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Conserving Military History at Chuckwalla NM

by Linda Castro




Most Americans, including most Californians, are unaware of the important role that the California deserts played in the outcome of World War II.  One of CalWild’s current campaigns seeks to designate as a national monument a significant portion of public lands that were key to the outcome of World War II (WWII). The proposed name of the national monument is the Chuckwalla National Monument and, if designated, it will help safeguard this important part of our nation’s history.


A few months after the U.S. entered WWII, the U.S. Army developed 18,000 square miles of the California and Arizona deserts into an Army training facility.  Operating between 1942 and 1944, the facility was originally intended to prepare troops for battle in the North African deserts and was therefore given the name of the Desert Training Center (DTC).  It was later expanded in size and scope and became known as the Desert Training Center/California-Arizona Maneuver Area (DTC/C-AMA) in 1943 to reflect its new role as a maneuver area.


The DTC/C-AMA represents an important part of our nation’s history, even though it was only in use for a relatively short period of time.  More than one million men were trained at the facility, roughly 10 percent of all U.S. servicemen who served in WWII. 


Artifacts and features from those historic years can still be found today throughout the California desert, including remnants of divisional camps, airfields, railways, and maneuver areas, as well as less permanent features, such as tank tracks.


Facility Establishment and Operation


By the end of January 1942, with Axis victories in North Africa, the War Plans Division of the U.S. War Department recommended the training of troops specifically for desert warfare. However, given that the U.S. Army had never fought a large-scale war on the type of terrain found in North Africa, Major General George S. Patton, Jr. was placed in charge of finding a location for a training center that would prepare American soldiers for desert warfare.


In March 1942, Patton and several members of his staff toured the desert of eastern California and western Arizona by air, horseback, and foot to assess its terrain. After this scouting expedition, Patton concluded that the region’s mountains, vegetation, climate, and lack of population would make an ideal place to train troops.


The DTC formerly consisted of that portion of the Mojave Desert from roughly east of Indio, California to the Colorado River and from Yuma, Arizona north to Searchlight, Nevada. 


In March 1942, Patton sent an advance party to establish the first camp in the DTC, called Camp Young. The DTC was officially opened on April 30, 1942. 


While the division camps typically housed up to 15,000 soldiers, the DTC/C-AMA was built so hurriedly that there was little time to construct permanent buildings to accommodate those soldiers.  Initially, the facility’s only permanent structures were open-air altars and large relief maps that were constructed at some of the divisional camps. All other structures were temporary in nature, including shower buildings, latrines, wooden tent frames, amphitheaters, water-storage tanks, and firing ranges. 


By early 1943, the campaign in North Africa was ending.  With less need for desert combat training, the concept of the DTC was modified to serve the purpose of large-scale training and maneuvering.  The name of the facility was changed, in October 1943, to California-Arizona Maneuver Area (C-AMA) to better represent this expansion in purpose.


The vast expanses of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts allowed the Army to move long distances, in realistic preparation for what they would have to accomplish in Europe.  Because of the isolation of the area, their movements were not constrained by towns or large numbers of civilians, so live-fire exercises could be conducted without fear of harming civilians.


The DTC/C-AMA began suffering personnel shortages, particularly in such service specialists as those in communications and transportation.  These specialists were needed overseas, and relatively few could be spared for the DTC/C-AMA.  The Army decided to shut down the facility because of its inefficient operation.  The War Department declared the facility “surplus” and officially closed it on April 1, 1944.  All equipment and material that could be removed was, and the campsites were closed. Most of the facility was eventually turned over to the U.S. Department of the Interior and private landowners. 


After the official closure of the DTC/C-AMA, the facility continued to operate nominally for several years, as equipment and materials were collected and shipped to other locations.  Italian prisoners of war, captured in North Africa, were used to assist in dismantling some of the camps, including Camp Young.


Immediately north of the proposed national monument, near the former Camp Young, a memorial for General Patton and the DTC/C-AMA was established in May 1985 at the General Patton Memorial Museum in Chiriaco Summit.  The memorial consisted of a triangular monument, built to resemble the triangular patch worn by the men of the armored divisions.  In 1986, a museum was established at Chiriaco Summit (formerly Shaver’s Summit) to honor the men who served at the DTC/C-AMA, particularly General Patton.  [AI1] 


On November 11, 1988, the Bureau of Land Management (in cooperation with E Clampus Vitus Billy Holcomb Chapter, the Fourth Armored Division Association, the Fifth Armored Division Association, and the 104th Infantry Division Association) placed a second memorial for General Patton and the DTC/C-AMA in the area known as Camp Young. This memorial lies within the boundaries of the proposed national monument and can be seen today.



Divisional Camps Within the Proposed Chuckwalla National Monument


The number of divisional camps varied, but at its height the DTC contained 14 (11 in California and 3 in Arizona).  The camps were generally designed for a full division each (housing up to 15,000 soldiers and sometimes more). The proposed monument holds the remnants of two DTC divisional camps, Camp Coxcomb and Camp Young.  


While the divisional camps are typically the most well-known and longest lasting remnants of the DTC/C-AMA, the primary mission of the facility was not accomplished in the divisional camps.   Troops did not come out to the desert to remain in their camps, but rather, spent much time in the field, training, and maneuvering.


Camp Young is located primarily north of Interstate 10 at the northern boundary of the proposed national monument where it meets Joshua Tree National Park.  It is located near the center point of the proposed national monument, approximately 30 miles east of Indio, California.   Interstate 10, which did not exist at the time Camp Young was in existence, passes through the southwestern corner of the camp today.


Camp Young was established in late March 1942, under the direction of General Patton.  Camp Young was the first divisional camp to be inhabited and it served as the headquarters of the DTC/C-AMA.


After the Camp was expanded in size in the fall of 1942, the Camp extended from approximately what is now Cottonwood Springs Road on the west to the community of Shaver’s Summit (now known as Chiriaco Summit) on the east.  It was bounded to the south by Highway 60/70 which was a precursor to Interstate 10.  Joshua Tree National Monument (which is now Joshua Tree National Park) was at the Camp’s northern boundary.


Camp Coxcomb is in a separate unit of the proposed Chuckwalla National Monument, approximately 20 miles north of Interstate 10 and north/northeast of Desert Center, California.  It is also located about 30 miles east of what was the original eastern boundary of Camp Young.


The Camp was established to the north of modern-day Interstate 10, south of what is now California Highway 62, and west of what is now California Highway 177.  The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s aqueduct and Joshua Tree National Monument were to the west of, and adjacent to, the Camp.


If you haven’t yet expressed support for the designation of the Chuckwalla National Monument, please sign our coalition’s petition: