In that Interstate 10 no-man’s-land between Indio and Blythe, where the desert wind blows lumbering RVs into your lane and the dust kicks up in a viscous whorl, a weary traveler longs for a respite – something, anything, to break the monotony.
Near the peak of that uphill slog, there it is, a sign for the no-stoplight town of Chiriaco Summit. Even if it didn’t warn “Next Services 60 Miles,” this is a must-stop. Up ahead are eight palm trees and an American flag fluttering, while a neon sign touts a Chevron and Foster’s Freeze.
But the real attraction, the reason why all red-blooded patriotic Amurkins should be by-gawd required to take Exit 173, becomes evident once cars veer left from the overpass. They are greeted by the curious sight of a bronzed Gen. George S. Patton, binoculars in one hand, riding crop in the other and his faithful bull terrier, William the Conqueror, by his side. The imposing statue almost orders people to pull in and plunk down $5 to visit the General Patton Memorial Museum ... or else, soldier!
Those who don’t get the History Channel from their cable providers will wonder what a monument to the flamboyant and controversial World War II general known as “Old Blood and Guts” is doing in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
A peek inside the modest bungalow provides an answer and tells a fascinating story about the history of this desolate region, how scores of the Greatest Generation assembled in bone-bleaching heat to train for the harsh conditions they would face battling Gen. Rommel’s troops in North Africa.
It tells how, from 1942 to 1944, nearly 2 million soldiers and 27,000 tanks arrived at the 18,000-square-mile Desert Training Center, which Patton got up and running at command headquarters in this very spot before leaving to conquer Europe. It also gives glimpses, through artifacts, dioramas and archival footage, of what life was like at what troops called “A Place God Forgot.”
And, yeah, Patton himself is featured in all his glory, but only some of his quirks.
“Most people stumble upon it,” said John Whitmore, who manages the museum. “It’s either that or they drive by 50 times and never stop until the 51st.
“People miss it if they’re coming this way (westbound, from Arizona) because there’s just a tiny little sign and they don’t realize it until they’re right on top of it.
“But we get a lot of people. Not just older vets.”
Two visitors who fit that profile were Vince Lavorgna, of Atascadero, and Wayne Conner, of Paso Robles.
“We were kind of mind-blown,” Lavorgna said. “We didn’t know it existed. We just stopped to walk the dog on our way home from Arizona and saw this. We’ve learned a lot.”
To baby boomers, who made up the majority of the museum’s visitors one recent day, the image of Patton is that of George C. Scott, who won an Oscar for best actor in the 1970 bio-pic. (Personal aside: My ill-advised parents took me to a drive-in double feature of “Patton” and “M*A*S*H” and my idea of war has been warped ever since.)
But there’s no nod to the movie depiction in the museum, nor more than just a passing mention of the real-life soldier-slapping incidents late in the war that brought him down.
Still, visitors can spend a pleasant afterward out of the heat and re-live how Patton put the troops through the paces in temperatures as high as 120 degrees, his abiding principle being “a pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.”
It was a harsh existence for the soldiers. They lived in tents, slept on the ground with only two blankets while fending off rattlesnakes and scorpions, had no electricity, were rationed only a single canteen of water per day and had to run a 10-minute mile through the sandy brush with full packs.
It was a bit more of a Spartan lifestyle than Frank Sinatra enjoyed down the hill in Palm Springs.
As one of Patton’s famous quotations featured in the exhibit put it: “If you can work successfully here, in this country, it will be no difficulty at all to kill the sons of bitches you meet in any other country.”
Patton, the in-house documentary reports, stayed only four months at the Desert Training Center before shipping out to North Africa to battle Rommel. But during his time in the desert, he bunked just like his men. No officer perks.
“The perception I had is that the officers were very, very scared of him,” Lt. Lester Nichols said in the documentary. “I was. It was because of his demand for excellence. But the troops liked him because he was their kind of man. He talked like them. He acted like them. He wasn’t afraid of anything.”
The simulated battles over forbidding terrain continued after Patton’s departure. But by late spring in 1943, when the North Africa campaign was ending, the Desert Training Center no longer was needed and eventually was dismantled. Some tanks were just left to rust in the desert.
Even now, representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees most of he former land used by the center, finds relics from back in the day. Many of them – cutlery and tin plates, shards of wooden latrines, shell casings – are on display. Just to the west of the museum building are the crumbling remains of a makeshift chapel from the period.
What lures most tourists, Whitmore said, is the collection of vintage tanks outside. Most of the dozen of so tanks are not World War II vintage (they’re from the 1960s) but there is a 1944 Sherman tank used during WWII and the Korea conflict.
Alas, visitors are not allowed to climb aboard the tanks and stand at attention staring off into the horizons, a la Patton, and growl what has to be George C. Scott’s best line from the movie:
“We’re not just going to shoot the bastards, we’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads on our tanks.”