General Patton’s Coxcomb Desert Training Center (Joshua Tree National Park): Part I

 

In 1942, this region of the desert would have resembled a warzone.

In 1942, this region of the desert would have resembled a warzone.

 

In 1942, this region of the desert would have resembled a warzone – with thousands of men trampling the desert floor, tanks rolling across the open valley, and B-32 Dominators screaming through the air, dropping bombs on their targets.  War is hell they say, and training in this portion of the desert during the height of summer would have been nearly as hellish. Summer temperatures easily reach the 110’s , and relief from the sun would have been hard to find on land that the devil himself wouldn’t step foot on.

General Patton, and his soldier had balls of steels. Balls so hard that they endured training in this harsh land, before shipping off to North Africa to fight the Nazis in World War II. Why here you ask? Well Patton grew up in Southern California, and was familiar with this part of the desert, it was at his recommendation that training be held here due to the similarities in terrain and environment as that which would be faced in North Africa.

The Desert Training Center (California-Arizona Maneuver Area) consisted of hundreds of miles of desert lands in both California and Arizona. Eleven camps were built to house the over one-million men and women that trained here between March 1942, and April 30th 1944.  Those camps included Camp Young, Camp Coxcomb, Camp Iron Mountain, Camp Granite, Camp Essex, Camp Ibis, Camp Hyder, Camp Horn, Camp Laguna, Camp Pilot Knob and Camp Bouse.

While my knowledge of military history is limited, I had been aware of Camp Coxcomb – but not aware of the location is which training had actually taken place. I have also heard the stories of buried tanks, and bunkers – filled with automatic weapons, and explosives, abandoned by the military after the training facilities had closed.

Tanks and military Humvees roll across the desert.

Tanks and military Humvees roll across the desert.

It was during my recent backpacking trip in the Coxcomb Mountains that I first encountered the Camp Coxcomb training field, which now sits within the boundaries of the Joshua Tree National Park wilderness. This wilderness corridor is different from the usual pristine land which encompass wilderness lands, so much different that one has to wonder if “wilderness” was bestowed as a deterrent from visitation.  Hundreds of tank tracks, and old Jeep roads have scarred the landscape – and are clearly visible, seventy years after the training facilities closed.   Thousands of bullet casings, barbed wire, rusty c-ration cans, hand grenade and mortar canisters are scattered over miles and miles.

Is the abandoned training field a potential death trap? While I can’t say for certain, the potential is there. With so much spent material, one has to wonder if there could still be live ammunition, or explosives in the vicinity – buried under the sand, or tucked into a boulder stack at the base of the Coxcomb Mountains. One thing is for certain, the National Park Service isn’t talking about this historic location, which leads me to believe that it is enshrouded in secrecy.

Since the backpacking trip, myself and Desert Mike have made a return trip to further investigate the training field, as well as an interesting inscription which we had found on our initial trip.

 

"APR. 15. 1922. J.H. WAT. EAGLE. 1/2 mi. WE."

“APR. 15. 1922. J.H. WAT. EAGLE. 1/2 mi. WE.”

 

Allow me to first discuss the inscription, which I have previously not disclosed. The inscription was found at a boulder outcropping roughly a half mile from the base of the Coxcombs. It reads, “APR. 15. 1922. J.H. WAT. EAGLE. 1/2 mi. WE.”  There is also a well carved arrow, which points in the direction of a canyon to the north-west – yet the inscription says “WE”, which I would interpret as “west.” The canyon in which the arrows points, chokes out quickly. A half mile directly west of the boulder, is just open desert.

If the date of the inscription is accurate to the date of its creation, it predates the military training facility by twenty years. So what exactly is this inscription referring to?  We combed the area in all directions for nearly a mile around the mysterious inscription, and found nothing to add to the story. At this time we have concluded that this may be an early survey marker, as the earliest land surveys began in this region in the late 1800’s. If you have any potential information that could close this mystery, I’d love to hear from you.

 

Jim with the sign, which reads: "Finis. 4-30-32".

Jim with the sign, which reads: “Finis. 4-30-32”.

 

The sign as it was found.

The sign as it was found.

 

One of two possible soldier inscriptions, on the sign.

One of two possible soldier inscriptions, on the sign.

 

With the odd inscription out-of-the-way, we will now discuss a  sign which was found on our follow-up trip. Located on a hill-top, which contains significant evidence as use as a “stronghold,” we found a metal sign on a tall wooden poll. It was found lying face down in a blockade, painted in yellow on the sign is, “Finis. 4-30-32”.  Again the dating predates military use of the area, this time by 10 years.  There is also a pattern here of 10 year intervals.  The rock inscription is dated April 15th, 1922.  The sign is dated April 30th, 1932, and lastly though a month off, military training began in March of 1942. Closer inspection of the sign reveals that two possible soldiers added their inscriptions to the sign, and sure enough one of which is dated April 13th, 1942. Coincidence I am sure, but still a bit freaky.

On this hilltop we also found a half-dozen stone wall blockades – two of which contain built-in sights, in which the men would have placed their guns to shoot at oncoming enemy targets. Below the hill – tracks from tanks, and other military vehicles have engraved themselves into the fragile desert floor. For miles in every direction .30 and .50 caliber shell casings can be found.

 

Blockade with gun sight.

Blockade with gun sight.

 

.50 caliber shell casing.

.50 caliber shell casing.

 

Hand Grenade container lid.

Hand Grenade container lid.

 

A discarded clip.

A discarded clip.

 

Mortar canister lid.

Mortar canister lid.

 

Looking deeper we found discarded, but pristine, beer, and Welchade bottles – all of which can be dated to the time frame in which Patton’s men trained here.  I would assume that during training exercises, beverages of these sorts would not have been permitted in the “zone”. Leading me to believe that some tired soldiers may have snuck off to enjoy a fine beverage or two (anything to make hell a little more tolerable), out of the sight of their commanding officer.

 

1940's era "Welchade" bottles.

1940’s era “Welchade” bottles.

 

1940's era beer bottle.

1940’s era beer bottle.

 

Found in a nearby canyon is yet another inscription, it simply reads “Pat”. One could easily argue for or again the inscription having anything to do with General Patton. With so much activity having taken place here before the training center, “Pat” could be anyone – but it could also be for the great General, left here by one of the many men under his command.

Overall the battlefield is an intriguing area, with many relics sitting in the place in which they fell some seventy years ago. I now feel compelled to search out additional training/battle zones, and put together further stories of the Great General Patton.

 

The "Pat" inscription.

The “Pat” inscription.

 

 

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

4 Comments

  • When the solar and wind generation projects started a while back I spent several years walking a large portion of the CAMA as part of the teams that did the archeological surveying, testing and monitoring. It’s a fascinating area with a lot of history, historic and prehistoric. There’s a lot of Patton’s stuff still out there.

  • In the last doc I saw relating to it, the Feds suspected that there were still hundreds of acres with unexploded ordinance on land around Camp Coxcomb. Great post Jim! Love the photos.

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