Developing an Interpretive Site at a WWII Dessert Warfare Training

On This Page Navigation

This is a transcript of a presentation at the Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: World War II to the Cold War, June 4-6, 2019, held in Fredericksburg, TX. Watch a non-audio described version of the presentation on YouTube.

Camp Laguna, Arizona

Presenter: William J. Heidner


War was being fought in North Africa. US troops were preparing for it, and the areas of the desert Southwest were ideal training grounds. MG George S. Patton Jr. declared this [Desert Training Center] to be ‘…the largest and best training ground in the US’” (Meller 1946, 3). LTG Leslie McNair, Commander of the Army Ground Forces, was pleased with the training facilities, calling them “our best training agency for both combat and service units” (Meller 1946, 44).

McNair later ordered the center to expand and be renamed the California – Arizona Maneuver Area (C-AMA). MG Walton Walker, who commanded during the expansion, understood the requirement; “It is our job to rehearse for war, to bring these units to a state of perfection that will be demanded of them by actual warfare, the perfection necessary to win battles” (W.E.B.S. 1984:7). Walker’s Chief of Staff echoed his boss’s sentiment; “We don’t have to simulate problems of supply in the desert. They already exist… We hope to make our troops so tough that the ‘real McCoy’ will come easy. This is war – all but!” (W.E.B.S. 1984, 11).

Camp Laguna was the first of 4 Arizona camps, hosting 3 Infantry Divisions in turn. The DTC/C-AMA trained 25 Divisions and over 1.5 million men. By early 1944, most of the communications and transportation specialists had deployed overseas. McNair, recognizing the degraded experience, closed the C-AMA. Left behind by time, areas of Camp Laguna remain relatively untouched by modernity. Rock lined pathways look much like they did at the time of closure.

Today, Campsite Laguna and many of its training ranges are within the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG). YPG’s land is under the care of the Cultural Resource Manager, part of Environmental Sciences. For purposes of preservation, safety, and security, the remaining un-touched footprint of Camp Laguna is off limits.

For years, the AZ Historical Preservation Office (SHPO) has urged YPG to offer interpretive opportunities to the public. There have been many efforts to preserve (CRM) and interpret (Museum) the archaeology, history and heritage of Camp Laguna and the DTC/C-AMA. The revitalization of YPG’s Heritage Center included galleries dedicated to the C-AMA and to Camp Laguna. SHPO was hoping for more.

As is often the case, a problem presented an opportunity. When the Army initiated enhanced security screening, plans were drawn for a new Visitor Control Center (VCC). The VCC was to be located within the Brooks’ interpretive area which contains 21 Macro artifacts, trails and an interpretive Kiosk. However, the initial location did not meet anti-terrorism standards for stand-off from parking areas, and moving the site further south brought it into an area of Camp Laguna that had not been cleared for such activity. Did the SHPO have veto power over that site encroachment?

Our presentation will illustrate how Cultural Resource Management and the Museum worked together to meet the needs of the key stake holders. The VCC was built with new exhibits featuring the interpretation of Camp Laguna and a better visitor experience. Everyone was very pleased.

Balding white male with glasses, mustache and goatee wearing a light gray jacket, blue shirt, and dark gray tie.
William J. Heidner, Museum Curator, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Museum and Heritage Center of the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground


William Heidner: The year 1942 found America at war, even though the rest of the world had been at war for over two years or more. Recovering from the shock of the attack on Pearl Harbor, our strategic goals were to be centered on a Europe-first policy. This quickly turned into a North Africa first affair. War was already being fought in North Africa. US troops were preparing for it and the areas of the desert southwest were ideal training grounds. Major General George S. Patton Jr. declared this Desert Training Center to be "the largest and best training ground in the United States."

My presentation and our cultural resource manager, Erin Goslin, was supposed to be here with me but she couldn't make it. Our presentation will focus on a much more recent mission undertaken by the US Army, Yuma Proving Ground, hereafter known as YPG, on land that was once part of this historic training area, Camp Laguna. We'll now take a look at it.

As any land managing agency will tell you, it can be difficult to balance the needs of the tenant organizations with cultural preservation law. The United States Army is no different. In 2014, the US Army initiated enhanced security screening at all army bases. This required the Yuma Proving Ground to construct a new building to house the Visitor Control Center. That facility had to exist outside the secured fenced areas of the installation. The garrison staff quickly settled on the most likely location that would fit their mission requirements.

However, the location they selected fell within an archaeological site of importance to regional and national history. This presentation outlines the process and the negotiations that occurred between the various stakeholders to bring the Visitor Control Center to a final completion. But first, we're going to go back into history a little bit.

Black and white photo of man coveralls wearing a leather helmet, goggles, and binoculars standing near a M3 tank.
MG George S. Patton Jr. shoots a magnetic azimuth next to his M3 Stuart Light Tank at the Desert Training Center.

When the people of Indio, California asked George Patton, why was he acquiring all of this lovely desert terrain? Patton responded with a statement he expressed to his staff. From that point on, the public perception was that the activities in the Desert Training Center were to be directly related to the pending invasion of North Africa. In fact, there was much more to it than that. The new facility was also to be used to develop doctrine, tactics, techniques that our newly formed armored and mechanized forces would use. It was also there to help develop and test new equipment.

Patton's First Armored Corp was to be the first training unit through the DTC. The idea was that each corps commander would come in, and he would be dual-hatted as both the Corps commander and the Desert Training Center commander and complete a proposed 14-week training schedule and then get replaced by another Corps. The three divisions initially of the Corps, later it would grow to five divisions, would encamp and train at divisional camps.

These camps, set up within the DTC, were named for the nearest servicing railheads. Camp Young, the headquarters for the DTC, was named for the Army's first chief of staff. It would serve as the headquarters for both Desert Training Center and for the Corps. Patton mandated that the camps were to be spartan consisting mainly of tents. There was to be little in the way of improvements. This included a ban on the use of concrete pads.

After Patton left the DTC, exceptions were begrudgingly made in the case of food preparation sites and hospital facilities. Initially established a maneuver area A, this area stretched from Yuma, Arizona in the south to Searchlight, Nevada in the north. Indio, California was just to the west and the eastern boundary was the Colorado River. On the eastern side of the Colorado would be area E, B. This would serve initially as a free-fire zone. After all, this is the Wild West.

Later it would host several divisional camps at the training center, expanded its mission in the mode of operation. Area C, located east of the river near Needles, California, would be established as a location for the training and tactical river crossings.

Patton understood the purpose was to train and the training was meant to be tough and as spartan and as realistic as possible. While developing new tactics and testing new equipment had potential to yield great results, training was Patton's primary focus. He stated that formation and materiel are of very secondary nature to discipline, the ability to shoot rapidly and accurately and with the proper weapon at the proper target and the irresistible desire to close with the enemy.

He saw the harshness of the desert to be an adjunct at training, especially a way to fully test the men and to fully test their leaders at their limits. Patton told his staff, "If you can work successfully here in this country, it will be no difficulty at all to kill the assorted SOBs you will meet in any other country." By the end of April 1942, the DTC was open for business.

The training program they followed was known, still known today actually, as the crawl-walk-run method. A six-week program was initially established for the troops at the DTC that focused on individual skills and small unit operations. Physical conditioning and acclimatization were of primary importance during this period of training. Teamwork and junior leader skills were often emphasized during subsequent training periods.

As time went on, training focus would move to increasingly larger units. Men and leaders would become familiar with the capabilities of their crew-served weapon systems to include artillery, tanks, and close air support. At the end of this period, a large-scale exercise was conducted between the divisions of the Corps, which included force-on-force exercises, mock battles between the divisions. Lieutenant General Leslie McNair, commander of army ground forces, was pleased with the training facilities, calling them our best training agency for both combat and service units.

McNair would order the Center to expand east of the Colorado River and be renamed the California-Arizona maneuver area. In part, this was to break off the connection between desert warfare and desert training. By this point, it was clear that nobody who was training at the Desert Training Center was going to go fight in North Africa. In fact, one of the great ironies, in fact, any of you who served in the army will understand this completely.

One of the first units that trained in the desert were sent to the Aleutians. One of the second units trained in the Desert Training Center was sent to Hawaii for service in the Pacific theater. If you can imagine, people actually started to cop an attitude. Can you imagine that, soldiers copping an attitude?

The attitudes kind of went like this. "Well, if we're not going to go fight in the stinking desert then why are we still sitting in this stinking desert?" McNair's answer was desert training is merely an incident to desert fighting. It is as Patton said, "Vast, remote, the perfect terrain and the perfect area to train a Corps," which was now going to expand to five divisions.

Remember, each division was about 15,000 men. That's a lot of period. A lot of people to put through. Including the new doctrinally correct communication zone, the new area would encompass over 87,500 miles, square miles. Camp Laguna was the first of the Arizona camps, the divisional camps in the newly expanded DTC. In the one year that the Arizona portion of the C-AMA was most active. C-AMA stood for the California-Arizona Maneuver Area.

Three infantry divisions trained at Camp Laguna. Three more infantry divisions, including the 104th Division, which you just saw come out of Camp Adair, trained in East County, Yuma County. Service of supply units from the Army service forces were now required to operate in the communication zone, an area that extended west to Pomona, California, and east nearly to Phoenix. From within this doctrinally established zone, support was pushed to the camps of the Corps arriving at, training within, and departing from the C-AMA.

The DTC was now functioning as the desert theater of operations. Training area A, the one that was formerly known as the Desert Training Center, would be known as the combat zone. Operations within this zone were to be conducted as if this were a live theater of war. Areas B and C were still dedicated to other training to include the previously mentioned free-fire zones, to better train live fire and all of the divisions' organic weapons systems.

Yes. We have UXO. Surrounding this area, everywhere, in fact. Surrounding this area, although mostly expanded on an east-to-west line, was the newly formed zone of communications. Headquartered initially in Banning, California, the communication zone would control all of the services of supply. Colton, California served as a key control area. Post office and ordinance depot were built in Pomona. San Bernardino, California would serve as a replacement depot and provide additional support services.

From the headquarters in Banning, subordinate staff offices and supply hubs were established in Coachella, Needles, Camp Young, and Yuma. Major General Walton Walker who commanded the center during the expansion understood the new training requirements. He had come to the Desert Training Center with the Third Armored Division, the first division to be wholly formed at the Desert Training Center. At the time, part of Alvan Gillem's Second Armored Corp.

At the end of their rotation, he was told to go ahead and stay put. He was going to be promoted to be the corps commander of the newly formed Fourth Corps, which shortly thereafter would be re-designated the 20 Corps. While McNair would praise Patton for establishing the DTC, he reserved much of his praise for Walker.

In addition to overseeing the expansion of the DTC and the establishment of the theater of operations training concept, Walker brought the crawl-walk-run principle to a more refined state. Walker's deputy commander, addressing the daunting challenge of providing service and supply to units in a realistic manner, said the following. He said, "We do not have to simulate the problems of supply in the desert. They already exist. War merely intensifies them." He says, "We hope to make our troops so tough that the real McCoy will come easy. This is war all but, and it's a mighty small change from all but to all out."

However, as we were getting prepared to more and more increasingly send units overseas, training operations had already been negatively impacted during the 5th training rotation with the 15th Corps, Major General Wade Haislip commanding. This was due to personnel shortages, particularly within the service of supply areas. Of particular note, most of the communications and transportation specialists had been sent overseas in preparation for the Normandy invasion.

During Major General Alexander Patch's training rotation, General McNair, recognizing the degraded training experiences these shortages caused, decided to close the C-AMA. Major General Jonathan Anderson would command the last corps-level maneuvers with the 104th Infantry Division and the 80th Infantry Division as participants. The 80th Infantry Division of Camp Laguna was the last unit to depart in April of '44.

This map is a depiction of the Desert Training Center and the California-Arizona Maneuver Area and shows the outline within area B of the US Army Yuma Proving Ground, all 956,000 acres of it. A 1995 study prepared for the proving ground in order to showcase their accomplishments and interesting aspects focused on a wide range of historical activities.

The Northland Corporation recommended an interpretive site just to the west of the intersection of Highway 95 and Imperial Dam Road, location of YPG's iconic roadside attraction known as the big guns. The 1995 report noted that the proposed site was adjacent to Camp Laguna, when in fact, their proposed site was right in the middle of the cantonment area, and here I'm using the same definition of cantonment area. That area where the troops were housed.

This area would become known as the Wahner Brooks Interpretive site in honor of a long-serving engineer at the Yuma Proving Ground. The interpretive focus based initially as much on the availability of artifacts as anything else would be on the test missions conducted at the proving ground. An information kiosk was also developed that would use graphics to highlight periods of regional history. Drawing from the 1986 SHPO report titled the Arizona Comprehensive Preservation Plan, Resource Analysis and Overview, themes and sub-themes for the kiosk was created that included prehistoric trade networks and, of course, a focus on the nearby trails associated with those networks.

Also, talked about the role of mining and settlements in the area, military camps, and military personages. This interpretive theme was changed in 2010 when the graphics were updated to reflect the four main periods associated with the Yuma Proving Ground. First with the Desert Training Center and C-AMA, in particular, Camp Laguna. Second, the Yuma test branch of the engineered development board. Three, the Yuma test station from the 50s into the 60s, and then four, the US Army Yuma Proving Ground from '64 to present.

When the army initiated camp security screening at all army bases, plans were quickly drawn up for the new Visitor Control Center to be plopped right in the middle of the Wahner Brooks Interpretive area. Containing 21 micro artifacts didn't seem to matter. They felt I could probably easily move two or three of them to make room in the middle of the display. This was selected as the proposed site for the VCC.

Then, another problem loomed. The initial location did not meet new standards of standoff from parking areas. I thought my historic display had gotten a reprieve, but instead, they planned on pushing the whole thing further south, which brought it into an area of Camp Laguna that had not previously been cleared for such activity. This was potentially a show stopper. However, as is often the case an apparent problem, instead presented us with an opportunity.

For quite some time, resource managers had noted a loss of historic resources at campsites of the DTC and C-AMA. Like the 85 BLM report quoted here, subsequent publications focused almost exclusively on the California camps saying almost nothing about the Arizona camps. The 85 BLM report hints at a possible reason. It States due to political and geographic boundaries separating these Arizona camps from the others mentioned in this plan, no specific recommendations are made for their preservation or management. Opportunities exist though for incorporating these camps into the overall interpretive effort. Coordination with the Phoenix District concerning this effort is ongoing.

Matt Bischoff's second volume on the DTC and C-AMA titled was, The Archaeological and Historical Context of the Arizona Desert. Like volume one, this study sought to aid the BLM and the United States Army in managing, protecting and interpreting resources related to this important period in US military history.

Matt concluded that the YPG area is unique among all the former DTC/C-AMA sites and that a relatively large amount of survey has already been completed. There is also an opportunity to interpret the important continuum of military training present at YPG. Desert training and testing have occurred almost interrupted since World War II at the YPG, and this theme should be more fully developed in its connections to the historically significant DTC/C-AMA.

He's right. The southern portion of cantonment area for Camp Laguna is relatively untouched by modern activities and the rock line pathways and demarcation lines bring back a feel for those tough days of World War II. While it is easy to point out the significance of World War II to the history of the United States Army, little attention has been made to the significant contribution of the camps, DTC/C-AMA in that chapter of our history.

In volume one of Bischoff's study of the DTC, he recommended the camps that might be considered eligible for NRHP inclusion could benefit by using what he called a historic district approach. In volume two, Bischoff noted that Camp Laguna represents an important aspect of the DTC/C-AMA. It is also well preserved and reflects this historical association well. Not only is the size and the extent of the camp visible, but so are many details such as rock line tent areas, rock insignias and walkways.

He added that the site boundary should include the various training related features located at the foot of the mountains to the east of the camp. I might also add that a list of the historical personages associated with the DTC and C-AMA in the various camps would also be key to meeting NRHP eligibility requirements.

For years, the SHPO had urged YPG to offer interpretive opportunities to the public. There were efforts to preserve and interpret the history and heritage of the military training, not only of Camp Laguna but of the DTC and C-AMA context as well. The renovation of the heritage center of the Yuma Proving Ground, the museum with the Army museum enterprise of the US Army Center of Military History included two new galleries dedicated to the DTC/C-AMA and to Camp Laguna.

The SHPO hoped for more. The SHPO wanted better interpretation on-site and the ability of the public to view the well-preserved areas of Camp Laguna as well. However, public access was contrary to the safety and security requirements in place for this active research, development, test and evaluation facility.

For preservation purposes and for purposes of public safety and security, the remaining untouched footprint of Camp Laguna is off-limits to the public. Safety and security concerns add to those limitations as the western side of this area is an active mobility test course, part of the Yuma test center of the Yuma Proving Ground. The new enhanced security requirements for army installations was our opportunity to reengage with the SHPO to try and meet their intent, while facilitating the mission to build the VCC outside the security fence and 187 feet from the nearest parked vehicle.

We invited the SHPO to send a representative, of course, it was easy to have them onsite because we were actively participating in Archeology Month, a statewide observance and as that year 2014 was Yuma's term. Kris Dobschuetz came out. Katie Tyree and I took her out to the site of the proposed location. You can talk about multiple uses of land, but a demonstration is always better and as if on cue, an M1 Abrams tank came cruising down the western mobility course, demonstrating the multiple use of that land and kind of demonstrating why we didn't let the public go wandering around out there.

Prior to any ground-disturbing activities, YPG conducted an archaeological survey of the proposed VCC location. Noting that there had been eight archaeological surveys previously conducted, we then bring Matt Bischoff back in who said, "A lot of surveys has been done out there and a lot of it's been done over areas that were part of the DTC and C-AMA, but the people surveying weren't necessarily looking for World War II evidence, they were looking for more older history and pre-history."

Matt had mentioned in his second report that further surveys should perhaps be looked a specific to the DTC and C-AMA footprint and this new survey would do just that. Within the six acres, it was determined that only 0.05 acres was of major interest. Four artifacts and artifact scatters were recorded but determined that they had exhibited no diagnostic elements and cannot be temporarily attributed to historic Camp Laguna.

This resulted in a determination of no adverse effect. We notified all the consulting agencies to include the 14 tribes associated with the US Army Yuma Proving Ground and the SHPO. Kris Dobschuetz of the SHPO's office concurred with YPGs no adverse effect and in her memorandum back to the Proving Ground also stated that Camp Laguna is a historic military Desert Training Center during World War II and has been determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

She stated that they concur with YPGs no adverse effect condition on the preparation of a monitoring report in the presence of a full-time archeologist during all ground-disturbing activities. As work began, both Erin Goslin and Katie Tyree manned their positions to make sure that there was nothing of significance that came up. A few small artifacts, the main one was this US mail padlock. Since none of the artifacts that came out of the digging seem to be show stoppers, construction continued and our archeologist remained on-site monitoring until the equipment left and then they rendered their report to the SHPO and to the tribes.

Meantime, the museum had been working on developing an interpretive scene for the Visitor Control Center. The initial report recommended we maybe could have one wall within the VCC, but I quickly decided I was taking every wall that wasn't nailed down. Part of these walls would be filled with the [inaudible] holding reproductions, non-artifact type items and large-scale graphics that would tell the story.

We would also develop a plan to start having tours. The plan that emerged, we had wall displays that used an imaginary line of sight. To the east, the 45 caliber pistol range. To the north, the rest of the cantonment area. To the south, troops in bivouac. There's even one area standard for army buildings that had the chain of command. Overlooking them, I put a picture, a giant picture I might add of General's Patton and Walker. At the time, they were looking out over the Desert Training Center in 1942. Here, they're looking out over the current chain of command for the Yuma Proving Ground.

To date, we've had 15 tours come through the southern part of Camp Laguna escorted by these archeologists and cultural resource manager, Erin Goslin and myself. Visitors get a combination of historical interpretation and a lesson on cultural resource management and how better to preserve the site.

In the grand opening of the 5th of October, all of the stakeholders expressed great joy in the product that we've delivered to them. It was highlighted at army management, army installation management command that this was be seen as a best practice.

Now, we're two days away from the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landing, and last week we had the opportunity to observe Memorial Day. I would like to leave you with these pictures of soldiers because the Army contends training, equipment, all that's great, but it's really our soldiers, it's our people that have made the difference to our nation.

The casualties for World War II were enormous, 416,000 war dead. Most of those dead came out of the infantry divisions. Infantry divisions like the ones that trained out of Camp Laguna. As we continue on, let's ponder for a minute these men as we consider how best to preserve US military heritage. Thank you.


Do we have time for questions?

Moderator: We do.

Speaker 1: Thanks a lot. That's a really fascinating story and I think a great kind of exploration of that landscape. I'm curious if in the museum, one of the things that we're finding in other landscape work that we're doing, is that the missing component for visitors to really understand this is the sounds and noises of the historic site when it was really active in its historic operations. Have you dealt with that issue at all? I mean, I can imagine hearing troops marching and stuff going on and people, all that kind of stuff which should really help visitors to get a much in-depth understanding of what life was like on-site.

William Heidner: On-site, no. We tried to put it in context so when the visitors first come into the gallery, there's a part of a documentary on Pearl Harbor, kind of an introduction. As they move in, and that's kind of playing in the background, as they move through the rest of our World War II era, we'll use music, big band or music, to set the tone.

Then, in another gallery, we have two documentary film clips. One is the first signing on 7th May that ended the war in Europe. Of course, Joe Stalin didn't agree so they had another one on 8th May. Then, we also have film of the surrender ceremony on the deck of the Missouri with Douglas MacArthur talking. We also have copies of the two instruments of surrender, one for the Japanese surrender, and also the one that Yodel signed in Reims France. That kind of ties up our World War II within the galleries that talk, not only about the training that occurred out there, but also the testing, pontoon bridge testing on the Colorado River and also equipment testing out in the sand dunes in various other places where that same land in the desert southwest help ready America for World War II.

Speaker 2: Just curious, was YPG ever used for equipment evaluation for like captured or enemy material? If so, is that represented in the storyline?

William Heidner: We have and no. If you're talking about the destructive type of testing, that's probably more accomplished at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. We currently have what's known as a threat target fleet and we have one of the most complete and modern equipment sets of Russian equipment existent. As far as we know in in the West, anyway, we have one of the only operable Scud missile systems.

We have one of the only operable radars for a rather large, and I forget the name of the exact nomenclature for this air defense system. These are used quite a bit these days in sensor tests, UAV testing sensor tests, so we can actually put a real product out there to determine if the sensors are picking that up or for a lot of aircraft that are coming through identification, friend or foe, we can not only hit them with asset for equipment, which replicates radar signatures, but we can hit them with actual radar signatures from a deployed missile system. In that regard, we are using those effects to help test equipment.

Speaker Bio

William Heidner is the Museum Curator for the Museum of the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG). His interest in the WWII training facilities associated with the Desert Training Center/California – Arizona Maneuver Area (DTC / C-AMA) is due to the fact that the YPG is the only active Army Installation that contains significant portion of that historic area. Bill co-presented an award winning poster to the 2009 (?) Annual Conference of Archaeology. His paper, “Preparing for War in the Desert SW”, presented at the 7th Annual International Conference of Military Geosciences, was published in the findings of that conference.

Last updated: June 2, 2021