The General Patton Memorial Museum sits on the former site of Camp Young, where over 1 million men trained for World War II. The Desert Training Center (DTC), named for Lieutenant General S.B.M. Young, the Army’s first Chief of Staff, once encompassed 18,000 square miles, stretching from Pomona, California, to Phoenix, Arizona, from the Mexican border to Boulder City, Nevada—the largest military training center in the world. It closed in 1944, as the war shifted in the Allies’ favor. Today the area that comprised the DTC is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
A small, triangular rock monument with an American flag and information about Camp Young and the Desert Training Center was erected in 1985. A non-profit association, the General Patton Memorial Museum, Inc., formed to preserve artifacts from the camp. Beginning with a single mobile home as a repository, today the museum encompasses thousands of square feet, both indoor and outdoor, and is planning for a new, larger structure. The GPMM opened on November 11, 1988. The driving forces behind the museum were co-founders Leslie Cone of the Bureau of Land Management and Margit Chiriaco Rusche, along with many, many veterans and volunteers. It sits on property donated by Joseph L. and Ruth E. Chiriaco, who pioneered the area. On March 21, 2014, HistoryNet‘s senior editor Gerald D. Swick interviewed GPMM’s general manager, Mike Pierson.
HistoryNet: Your site is named the General Patton Memorial Museum, but it’s not a museum dedicated to Patton memorabilia. What is the museum’s mission?
Mike Pierson: The mission of the General Patton Memorial Museum, as expressed in its official mission statement, is to promote peace by honoring the service and sacrifice of American’s veterans while educating the public on modern U.S. military history through the preservation and interpretation of artifacts from the major conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries.
HN: And what is the connection to General George Patton?
MP: The Museum is built on the location of General Patton’s former headquarters, Camp Young, one of a network of 10 camps spread out over the 18,000 square miles that made up the world’s largest desert training area, known then as the Desert Training Center, California-Arizona-Maneuver-Area. General Patton not only selected the area to be used for training, he was its first commanding general. The GPMM provides a complete storyline of General Patton, his men and the former Desert Training Center.
HN: What are some of the items currently on display?
MP: We have tanks from the World War II Stuart and Sherman and the Korean War Patton tank to the Vietnam-First Gulf War M-60. Our other vehicles include two deuce-and-a-half cargo trucks, a restored World War II Wiley’s jeep and trailer, and a Vietnam-era restored Mule.
We also have a static display case of information about General Patton and his family, biographies of World War II soldiers, and World War I and World War II artifacts. We also have a section about World War II German soldiers.
There are display areas about the Korean War, Vietnam War, First Gulf War, and the War on Terrorism. We have five Remembrance Walls: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Defenders of Freedom Wall. We’re discussing a Remembrance Wall for Homeland Security, so we can honor anyone who is a first responder, from local to national level, both living and deceased.
We also have information about the black American soldiers who drove the vehicles from Normandy to the front lines. They became known as the “Red Ball Express.” Patton and his tank units arrived in Normandy a month after the D-Day invasions. His advance toward Germany was slowed, in part, because the Germans had destroyed all deep-water ports to prevent the Allies from using them to resupply. Patton called for all vehicles capable of hauling anything to be put to use getting supplies to the front. Men would use DUKW amphibious craft to deliver supplies to the beach, where they would be loaded onto trucks. Military Police identified the roads that were the fastest routes to the front and back and marked them with a red ball to show they were only open to this supply traffic. The red ball was also on the driver’s helmets and trucks; hence, it became known as the Red Ball Express. I don’t think most Americans realize that nearly all those involved in offloading supplies and driving the trucks were black soldiers.
On May 15, 2015, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, we’re planning a two-day military vehicle show honoring the men of the Red Ball Express.
HN: There’s a section called the Medal of Honor Room. What does it consist of?
MP: We have a Medal of Honor Display Room that gives information about most, if not all, recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor from World War II to the present. We also have a monumental to the five CMH recipients with ties to the Coachella Valley. Next to the Medal of Honor Room is the Holocaust Room. Then we have the Bill Mauldin exhibit area, which has 8×10 excerpts from his books mounted on two different walls. (Mauldin created Willie and Joe, two Everyman characters for U.S. combat troops in Europe during World War II. His cartoons ran in Stars and Stripes newspaper and were very popular with the soldiers.—Editor)
Patton didn’t think much of Mauldin because Patton didn’t want his soldiers depicted as bearded, dirty and wearing ragged uniforms, as Mauldin depicted front-line troops. (Supreme Commander in Europe General Dwight) Eisenhower ordered Patton to meet with Mauldin. The meeting was cordial, but Patton still didn’t like the way Mauldin depicted American soldiers. We honored Mauldin with the Patton Award a few years ago.
HN: What is the Patton Award?
MP: For 25 years we have hosted a Veteran’s Day Ceremony on Veterans Day, November 11, which is also the birthday of General George S. Patton. We present a Patton Award to an individual or group that works or has worked to preserve the peace of the world. Among the recipients is Rear Admiral Benjamin F. Montoya, who graduated from a local high school (Coachella Valley High). He was the first Hispanic officer to become a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. He and his SeaBees also received a special award last Veterans Day. He had them come here and build the front wall of the museum. It’s 60 or 70 feet long, and they built it in the heat of summer.
We also have a Founder’s Award. Recipients are chosen by two living co-founders of the museum. The list of recipients is very impressive. It includes Senator John McCain. Jesse McKeever of Coachella is another of the recipients. He has spent more than five years and over $50,000 restoring a Sherman tank. Al Jolson received the award for his support of World War II vets. During the Korean War he asked permission to entertain troops deployed to Korea but was told the USO had been disbanded after World War II and there was no money. So he paid his own expenses to go entertain the troops.
We also have a special First-Day stamp cancellation that has honored high-ranking women in the military, President Jimmy Carter, and many others.
HN: We understand some World War II–era vehicles are being restored for future display. Can you tell us a bit about that?
MP: The GPMM has a World War II Sherman tank in the tank yard, and the museum has two very rare Stuarts in the restoration process. The two are being used to restore one of them to full operating condition, minus the ability to fire the guns. We have a 1941 Ford fire truck that was used in the DTC, a 1952 International fire truck, five World War II vehicles, 1.2 ton & 3/4 ton personnel carriers, a DUKW, a World War II van and a civilian model of a 1942 Wiley jeep that is being restored as a dummy tank, as a parade, military show and display vehicle. The GPMM also has the portable film-developing trailer—a portable dark room—built for General Patton’s photographer. Wherever Patton went in the DCT, such as observing engineers building a bridge, he wanted to see pictures immediately so he could personally approve them before sending them to Washington for use in public relations.
Ironically, he was only the commanding general here for four and a half months before being called back to Washington for the planning of the invasion of North Africa. He lived in tents like the soldiers while the camp was being built. While he was at DTC, Patton joined the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bill Huntington Post 3699, named for the first local man killed in World War I. Patton wrote to the post from North Africa saying he was sorry to hear about a fire at the post, thanking the director for sending him his membership card, and saying he hoped to make the members of the post proud of him. We have pictures of him joining the post.
HN: What are the museum’s immediate goals?
MP: The GPMM is outlining its own General Patton Military Vehicle Two Day Show that I mentioned earlier, with a target date of May 5, 2015. A new Sponsorship Program was designed to allow friends and businesses small and large to pick a level of sponsorship that will provide to the GPMM funds needed for programs and expansion of the museum.
The GPMM is working with friends in the community who are in the process of building an 11′ X 30′ storage room. Once completed that will allow the museum to begin the initial phase of building the new library and research center. The GPMM has over 5,000 historic Books, biographies, maps, photographs and other artifacts in storage that will be incorporated into the library-research center. We encourage all veterans that served under Patton to send us their memoirs to include in our library.
Home Depot and members of VFW Bill Huntington Post 3699 are working together to rebuild the last building from the former DTC. Local, nationally renowned, architect Robert H. Ricciardi, who designed the first PGA Hall of Fame Building and many other famous buildings, has designed what the GPMM hopes will be its future home, a new facility at least twice the size of the current museum.
HN: If someone is interested in becoming a sponsor or member of the museum, what do they need to do?
MP: To become a member, or sponsor simply visit www.generalpattonmuseum.com and click on the opportunities available. From Adopting-A-Tank-Military Vehicle, to purchasing a bench to be placed in front of one of our Remembrance Walls, to one of the 10 levels of sponsorship, all can help the GPMM realize its dreams of bigger and better. In-kind service is but one way to participate in the Sponsorship Program.
HN: Thank you for taking time for this interview. Is there anything you’d like to add in closing?
MP: We have so many other programs I could talk about: grant writing, outreach to youth in nearby communities, programs for young people visiting from other states and other countries. We have a great Veterans Day ceremony every year.
I should also mention that every veteran of the Korean War who visits the museum will receive a free copy of a beautifully done book called Korea Reborn, A Grateful Nation Honors War Veterans for 60 Years of Growth, as long as our limited supply lasts. The book is now out of print.