By Mark Gutglueck
Little more than five months after the United States entered World War II General George Patton sojourned to the forbidding outback of San Bernardino County to establish a training and maneuver ground for Army soldiers to acclimate them to fighting in the desert.
An interesting sidelight to this is that Patton, who would go on to glory in North Africa, Sicily, France and Germany in 1943, 1944 and 1945, at one point was on the verge of utilizing the men under him in a defense of the North American continent in which he was to deploy to Mexico to rebuff a Japanese invasion there.
In January 1942, German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel was pushing his troops in a relentless drive toward Egypt, threatening the Suez Canal and Great Britain’s critical line of communication between West and East, its land holdings in the British Colonies in Asia and a key channel for the delivery in either direction of supplies and raw materials needed in the war effort.
America had just entered the war and Patton was acutely aware, as was his commanding officer, Lt. General Lesley J. McNair, Chief of Staff, General Headquarters, that the United States would soon be called upon to join their British allies in the North African campaign. Americans would be going up against a well-trained, well equipped and experienced enemy, well versed and accomplished in the use of tanks as a tactical weapon in the desert.
With American fighting men and their leaders having no experience or background in a desert campaign, McNair resolved to develop a strategy and capability to engage the Germans and halt their advance in Northern Africa. He assigned Major General George Smith Patton, Jr. to establish the Desert Training Center for the purpose of training men and machines for action under the brutal and unforgiving conditions of the African deserts.
With staff officers in tow, Patton flew over a vast expanse of the Mojave Desert and the Anza Borrego Desert in Southern California and deserts across the Arizona and Nevada borders. At spots where his plane set down, Patton mounted horses to reconnoiter the territory. He elected to utilize a vast portion of the East Mojave Desert stretching across into Arizona, approximately 18,000 square miles of some of the most rugged land in the country. This was to become the Desert Training Center, the largest military installation and maneuver area in the world. In his communication back to General Headquarters, Patton beamed that the spot he had chosen was “the best training area… I have ever seen . . . it is desolate and remote . . . large enough for any kind of training exercises.”
Patton was briefly detailed to another assignment, but he was back in early April to a place where already arriving troops describes as “a place God forgot.”
Unfamiliar with the desert, Patton consulted with Roy Chapman Andrews, an explorer who had made several expeditions to the Gobi Desert. He instructed his officers that it was his intention to make his men so at home at living in the desert that when they were sent oversees to any desert environment, it will be no difficulty at all to kill the assorted sons of bitches you meet in any other country.”
Patton subjected himself to the same conditions his men had to endure, shunning accommodations at an Indio hotel and at a ranch house where his wife, Beatrice lived. Determined to move rapidly, Patton had the Desert Training Center operational by mid-April. Within four days of his arrival, Patton had the troops under his command engaged in a desert march. By the 15th day of his command all units at the center had been on a desert march……Within 23 days, he had conducted 13 tactical exercises, including some with two nights in the desert. Within a month after arrival, every man sent to the Desert Training Center had to be able to run a mile in 10 minutes, wearing a full back pack and carrying a rifle.
Conditions were primitive. Some of the bivouacs wooden floors, but there was no electricity, no sheets for their cots, and none of the amenities common to other stateside military installations. Water was a problem. Patton wanted the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles to provide water to his men. District managers instead suggested that the men build storage tanks for water. Patton told the utility managers that his men “have no time to do anything except learn to fight.”
The harsh conditions and Patton’s unrelenting drive to build a fighting unit created tremendous hardship for the troops, but they recognized such toughness was necessary and the training would stand them in good stead to fight and survive in the environment they would soon encounter.
On June 3, 1942, Patton was given information about a Japanese expeditionary force on the High Seas heading toward the West Coast. Accompanying that information were indications the force was coming to invade Mexico, which had joined the Allies on May 22, 1942. Believing the Japanese would land on the beaches of Baja California to move north and capture San Diego, Patton had his troops on high alert for three days in which the were poised to move within minutes to meet the invading Japanese at the tip of the Gulf of California. Ultimately, however, the Japanese invasion fleet eventually landed on Kiska Island in the Aleutians on June 6.
Four months after he founded the Desert Training Center, Patton was summoned to Washington and then dispatched overseas to start planning Operation Torch, the North African campaign which was to be decisive in Allied victory. Only a small portion of the million men that trained at the Desert Training Center during World War II served while he was commander there. But his legacy lives on and at this point, more than 72 years later, it has served as the training ground for more than a million troops in seven armored divisions and thirteen infantry divisions.
By Mark Gutglueck