“How do you establish camps, find water, and fight long-distance when it’s 110 degrees? If you’re not acclimatized, you’re fighting your environment and not your enemy,” says Fred Jee, supervising ranger for the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
“People were sort of aware of this little desert community way out there — hard to get to but a really nice kind of place. Then here comes World War II, and [General George] Patton and his people were looking to establish Camp Young up there, which is two million acres by Highway 10. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers there were all being trained to go to North Africa. They were getting acclimatized. You don’t just dump a bunch of soldiers — a guy from Brooklyn or a fisherman from Alaska — in Africa and say, ‘Okay, go for it.’”
On Sunday, February 3, Jee will lead a driving tour of Clark Dry Lake, one of the training areas established in 1942 as part of Patton’s Desert Training Center. The lake was named after Frank and Fred Clark, brothers who settled in the area in 1891. “They established a well and a ranch and a residence there while doing their cattle business,” says Jee. “It’s a hardscrabble living, but it was a living. Later on in Borrego Valley, more settlers [six families] came in towards the early ’30s with the Homestead Act — the only way to keep the land, 160 acres, was you had to be there year round, and you had to prove you were there in order for the government to deed the land over to you.”
The Clark cattle ranch ceased operation in 1937, and the Clark Lake basin remained empty until the Navy arrived in 1944 and built an auxiliary airfield. Prior to the military’s arrival, Anza-Borrego had been desolate and difficult to reach; as Jee says, “It was pretty much a camping existence.” The military was responsible for building roads and running electricity to the area.
“Clark Dry Lake was the perfect place to set up an artillery range,” says Jee. “They established rock-ring targets. We’re talking 50- to 60-pound boulders that some poor guy had to go out and find, drive miles, and bring them all back and get them painted white. From the air you’d see this target — concentric rings with a dead center.”
Most trainees had no prior flying experience. “For a guy who’s just off the farm, jumping in an aircraft like that and saying, ‘Okay, you’re now a fighter pilot’ — I don’t think so.” First, Jee explains, pilots were taught in a T6 Texan, a training aircraft. “It allowed young pilots who might have learned on a biplane, then a fixed-wing single-engine aircraft with a high-performance engine, to learn how to drop bombs and fire 50-caliber machine guns at targets...and possibly 20-mm cannons.”
“Rake stations” were constructed to assist in accuracy training. A rake station is a four-posted tower in which observers would track the accuracy of bullets and bombs with the use of a four-tined instrument calibrated to line up the observer’s vision with the airfield. When bombs or bullets hit the ground they create dust “pick-ups,” by which an observer could gauge the accuracy of the shot with the rake. “It was primitive stuff,” says Jee. “None of this smart-bomb jazz where you’re looking at the eye of a TV camera. They called it precision bombing then because it was a great advance from World War I, when ‘bomb sighting’ was your eye...
“Pilots didn’t always hit the target, so the observers needed protection.” Between the posts are hooks on which observers would hang steel plates. “You couldn’t build something solid because you would just suffocate in there. The dry lake would get up to 120-plus.” Pilot inaccuracies are evident in the holes in the cement and steel-rake station structures.
“The Clark Dry Lake area was part of the war effort, one of hundreds of training areas around the country,” says Jee. “What occurred here doesn’t just disappear. The structures still exist, 12 feet high and 10 feet square. The top is all concrete, supported by four steel-reinforced concrete poles. You can walk in and under it, like an open gazebo.”
On the tour, spectators will see remnants of a military plane crash. “This was training for war. Not everybody made it out of training. We look at training today, look at Top Gun — everybody’s having fun and games and looks like Tom Cruise. The reality is: ‘Sorry, that wasn’t the case.’”
A Tour of Clark Dry Lake
Sunday, February 3
8:30 a.m. to noon
Meet at Christmas Circle (off Highway S-22)
Cost: $35 for nonmembers, $25 for members
Info: 760-767-4063 or theabf.org/specialweekends.htm