Magazine article Sunset

Forgotten Land, Remembered War

Magazine article Sunset

Forgotten Land, Remembered War

Article excerpt

* CHIRIACO SUMMIT, CAIJFORNIA--"The lore we grew up with," Margit Chiriaco-Rusche says, "was that a man came into my dad's place and asked, 'Are you Joe Chiriaco?' Without looking up, my dad said, 'What's it to you?' When he did look up, he saw a general with all those gold braids."

The time was early 1942, the first months of World War II. The place was Joe Chiriaco's roadside cafe in the Mojave Desert. The general was George Smith Patton Jr.

Even today, travel through this desert is daunting: mountains the color of dried cocoa, the sky a parched powder blue. Stepping from a car into the noon sun is like walking into a wall. In 1942 the Mojave must have seemed even more formidable. But German troops were advancing across North Africa and the U.S. Army needed a training grounds for desert warfare. A native Southern Californian, Patton knew where to find emptiness and heat. "The area possesses tremendous advantages for all forms of training," he enthused, "because, in addition to its climatic and geographic similitude to Libya ... there is room to burn."

Headquartered at Camp Young, a mile east of Chiriaco Summit, the Desert Training Center extended west to Indio, California, east to Aguila, Arizona, north to Searchlight, Nevada, and south to Yuma, Arizona--an area 350 by 250 miles. Over the next 2 1/2 years, 1 million men would train here, making the center the largest simulated theater of operations in the history of military maneuvers.

These days, when you go to Chiriaco Summit, you can visit the General Patton Memorial Museum, which Chiriaco-Rusche helped establish not far from her family's restaurant and service station. You walk past a bronze statue of Patton that throws an outsize shadow across the parking lot, then enter for a blessedly climate-controlled view of what training here was like. Patton intended troops to experience the desert at its most brutal. In summer temperatures that climbed above 110[degrees], soldiers were expected to run 1 mile in 10 minutes, carrying rifles and full packs. They were issued one canteen a day Some GIs called the Mojave the "Land that God Forgot."

It was not continuous hell. …

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