At first glance, the Mojave Desert doesn’t look like much. Most travelers see it out the window as they blast through in their air-conditioned coupés, heading for Las Vegas, Laughlin or other points East of the desert. To the casual observer, it’s a vast wasteland, desolate, uninviting.
The truth is the desert is full of life, man has occupied this challenging landscape for thousands of years. Animal life is abundant, just not easy to see.
Rabbits, squirrels, birds and other small animals inhabit the desert floor, perfectly camouflaged to protect them from roving predators. Bighorn sheep occupy the steep edges of the volcanic mountains rising above the sizzling sand of the desert floor. Burros and wild horses, descended from those left behind in the days of the old west, still roam free. Mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes watch the old or weak, while bird of prey circle, each one looking for their next meal.
When man first wandered into the Mojave, the landscape was much different. Pleistocene lakes, now just dry lake beds, still filled at least seasonally, providing much needed water for native camps.
For thousands of years, Native Americans flourished throughout California, even in the harsh environment of the Mojave.
The first European to pass through the Mojave was Father Francisco Garces in 1776.
After leading Capt. Juan Bautista de Anza and his expedition from Rio San Miguel, Mexico to the Colorado River along the Gila River, Garces left the expedition in December 1775 and wandered North and West into the Mojave Desert. De Anza would continue to Monterey and San Francisco.
Garces would stop in the area now known as Bitter Springs on his way through the Cajon Pass, finding a new path to Los Angeles.
Another early visitor to the Bitter Springs area was Capt. John Fremont and Kit Carson. Fremont established a camp in the area that would be used by travelers along the Old Spanish and Mormon trails.
Bitter Springs would become an important stop for travelers through the Mojave Desert.
Mountain Man Jedediah Smith passed through the area while searching for the legendary river. Father Graces, in his earlier trips into Alta California, believed the San Joaquin River originated over the Serra Nevada Mountains in the Great Basin. This belief and a mistake by cartographers at the time, reinforced the belief by mountain men and trappers that there was a river that flowed from the Great Salt Lake to San Francisco. In 1826 Smith used Bitter Springs as a camp site on his way to Los Angeles.
He returned again in 1827, before heading North to search for the river.
At the end of the Mexican War, a small group of Soldiers who had once been part of the Mormon Battalion, remained in California and were assigned to patrol the area from San Diego to Los Angeles and surrounding areas. In 1848, 35 Mormon volunteers, headed home to Salt Lake City. They would camp at Bitter Springs. Because of the alkali in the water of the spring, member of the party, Jefferson Hunt, would note on his map, calling it Bitter Spring. The name stuck.
James Marshall’s discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill began an influx of treasure seekers to California. Although most went North to the gold fields in the Serra Nevada Mountains, some of the ‘49ers set up camp in the Fort Irwin area.
Camel Expedition 1857
One of the most ambitious undertakings of the 1870’s was the Wheeler Survey, officially “the U.S. Geological Survey West of the 100th Meridian.” Lt. George Wheeler estimated that it would be a 15-year project. The goal to map the entire Western United State to a scale of eight miles to one inch.
Wheeler believe that quality maps would aid in the settlement of the West by showing where roads, settlements, railroads, dams and agriculture could exist.
One of Wheeler’s early expeditions examined Death Valley, looking for a passage way across the dangerous expanse and attempting to locate vital water sources in the area. Wheeler’s team reported the night time temperature at their Furnace Creek campsite was 109 degrees.
Traveling with Wheeler, was photographer Timothy O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan started his career as a photographer working with Mathew Brady prior to the Civil War. He would gain a measure of fame from his photographs of the Civil War.
Wheeler produced many photographs during the expedition, but many were lost when the expedition’s boats overturned in the Colorado River.
Wheeler would eventually create the first accurate topographical maps of the Fort Irwin Area.
The Wheeler was one of four extensive surveys being conducted simultaneously by the U.S. Army. The U.S. Congress felt that the surveys were duplicating efforts and combined them into one organization, the U.S. Geological Survey.
In 1881 borax was discovered in Death Valley by Rosie and Aaron Winters. Large borax smelting plants were established in the valley creating borax soap and for industrial uses. The finished product had to be moved by wagon to the rail head in either Mojave or Daggett.
The borax was transported by 20-mule-team wagons (actually made up or 18 mules and two horses) designed to move nine metric tons of ore at a time. With teams hitched to the wagon, the total length of the vehicle was over 180 feet in length.
On the Daggett run, the team would leave Death Valley via Cave Springs, travel around Bicycle Lake and head towards town along what is now the Mannix tank trail.
In 1908, a similar path was taken by Antonio Scarfoglio when he passed through the area during the New York to Paris Automobile race. Scarfoglio, the driver of the Italian Zust car, was the only one of the four cars remaining in the race to take a Southern route out of Death Valley. After pausing at Stove Pipe well, the lead car, the American Thomas Flyer, would head South, cut through the Panamint Mountains and head passed Tehachapi on the way to San Francisco, the next major checkpoint. The next cars would follow a similar path.
The Zust car chose to drive South, over Cave Spring and into Daggett where they spent the night. The following day they drove what would later become Route 66, from Daggett, down the Cajon Pass into San Bernardino. From San Bernardino, they would head into Los Angeles, where they would receive a hero’s welcome and celebration at the Italian Club in downtown Los Angeles.
The Thomas would eventually win the race, after the German Probst automobile received a time penalty for shopping their car part way by rail.
Mining returned to the area in the early 1900, and in 1909 the town of Goldstone sprang from the desert floor. The mines in Goldstone remained in operation until the mid 1930’s.
Some of the more colorful miners that occupied the area of Fort Irwin were John Lemoigne and Adrian Egbert.
Egbert moved into the Cave Spring area in 1925, creating a small fuel and supply shop in one of the caves in the area.
At the time, Cave Spring was the main entrance into Death Valley and was a fairly well traveled but difficult, road. Egbert met a wealthy widow, Ira Sweatman, who became Egberts business partner. Egbert built several buildings at Cave Spring. Egbert spent his time prospecting or running the service station and he began to place food and water along the route from Daggett to Death Valley.
Egbert would receive a visit from famed author Ernie Pyle, who was on his way to Death Valley to meet Death Valley Scotty. Pyle was working for the Scripps-Howard Newspapers, traveling the country writing about Americans, some famous, some just regular people.
Pyle’s stories would be published in a book, “Home Country,” after his death in World War II. The story of his night in Cave Springs is included in the book.
John Lemoigne was something of a mystery, a tall, well-educated Frenchman, he became a well-liked member of the desert mining community. One story has it that Lemoigne had grub-staked a couple of fellow miners, who started to make a good bit of money. They began making payments to Lemoigne, who, preferring a simple life style, he was somewhat distressed by his new wealth.
Not trusting banks, he persuaded a local merchant to hold his funds at the store in Daggett. As the amount of cash grew, the shopkeeper began to worry that bandits or the rail-road workers in nearby Barstow might get word of the large amounts of cash In his store.
The shopkeeper’s wife convinced Lemoigne that he should allow her to build him a large house at his Garlic Springs site.
He agreed and construction began on what would be known as the Lemoigne Castle. The building was described as being a large, two-story square building with sported turrets, a spire and dormer window. A covered porch surrounded the bright red structure on all four sides and the building sported green trimmed windows with blue shutters.
Lemoigne found the building and the heavy oak furnishings inside to be a bit more that what a simple miner required. So he did what any good miner would do, filled it with dynamite and blew the building and its contents into dust.
The mining years were coming to in the area, not that the mine had dried up, but the U.S. Army was looking for an area where they could train Soldier on large weapon systems. They found it in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Camp Irwin – The Early Years
On Aug. 8, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation creating the Mojave Anti-Aircraft Range on 1,000 acres of desolate terrain in the Mojave Desert, chosen for the remote location that allowed the Army to train on the weapons that would become the first line of defense during the coming war.
The installation was a subsidiary of Camp Haan in Riverside, California, next to what is now March Reserve Air Field.
The trip up the Cajon Pass to MAAR was not a pleasant one. As the vehicles crossed into the desert, the heat would become almost unbearable, but it would get worse by the time the Soldiers off-loaded in the High Mojave.
“It had been hot riding in the truck, but when we jumped out into the glaring sunlight, it felt like we were entering a blast furnace. We all stood there a few minutes with nobody talking. It was as if we had landed on another planet, and nobody could find words to describe it or even to damn it.” –from a World War II Story by Robert F. Gallagher.
Life at MAAR was tough, Soldiers lived six men to a tent, the sand colored canvas blending into the forbidding landscape.
In 1942, the reservation received its official name, Camp Irwin, in memory of Maj. Gen. George LeRoy Irwin, World War I battle commander of the 57th Field Artillery Brigade. In 1944 the camp was deactivated.
In 1951 the camp was reactivated and became the U.S. Army Armor and Desert Training Center, preparing Soldiers for the war in Korea.
Life was a little better in the 1950s. More permanent facilities had been built, the sand colored tents giving way to rows of white wooden barracks.
Things at the remote post would continue to improve, more permanent facilities would be built and little by little, the desert camp would be come home for the Soldiers and families that would train the Nations Armed Forces.
Camp Irwin Becomes a Fort
Until the 1960’s, the U.S. Army presence in the Mojave Desert was considered a temporary solution. The Mojave Anti-Aircraft Range and the Army Armor and Desert Training Center were used by Soldiers stationed at Camp Haan for training on crew-served weapons, artillery and armored vehicles.
The Army was preparing for the worst, the possibility of open conflict with communist forces in Europe. It was apparent that the AADTC was going to be needed for a long time. After operating as a temporary facility since 1941, Camp Irwin became a permanent U.S. Army facility on August 1, 1961, and the name was changed to Fort Irwin.
“This training mecca for tankers presents a cross section of terrain that offers a sample of every natural topographical feature to be found in the battle fields of the world. The rugged land consists of flat desert abruptly rising to steep mountains, extreme temperature readings between 130 and 25 degrees, all in all a formidable testing ground for the metal of armor and the mettle of man,” from the 1960 Fort Irwin Guidebook.
The possibility of armed conflict escalating to the deployment of nuclear weapons led the Army to conduct a large-scale training mission called “Exercise Desert Strike.”
Desert Strike, the largest joint service exercise since World War II, would begin with the “invasion” of the fictional country of Calonia, which stretched from the Colorado River to the Pacific Ocean, by the fictional country of Nezona, which reached from the Colorado River to Texas.
The exercise would involve over 100,000 men, 7000 vehicles, 1,000 tanks and over 800 aircraft, and would take place in a battle space over ¼ of the United States.
2nd Brigade, 40th Armored Division, part of Task Force Mojave, drew all their equipment from the Fort Irwin Con-Site. Fort Irwin also supported the units of the active Army with logistics and repair support. After the dust settled, it took the mechanics of Ft Irwin over eight months to recover all the disabled vehicles.
The tradition of painting a rock with unit distinct insignia started in the 1967 when the 36th Engineer Battalion painted their Seahorse Patch on the Painted Rocks before they deployed to Vietnam.
The Guard Takes Over
In 1971 Fort Irwin was deactivated and put into a surplus status, 40th Armored Brigade assumed command of the post, with Col. Irwin J. Taylor as commander. In 1974 the National Guard was reorganized and the 40th Armored Brigade and the 40th Infantry Brigade would become part of the reformed 40th Infantry Division.
Fort Irwin would become the home for summer training for the Division, brining life to the otherwise quiet post.
“Most of the year there is solitude at the camp, this is relaxed living,” Taylor told the San Bernardino Sun newspaper. “There are no urban problems, you turn on you radio and hear traffic jams outside of LA and you chuckle to yourself.”
Taylor, who commanded the National Guard troops during the Watts Riots, stayed in command of Fort Irwin for 10 years.
The fort was used for more than just National Guard training. The active Army would also use the vast expanse of Fort Irwin for large scale exercises.
Some of the exercises included Operation Devil Strike, Operation Red Thrust, Autumn Safari Exercise and Brave Shield 17.
During the 1970’s, there were several proposals on how to best make use of the facilities still remaining, but unused on the post. Some of the ideas that were considered were a training facility for Native Americans, a JOB Corps training site or a research facility dedicated to “Ecology.”
In 1973, the post was considered for use as a temporary refugee center for Vietnamese refugees.
The local congressional representative stated in an interview that Fort Irwin was on the short list for a new secret research facility. Taylor called the announcement “political” and said the facility would go to China Lake, because of the poor condition of Fort Irwin Road.
In October 1980, the Army officially activated the National Training Center at Fort Irwin. Taylor would remain as commander of Fort Irwin until the Regular Army assumed command of the post in July 1981.
The National Training Center
The Army had realized that they needed an installation where they could train full Armored Brigades. Some place with just not the land, but open air-space, free of electronic interference. They found all of that at Fort Irwin.
But after 10 years of laying mostly dormant, most of the post was in disrepair.
“The living was tough, but the Soldiers understood what is was they were doing and what they were doing was important,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Cole, 2nd commander of the NTC.
The process for repairing and replacing the decaying infrastructure would take years, but the business of training the Army got under way.
By the mid-1980’s training rotations were in full swing. One of the many training innovations at Fort Irwin was the creation of the professional, dedicated Opposing Force, which became the 177th Armored Brigade.
The 177th wore Soviet style uniforms and used specially modified vehicles made to look similar to the Soviet vehicles of the time.
The OPFOR proved to be an incredibly tough opponent for the training forces.
“The opposing force became terribly efficient and there weren’t very many wins by blue force units,” said General Paul Funk, 5th commander of the NTC. “But those people held us all to a higher standard the we had ever been held to before.”
Also introduced into the training was the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System or MILES. The system used lasers to record weapons hits on people and vehicles.
President George H.W. Bush acknowledged the success of the training when he visited the installation shortly before he ordered the U.S. Military into action after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
“Your work here at the NTC reflects the state of training throughout the Army, demanding, tough, and remember you are, all of you, preparing yourselves for combat and by doing so making a direct and lasting contribution to the preservation of peace,” said Bush.
9/11 and Beyond
After the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and the invasion of Afghanistan, training at the National Training Center began to change from the tank on tank clashes of the past, to a more hybrid threat as the Army experienced in the Middle East. Villages were hastily built, first out of storage sheds and later using stacked land-sea containers, with holes cut into them for doors and windows.
The opposing force, now the famed 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, would fill many roles during the simulations. The would still form the opposing military force, but now would also represent an insurgent population, criminal organizations, local and regional governments, and the local civilian population.
In 2004, the NTC began to hire contract employees who had grown-up in the Middle East to play many of the key civilian roles. These new players were able to bring a new level of cultural understanding to the exercise and gave training units a much better idea of the possible pitfalls of religious and cultural differences when operating in a foreign land.
To add additional realism, Fort Irwin turned to near-by Hollywood to make the containers look more realistic, and add special effects to the training simulations.
Fort Irwin would continue to change and adapt training to reflect the evolving situation in both Afghanistan and Iraq. At the peak of the wars, new enemy tactics could be inserted into training about three days after being observed overseas.
“People who have been to this fight understand what needs to happen at the National Training Center to be relevant and to lead change,” – Gen. Robert Cone, 15th commander of the NTC.
Training at The National Training Center continues to evolve, the Army is always looking to future threats and getting forces ready to win the first fight.
“The enduring quality of the NTC is that it continues to change with the times and the absolute commitment to focus on what their mission is,” Gen. William Wallace 10th commander of the NTC.
Visitors – Political Figures and Hollywood
The National Training Center at Fort Irwin is one of the most visited installations in the US Army.
The importance of the training conducted at the NTC attracts Military and Civilian leaders from the United States and Allied Countries.
The close proximity to the entertainment industry, make Fort Irwin a natural choice to support production of movies and television shows about the Army.
One of the earliest movies to use Fort Irwin was the 1979 Movie “Hair.” Although most of the movie is set in New York, the final scenes are supposed to be at a U.S. Army base in Nevada. The production team was allowed to use barracks at Fort Irwin and the airfield at Daggett for the departure of one of the main characters, as he deploys to Vietnam. The production unit also employee over 1000 Soldiers for the scene.
Fort Irwin’s Bicycle Lake was the testing ground in the opening scene of the movie “GI Joe.” In the opening, an experimental “nano-probe” weapon is fired at a moving tank. The tank “dissolves” when attacked by the Nano-probes.
Personnel from Fort Irwin have also helped train actors for their upcoming roles to add realism and accuracy to the movies.
Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf came to the post to meet real Army tankers and get up close with military equipment prior to filming the movie “Fury.”
For the movie “Transformers,” Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson and Zack Ward all received several days of military training by Soldiers of the 11th Armored Cavalry, to make the battle scenes more believable.