincoat, got between my two blankets and short-sheeted myself so my feet wouldn't stick out. Fully dressed and still froze.

"Even though there were empty barracks near San Bernardino, they made us put tents up. They were preparing us to go overseas."

Christmas Day 1943, the troops at the center were looking forward to a special dinner - turkey and all the trimmings - when a huge windstorm hit, Markovitz said.

"The cooks had to set up a big canvas to block the wind while they were serving the food," he said. "We got the food in our mess kits, covered it up in our jackets and ran back to our tents. There were tents blowing over, sand in our food."

The camps were virtual cities in desert nothingness - more than 100,000 aligned tents creating road grids; 190,000 troops and 27,000 tanks and half-tracks at the training center's peak.

"I remember seeing the tanks take off below me in the desert, just a big cloud of dust," said Indio resident and World War II veteran Ben Beal, who served as company clerk for the Army's 487th Engineers.

Training Patton's best

Just months after forming the center, Patton was ordered to relinquish his command of the Desert Training Center and lead "Operation Torch." It was the English-American invasion of Nazi-held French North Africa.

Patton never returned to Indio. But he shared this message with his troops: "Having shared your labors, I know the extreme difficulties under which we worked and I know also how splendidly and self-sacrificingly you did your full duty.

"It was an unparalleled honor to have commanded such men."

By March 1943, the North African campaign for which the Desert Training Center was created neared an end.

But the center continued providing tough training to troops headed for Europe, Asia and other theaters around the world.

Preparations for the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, finally forced the center's closure due to a lack of available personnel.

The center ceased operating at midnight April 30, 1944.

Some of Patton's best desert-hardened troops accompanied him on his exploits throughout the war, said retired Army Col. Jerry Morelock, editor-in-chief of Armchair General Magazine.

The 4th Armored Division, dubbed "Patton's Best," trained for two years at the Desert Training Center and was the lead unit in Patton's Third Army's race across France in July and August 1944, Morelock said.

"Essentially the 4th Armored made Patton's reputation as a blitzkrieg-type armored commander," he said.

An officer under Patton's command, Col. Bruce C. Clarke, helped lead the way in the French campaign, Morelock said. Clarke was later promoted to Brigadier General and placed in charge of Combat Command B, 7th Armored Division, where he became known as the "hero of St. Vith" Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.

"I think much of Clarke's success as an armored commander can be tracked back directly to his time at the Desert Training Center," Morelock said.

As much as Patton put his imprint on the Desert Training Center, it impacted him as well, Henley said.

"Patton many times in his career said what he learned out in the desert with extreme temperatures, maintenance of vehicles in those conditions, helped him all the way through Europe," Henley said.

All told, 20 of the 87 divisions the Army used in World War II passed through the Desert Training Center. The young men who visited Southern California's desert went on to distinguish themselves in battles that now resonate in history.

Markovitz earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service. His 6th Armored Division joined the 4th on Patton's race through France. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

Beal landed on Utah beach shortly after D-Day and endured the bloody Battle of the Hedgerows.

Markovitz called his training in the desert "very useful" in his later wartime experience.

"It toughened us up," he said.

Patton had accomplished his desert mission.