I’m not one for guns. I’ve no great interest in tanks. But I will admit to a certain fascination with war. Travelling east on the I-10 from Palm Desert on our way to Williams AZ, we stopped off at Chiriaco Summit for breakfast and noticed that the truck stop is also home to the General Patton Memorial Museum. The gas station, the restaurant, and the museum are a family business and have been owned and operated by the Chiriaco family since 1933 (the museum opened in 1988).
Alabama-man Joe Chiriaco visited CA in 1927 to see his state team play Stanford in the Rose Bowl. He fell in love with California and stayed. I can only imagine that telegram to his mother. When his job as a water surveyor with the LA Bureau of Water and Power sent him to the desert – to Shaver Summit – he fell in love, again. He quit his job and bought the site which is now known as Chiriaco Summit. With his ear to the ground, Chiriaco paid attention to whispers about a new road to be laid between Indio and Phoenix. He started building. The gas station and general store opened 15 August 1933. A year later, Chiriaco fell in love for the third time and married Ruth Bergseid, a Norwegian nurse from Minnesota who had also come East to work at the hospital in Indio. Business boomed. Roads meant cars and trucks and cars and trucks meant drivers who need refuelling along with their vehicles.
In early 1992, under the command of General George S. Patton, the Desert Training Centre (DTC) was established at Camp Young, right by Joe’s place. And when the troops descended, his was the only place they could go off base. Years later, Margit Chiriaco Rusche would work with the Bureau of Land Management to establish the General Patton Memorial Museum, which first opened its doors in 1988.
General Patton Memorial Museum
The wealth of information on display brings to life the career of the General and the sheer scale of the desert training that he initiated in preparation for a heads-on with Rommel in the African Desert. In the 26-minute video shown, one of the former soldiers told of how they graduated from big tents to pup tents to hard ground. Life wasn’t easy but to a man, when they got to where they were going, they were glad of their training.
The Matzner tank pavilion is home to lots of stuff including a 2.5 ton Japanese Cadillac and an M60 turret. One of the tanks is set up so that you can climb up and sit inside. All I could think of were sitting ducks – way too small an enclosure for my liking. Out in the tank yard, other tanks on show include the almost mass-produced Sherman tank, the most popular model of WWII. It was pouring rain. The red soil had turned to mud. But I hadn’t come this far not to have a look around. Mind you, not on a good day could I tell one tank from the other but they were quite the sight to behold.
The documentary video shown in the General Patton Memorial Museum had mentioned two altars at Camp Iron Mountain, one Protestant, the other Catholic. Men of the cloth of each persuasion would say mass, outdoors, for the troops. The altars still stand but given the unseasonable rain, we thought it best not to try – even though part of me really wanted to see the reality this replica is based on. Next time, I’ll come in April.
The War Department utilised over 18,000 square miles of desolate land in southeastern California and western Arizona where it trained over a half million soldiers on desert warfare tactics and survival in extreme conditions. For two years, 13 infantry divisions and 7 armoured divisions marched and drove over the vast desert landscape. This massive training ground consisted of 13 divisional camps and numerous railroad sidings, ammunition dumps, hospitals, airfields and quartermaster depots. By May 1943, the German Afrika Korps had been defeated and desert training was no longer a necessity. However, training lasted for another year until it was officially closed in April, 1944.
Perhaps most fascinating for me was that I hadn’t realised that General Patton died in a car crash or that there were whispers of suspicion around his death. Military historian Robert Shipman, in his 2008 book Target Patton, claims that Old Blood and Guts (Patton) was assassinated on the order of General ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan. Mad. Second in the line of fascinations is that all this is so recent. People alive still remember training here. And locals, like Madison Payne, are still driving the same truck they were back then.
I missed out on the Remembrance Walls at the General Patton Memorial Museum (an excuse to go back). But we were already two hours behind schedule and the rain was showing no sign of easing. Museums like these make road trips in the USA one of the best ways to travel. The freedom to explore is something not to be taken for granted. But never once, had you asked me what I’d be doing on Valentine’s Day, would I have said – ogling tanks in the Colorado Desert. The museum is open seven days a week 9 am to 4.30 pm (except for Christmas and Thanksgiving). Admission is $10 ($8 for seniors). Count on losing a couple of hours here (especially if it’s not raining). Well worth stopping or detouring for.