Commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Desert Training Center/California-Arizona Maneuver Area

Story and photos by Doran Sanchez, BLM Partnership Outreach and Development Specialist. Historical photos courtesy of the General Patton Memorial Museum.

This month, Americans commemorate the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Desert Training Center/California –Arizona Maneuver Area (DTC/C-AMA), which represents a critical time and place in our nation’s history. Today, the public lands within the DTC/C-AMA are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) California Needles Field Office.

Map of the Desert Training Center. The DTC is the largest military training-maneuver area in the world, encompassing 18,000 square miles in southern California and western Arizona.

During WW II, in February 1942, the U.S. Army assigned General George S. Patton Jr. to advance desert tank warfare and train U.S. soldiers for combat under the harshest desert conditions possible. In early March, Patton and his officers surveyed the southwestern United States and established the boundary of the Desert Training Center. The Desert Training Center encompassed 18,000 square miles of rugged, desolate and largely uninhabited terrain within the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in southern California, western Arizona, and southern Nevada, making it the largest military instillation and maneuver area in the world. Patton identified sites for twelve divisional camps within the Desert Training Center. The camps were massive tent cities laid out in grids, three miles long by one mile wide, and could house more than 15,000 soldiers at a time.

American soldiers began arriving at the Desert Training Center in early April 1942. Conditions were primitive with no running water and no electricity, except at the Command Center. Desert temperatures were extreme. For the troops, these camps were home for the next several months. Soldiers took pride in their areas and they spelled unit symbols out in rocks, swept streets, and created extensive rock alignments.


Historic image of army tents in the desert.
Iron Mountain Divisional Camp: Soldiers took pride in their specific camp and created extensive rock alignments along roads, streets, walkways and around living quarters. 
The Divisional Camp Essex contained a 500,000-gallon reservoir built by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide water to support the troops and DTC operations. (Photo by Doran Sanchez)



























The training regimen at the Desert Training Center was tough. Soldiers underwent hand-to-hand combat, live-fire exercises, demanding day and night marches, and at least one 24-hour exercise with little food and water. Blistering heat, frigid nights and howling desert sandstorms left the camps in disarray and covered everything in sand. Combined with flash floods, snakes, and scorpions, the soldiers were pushed to their limits. Training at the Desert Training Center turned young men into strong, hardened soldiers.

The average tour for desert warfare training was 14 weeks, during which most of the soldiers adapted to the rigors of the desert. Patton refused to take men into combat until they had at least six weeks of desert warfare training and survival.

Patton had more than 38,000 armored vehicles and support equipment, and wanted the ability to train tanks, infantry, artillery, and air support together in one place at the same time. The vastness of the desert was perfect to conduct brigade-level live fire battle operations. Maneuvers could involve as many as 30,000 troops, coordinating with hundreds of tanks and numerous planes over a broad landscape.

Tank gunners practice firing 30-caliber machine guns at aircraft in a mock battle. (Photo courtesy of the General Patton Memorial Museum)
With little food and water, soldiers underwent demanding day, night and 24-hour marches, in preparation for war on the blistering deserts of North Africa. (Photo courtesy of the General Patton Memorial Museum)

By mid-1943, the primary mission of the Desert Training Center changed. Troops originally trained for desert warfare were now deployed worldwide. In October 1943, the Army changed the name of the training facility to the Desert Training Center/California-Arizona Maneuver Area.

Between April 1942 and April 1944, more than a million soldiers and 60 armored, infantry and artillery divisions, fighter pilots and heavy bomber squadrons trained at the Desert Training Center/California-Arizona Maneuver Area. They participated in what is considered the most realistic war games under the harshest conditions imaginable. In a sense, many battles of World War II were won on these desert lands.

Following the surrender of Japan, the U.S. Army decommissioned the Desert Training Center/California-Arizona Maneuver Area in April 1944, ending the largest simulated theater of operations in the history of military maneuvers. On January 14, 1947, the U.S. Army released almost all the federal military withdrawn lands acquired for the Desert Training Center/California-Arizona Maneuver Area to the Department of the Interior - most of which are public lands managed by the BLM.

The echoes of war are quiet now. . . but not forgotten. Faded tank tracks and airstrips, ghostly grids of tent cities, rock-line roadways and streets, altars, and crumbling foundations serve as silent guardians to the enormity and significance of what took place on America’s desolate deserts lands.

Soldiers built religious altars such as the Catholic altar at the Iron Mountain Divisional Camp, indicating religion was an important component of their military and survival training.

The BLM honors and celebrates this critical chapter of American history and continues to share this important piece of history to current and future generations.

Note: The BLM is dedicated to preserving the remaining features at these historically significant sites through protection and interpretation for the benefit of future generations. When you visit these or other historic sites in the desert, please leave all historic objects as you found them, so they can be enjoyed by those who follow you.

For more information about the DTC/C-AMA, please visit our website at:

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