March 1942. Three months following the Pearl Harbor attack which thrust the United States into World War II, (and one month before the daring Doolittle Raid on Tokyo), the War Department ordered the commander of the Army First Corps General George S. Patton to locate, establish, and command a desert training area to prepare troops for desert warfare. Being a native southern Californian, General Patton did not have to look any further from his home in San Bernardino, CA, when he established the Desert Training Center at Shavers Summit (now known as Chiriaco Summit). It is here that my flight back in time is focused.
The lone airstrip (I wouldn’t even call it an airport!) designated as L77 on the far southeastern part of the Los Angeles Sectional Chart, is part of what is now the George Patton Memorial Museum. Our flight took place in the spring of 2003 from my home base airport Glendale Municipal Airport (GEU) in the western Phoenix metropolitan area, with two work colleagues looking for a real life history lesson.
Once departing GEU, you literally fly due west (adjacent and unique to GEU, is Luke AFB the home of the largest F-16 training facilities in the U.S. Air Force) while coordinating with the Luke RAPCON for safe passage and clearance to venture through their airspace. Once clear, however, it was literally IFR (I Follow Roads) flying because your route of flight is parallel to Interstate 10. An hour or so later you are arriving at L77, a one runway airstrip (6/24) and parking in the open ramp area south of the taxiway.
It is here that our history story begins. The George Patton Memorial Museum is one of the hidden gems of military museums. It literally starts with the airstrip. In March 1942, General Patton and his staff established this southern California airstrip to not only allow air access for supplies and support personnel for his training center, but to also serve as a training platform for the Army Air Corp. (Over the years, such high-ranking Army generals such as Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell flew in for special occasions.) Once inside the museum, there is a scale model diorama of the training center as it was during Patton’s time. To give perspective, the 350 miles wide and 250 miles deep location stretched from Pomona, CA to the east, Phoenix, AZ to the west, Yuma, AZ to the south and Boulder, NV to the north, an immense swath of land. But that was exactly what Patton wanted. Somewhere he could battle train his troops in the most realistic scenario that replicated the North African surroundings where they would soon be facing the German Commander “Desert Fox” General Rommel.
Exhibits throughout the museum are awe-inspiring. While museum staff has updated the motif and displays to highlight Desert Shield and Desert Storm circa 1991, and the most recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars, most of the exhibits pay tribute to General Patton’s history – from the famed pearl-handled revolvers, to his diaries, and the famous prayer he asked the chaplain to write during a cold European winter (as depicted in the 1970 movie Patton, starring Academy Award winning actor George C. Scott). Outside and surrounding the George Patton Memorial Museum grounds are former U.S. Army tanks and armored personnel from Patton’s era to present time.
Now I know some of you may be thinking “That’s all well and good for the history buff, but aviation seems to be the backstory not the heart – like with your previous stories!” Ok, I admit it, this is a bit off the typical track you have been used to seeing from my stories, BUT, think about this for a minute: It was because of aviation that General Patton was able to sustain his men with supplies and additional personnel and equipment to create part of our “Greatest Generation” and it was with the ease of aviation that one can utilize in a quick, efficient (more fun) manner to explore little-known treasures such as this. There is a saying in the airport and aviation world that says: “A mile of road will get you one mile, whereas a mile of runway can get you the world!” All because of the wonderful world of aviation. Enjoy!