About 30 miles east of Indio, perched on the high ground of Chiriaco Summit, stands the General Patton Memorial Museum.
It is located at the heart of what was the Desert Training Center, established by Gen. George S. Patton in 1942 to train American troops in desert warfare in preparation for the invasion of North Africa. In its brief, two-year existence, it became the largest Army training facility in the United States, through which passed 60 divisions and more than 1 million soldiers.
On Monday, Nov. 11—Veterans Day—a crowd of some 1,000 dignitaries, honorees, veterans and their families will gather in this space with local citizens to recognize the contributions and sacrifices of all American veterans. This year, the traditional event will serve a dual purpose: It will be a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the museum as well.
“This 25th anniversary celebration of the museum’s opening is a very big thing to our board,” said Mike Pierson, the newly appointed general manager of the museum, “especially to co-founder Margit Chiriaco Rusche, who still operates the café family business next door and acts as our first vice president. Also, original founding board member Leslie Cone gave her input for this event.
“For 25 years, this has been a labor of love for both of them and for all who have served on the board.”
The ceremony—which is open to all—begins at 11 a.m. “We’ll begin with an air salute flyover of World War II aircraft flown by Warbirds West,” said Pierson, a U.S. Special Forces veteran who served on the Patton Museum board before becoming the general manager. “Following will be a re-enactment of World War II battles. We have the consulate general of the Republic of South Korea coming in from Los Angeles as our special guest to unveil our new Korean War Memorial Wall. Gen. George Patton’s daughter Helen, who lives in Europe and is the president of the Patton Foundation, will be our keynote speaker.”
Pierson said U.S. Congressman Raul Ruiz, Assemblyman Brian Nestande, Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez and Supervisor John Benoit are all expected to attend the free event, which will include a chili cook-off and a raffle.
“Most of all, we’ll recognize all the veterans who have served from all the war eras. It will be quite a party,” Pierson said.
While the Veterans Day celebration is always the highlight of the museum’s calendar, the future is filled with plans for many additions and improvements to the museum.
“Friends and community supporters are going to build us a new room for both storage and to use as a vault,” Pierson said. “Some members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars are going to renovate and re-locate the last remaining original building from the former Camp Young to our grounds for use as a maintenance office. One of our board members is restoring our 2 1/2-ton truck right now; another friend is rebuilding our vintage World War II Sherman tank, which we should move to the position right up front in our tank yard. We’re going to create a botanical garden of indigenous desert plants in our garden and tank yard, and develop an approved school course curriculum to offer for credit to student groups who visit the museum to learn about the history of U.S. warfare or to study the vegetation of the desert. We’ll build an education center out in the chapel area.
“I have a lot of ideas, but never enough time,” Pierson chuckled.
Like many museums, the General Patton Memorial Museum depends on memberships, sponsorships and donations to stay afloat.
“It is difficult to keep the doors of the museum open relying only on the small amount we charge for admission and our small amount of gift-shop sales,” Pierson said. “Our operating expenses are more than most people realize. For instance, we have to maintain a constant temperature in our buildings in order to preserve the perishable artifacts like books, uniforms and weapons.”
The main focus of that fundraising outreach has been the sale of memorial tiles, which are engraved with the names of former service personnel and then mounted permanently on one of the museum’s memorial walls. These include the West Coast Vietnam Veterans Wall, the new Korean War Veterans Wall, and the Defenders of Freedom Wall.
“The campaign to attract donations for tiles from service units like bomber groups, Marine battalions and Navy shipmates as a whole group, and not just as individuals, is an initiative of mine,” Pierson said. “It started from my desire to honor veterans from my own high school. First, there were the four who lost their lives in Vietnam. I knew all four of them personally. And by honoring them, I wanted to honor all those who served in Vietnam.
“The first year, in 2010, we unveiled about 48 names. Nine of those veterans had never talked to their family or children about their service—and to see them in front of that wall on Veterans Day three years ago with their families, and with assemblymen and congressmen shaking their hands and taking pictures with them in front of those memorial tiles … well, word got out from those nine about what a spiritual and healing thing it was for them. They were actually crying.
“So last year, 11 others showed up from my high school, because we put two more tiles on. And this year, the fifth and final tile will be mounted, totaling 102 service members from the tiny town of Imperial, California, who served in the Vietnam era.”
General Patton himself would be moved, perhaps, by the commitment of those who have nurtured this namesake destination.
“General Patton joined our Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post right here at Camp Young, in 1942, I believe, along with all of his line officers who had served in World War I,” said Pierson. “And he stayed a member of our post, and his granddaughter, Helen, is a member of our ladies’ auxiliary. It’s kind of neat to have that tie.”
The General Patton Memorial Museum is located at 62150 Chiriaco Road, at Chiriaco Summit, located off Interstate 10 about 30 miles east of Indio. The museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., daily; admission is $5; $4.50 for seniors; and $1 for kids age 7 to 12. Children 6 and younger, active members of the military, and card-carrying members of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars are all admitted for free. Admission is free to all on Nov. 11. For more information, call 760-227-3483, or visit generalpattonmuseum.com.