Sands of War: Patton’s Desert Training Center on Film

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Matt C. Bischoff is currently a state historian with California State Parks and has worked in a variety of settings throughout the West, including with several consulting firms, on a U.S. Air Force base, as an expert witness, and now as a production advisor and on screen “talent.”

Matt C. Bischoff is currently a state historian with California State Parks and has worked in a variety of settings throughout the West, including with several consulting firms, on a U.S. Air Force base, as an expert witness, and now as a production advisor and on screen “talent.”

Once it became clear that Americans would be fighting in the deserts of North Africa during World War II, a suitable place to train them was essential. The celebrated armor commander, General George S. Patton Jr., was called upon to identify and develop such a place. He found it in the Colorado and Mojave Deserts of southern California. Largely uninhabited, with extremely rugged terrain and climate, this was the perfect place to “harden” American troops for what they would face when confronting the more experienced Axis troops. The Desert Training Center (DTC) opened in spring 1942 and expanded far beyond its original borders and scope before it closed in 1944. It covered approximately 18,000 acres including much of the southern California deserts, the southern tip of Nevada, and a significant portion of western Arizona. Even after the successful end of the North African campaign in May 1943, training in the DTC continued to mimic wartime conditions, with none of the comforts offered by established military bases. Soldiers lived in temporary tent camps while being subject to strict rationing of water and other supplies. Large unit training maneuvers covered large swaths of the desert.

Today, most of the land encompassing the training grounds is overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Surprisingly, despite its temporary and ephemeral nature, there are many remains from the massive facility. Camp alignments remain clear in many places; unit symbols spelled out with rocks are still visible; airstrips can be spotted; and mock battlefields mark the landscape in key strategic locations.

Over the past 10 years, with the push for more “green” energy, the rush to use the desert for large-scale solar power generation has truly accelerated. These solar power projects have had enormous impacts on natural and cultural resources, including the remains of Patton’s training center. In this case, a mitigation agreement worked out between regulators and solar energy companies required that a film be produced to document this little-known historical site. Full Frame Productions from San Francisco, a firm with a broad array of educational documentaries in their repertoire along with a variety of other production experience, won the contract and the short film they created, entitled Sands of War, will air on PBS affiliates across the country during Memorial Day weekend. It is also available for viewing on-line.

DTC-mapFull Frame hired me as a production advisor, based upon my experience with the archaeological remains of the DTC. I had worked with the BLM for several years to document the site, writing and publishing several reports and interpretive plans. For years I had hoped that something would be done to highlight this significant training facility and its place in World War II. My research, primarily in the National Archives (where the Army Ground Forces records and numerous unit histories reside), demonstrates that the DTC played an important role in combat readiness for a variety of American units and gave many top commanders unparalleled experience. Nowhere else could commanders maneuver an entire corps over thousands of square miles. All sorts of challenges—soldier fatigue, mechanical breakdowns, supplying troops and maintaining communications with units spread out for miles—did not have to be simulated here; they were experienced in real time and living color.

Reporters, including war correspondent Robert Casey, witnessed these training exercises and one described a portion of a maneuver in the periodical Yank in September 1942:

First came the armored infantry, advancing in half-track troop carriers, leaping from their vehicles, storming enemy strong points with fixed bayonets, and knocking out enemy tank destroyers with their 37-mm guns. Then came their own tank destroyers—75’s with tremendous fire power, mounted on shielded half tracks, smashing the enemy tank formations sent out to meet them. Then came the heavy artillery, moving up into the front lines to blast the enemy’s fixed positions at point-blank range. Then came the swarms of tanks, smashing everything before them.

Looking back, many troops remarked on how the rigors of the California desert prepared them to face travails overseas. Their suffering while training in the desert showed them that they could handle anything, even freezing cold conditions in northern Europe.

DTC-chapel-aDocumentary film struck me as a perfect medium with which to educate the public about this “battlefield” in their backyard. Better yet, the Full Frame staff located several veterans who could share their experiences on camera about training in the desert as well as fighting the war in general. As most know, we are losing our World War II veterans rapidly and our direct, firsthand connections to this defining event of the twentieth century are fading fast. Films such as this preserve a sense of those connections.

Full Frame staff were fantastic to work with through the whole process and became fans of the DTC during the process as well. This place has been special to me for almost 20 years and in many cases their enthusiasm grew to match mine. Their commitment to accuracy was also refreshing. Building on my own archival research, they were able to use a training film made at the DTC in 1943, showing tanks and airplanes and ground troops all working together in mock battle. The footage also shows the more mundane, such as thousands of gas cans spread out on the ground ready to be refilled and distributed to motorized units waiting nearby. Full Frame producers also located contemporary archival footage to help tell the story better. They sought out high-quality digital images of historic photographs from a wide variety of archives across the country. Because there is so much to show and tell about this place and its historic context, editing the material down to a less-than-30-minute documentary proved a major challenge. A whole lot of good material had to be cut. Thankfully, the full-length interviews with veterans have already been archived at the Library of Congress as part of the Veterans History Project.

DTC-rockbordersIn the end it’s not just the veterans who survived this rugged place (not to mention the horrors of World War II) that shine as stars of the film. It’s the desert itself. It has a strange draw on many; it certainly does on me. Many veterans moved back to California after the war, and not all chose the cooler, coastal regions. Many chose to settle in the very deserts where they trained. Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and many small towns in between received veterans who had first experienced the lure of the desert during their wartime training.

It is quite an experience today to visit these places and think about what happened to the 18-year-old soldier from Arkansas or Kansas or Michigan who left behind the ration can you hold in your hand, the .30 caliber shell casing ejected from his M1, or the sweeping track of the M4 Sherman tank he was driving. What must these young soldiers have thought when they were first dropped off in this land that “God forgot,” and what did they go on to experience over the next several years? Hopefully Sands of War will lead another generation of budding historians to have that same sense of wonder and appreciation for what went on is this beautiful yet foreboding desert.

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