Desert Training Center/California-Arizona Maneuver Area 80th Anniversary Commemoration

Story and photos by BLM Outreach and Partnership Development Specialist Doran Sanchez. Historical photos courtesy of the General Patton Memorial Museum.

This month, Americans commemorate the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Desert Training Center/California–Arizona Maneuver Area (DTC/C-AMMA), which represents a critical time and place in our nation’s history. Today, DTC/C-AMMA public lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) California Needles Field Office.

Desert training center map. The DTC is the largest military training and maneuvering area in the world, covering 18,000 square miles in southern California and western Arizona.

During World War II, in February 1942, the United States Army assigned General George S. Patton Jr. to advance tank warfare in the desert and train American soldiers for combat in the harshest desert conditions possible. In early March, Patton and his officers surveyed the southwestern United States and established the boundaries of the Desert Training Center. The Desert Training Center encompassed 18,000 square miles of rugged, desolate, and largely uninhabited terrain in the Mojave and Colorado deserts of southern California, western Arizona, and southern Nevada, making it makes the largest military instillation and maneuver area in the world. Patton identified sites for twelve divisional camps within the Desert Training Center. The camps were massive tent cities arranged in grids, three miles long by one mile wide, and could house more than 15,000 soldiers at a time.

American soldiers began arriving at the desert training center in early April 1942. Conditions were primitive, with no running water or electricity except at the command center. Desert temperatures were extreme. For the troops, these camps were home for the next few months. The soldiers took pride in their areas and they spelled out the symbols of unity in the rocks, swept the streets and created vast alignments of rocks.

Historical image of army tents in the desert.

Iron Mountain Divisional Camp: Soldiers took pride in their specific camp and created extensive rock alignments along roads, streets, driveways, and around living quarters.
Essex Divisional Camp contained a 500,000 gallon reservoir built by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide water to support DTC troops and operations. (Photo by Doran Sanchez)

The training regime at the Desert Training Center was tough. Soldiers endured hand-to-hand combat, live-fire drills, demanding day and night marches, and at least one 24-hour exercise with little food and water. Scorching heat, freezing nights and howling desert sandstorms left the camps a mess and covered everything in sand. Combined with flash floods, snakes and scorpions, the soldiers were pushed to their limits. Training at the Desert Training Center transformed the young men into strong, hardened soldiers.

The average tour for desert warfare training was 14 weeks, during which most soldiers adapted to the rigors of the desert. Patton refused to take men into battle until they had had at least six weeks of desert warfare training and survival.

Patton had over 38,000 armored vehicles and support equipment, and wanted to be able to train tanks, infantry, artillery and air support simultaneously in one location. The vastness of the desert was perfect for conducting brigade-level live-fire operations. The maneuvers could involve up to 30,000 troops, coordinated with hundreds of tanks and numerous aircraft over a vast landscape.

Tank gunners practice firing 30 caliber machine guns at aircraft in a mock battle. (Photo courtesy of General Patton Memorial Museum)
With little food and water, soldiers endured demanding day, night and 24-hour marches in preparation for war in the scorching deserts of North Africa. (Photo courtesy of General Patton Memorial Museum)

In mid-1943, the main mission of the Desert Training Center changed. Troops originally trained for desert warfare were now deployed around the world. In October 1943, the Army changed the training center’s name to Desert Training Center/California-Arizona Maneuver Area.

Between April 1942 and April 1944, more than one million soldiers and 60 armored, infantry and artillery divisions, fighter pilots and heavy bomber squadrons trained at the Desert Training Center/California-Arizona Maneuver Area . They participated in what is considered to be the most realistic war games under the harshest conditions imaginable. In a sense, many battles of World War II were won on these desert lands.

Following the surrender of Japan, the United States Army decommissioned the California-Arizona Desert Training Center/Maneuver Area in April 1944, ending the largest simulated theater of operations in military maneuver history. On January 14, 1947, the U.S. Army returned to the Department of the Interior almost all of the land withdrawn by the Federal Army acquired for the California-Arizona Desert Training Center / Maneuver Area – most of which is public land managed by the BLM.

The echoes of war have died down now. . . but not forgotten. Discolored chariot tracks and airstrips, ghostly tent city grids, rocky roads and streets, crumbling altars and foundations serve as silent guardians of the enormity and importance of what happened on the desolate lands of the American deserts.

Soldiers built religious altars such as the Catholic Altar at Iron Mountain Divisional Camp, indicating that religion was an important part of their military and survival training.

The BLM honors and celebrates this critical chapter in American history and continues to share this important piece of history with current and future generations.

Note: The BLM is dedicated to preserving the remaining features of these historically significant sites through protection and interpretation for the benefit of future generations. When visiting these or other historic sites in the desert, please leave all historic items as you found them, so they can be enjoyed by those following you.

For more information on DTC/C-AMA, please visit our website at:

https://www.blm.gov/documents/arizona-california/public-room/brochure/desert-training-center-california-arizona-maneuver

Milton S. Rodgers