California Weekend Getaway:History Lessons Learned at Military Museums

As a boy growing up in a small Central Washington farming community, one of my first recollections was that soldier in the framed picture that hung above my father's roll-top desk. The helmet had four stars and the stern look on the soldier's face was anything but friendly. Yet, there it was, my father's prize possession, a photo he viewed so reverently that it maintained its prime location for several decades until my dad sold his newspaper and moved out of his office.

The man in the picture was General George S. Patton, someone that my generation knew little about until he was made famous by George C. Scott's portrayal of him in the 1970 movie classic, Patton. But my father knew. As a U.S. Army major, he had served with Patton in Europe and apparently held a high enough position to have regular contact with old Blood-and-Guts himself. He traveled with the Patton headquarters team as the Third Army moved across Europe in the final stages of World War II.

My father never had a bad word to say about Patton, a man he admired until the day my father died. In fact, two days before my dad's death, the last thing we did together as father and son was watch the movie Patton.

So it's probably not surprising that we recently made a point of stopping by the General Patton Memorial Museum at Chiriaco Summit. Located just off the Interstate 10 about 30 miles east of Indo, the museum is a testament to the man and also to his specific involvement with creating the Desert Training Center, a vast desert landscape set aside for tank training when U.S. troops needed to prepare for warfare in North Africa. While Patton only ran the center for four months when it opened in 1942, he was instrumental in choosing the site where it was located.

The museum tells the story of the training center, but it also is a collection of artifacts from several wars including World War II. It's not in a fancy building and doesn't compare, for example, with the World War II Museum in New Orleans, but it is a fascinating group of exhibits that brings visitors closer to the realities of war. Through its collection of photos and documents, the museum offers a historical account of Patton and his contributions to the U.S. military. There is a large assortment of items actually used in war, from German Lugar pistols to machine guns to gas masks to uniforms and gear worn by our troops in several past wars.

It's as if someone put up a sign that said, "bring us all of your war memorabilia and leave it here."

With our family history and special interest in Patton, the museum helped us get an even better understanding of the man my father held in such high esteem. Interestingly, I don't ever remember hearing Patton's voice in the many World War II newsreels we have seen over the years — yet the introductory film at the museum features him speaking several different times. And surprisingly, he didn't sound like George C. Scott at all — he almost seemed soft-spoken.

One other particular point of interest for us was the Third Army's "After Action Report" on display. This is a hard-cover, large format book that was handed down to select officers after World War II, summarizing the various battles and lessons of the war. We learned this was one of only 90 copies that were produced — illuminating to us because my father had at least six of them.

Outside the museum are several tanks and other Army vehicles that help visitors envision what tank warfare must have been like in World War II. And it was easy to imagine hundreds of these tanks doing mock battle in these miles and miles of open desert a little more than a half-hour away from today's glitzy Palm Springs.

When you visit the Patton Museum, be sure to stop for a meal at the nearby café. The first Patton memorial at Chiriaco Summit was established in 1945 by Joe and Ruth Chiriaco, who operated this café. Today it is operated by their daughter, Margit Chiriaco Rusche, who also played a key role in creating the present museum.

For more information on the Patton Museum, phone (760) 227-3483 or go to

March Air Field

While the Patton Museum celebrates the U.S. Army's contributions to our war efforts, the March Air Field Air Museum, on Interstate 215 just south of Riverside, focuses on our nation's military aircraft.

Sprawling alongside the runway at March Air Force Base are more than 60 aircraft of all sizes and shapes, from little single-engine prop planes to the mammoth B-52 bomber. And then, just a few steps away is the indoor museum that tells the story of how aircraft were first used in warfare and how they have become a vital part of our nation's military power. Thousands of artifacts are on display to bring it all to life.

Upon entering the museum visitors are given a map of the museum floor as well as the aircraft displayed outdoors on the flight line. Rather than just displaying airplanes, the museum has organized a sequential series of exhibits that take visitors through the 20th Century beginning with World War I and the creation of March Field in 1918. A call had gone out from our forces in Europe that the Germans were having great success in the war with their new "flying machines." Congress then appropriated money for the development of more fighting aircraft and, as part of that package, several training bases were funded, including March Field.

As it turned out, March Field was opened just a few months before the end of World War I and, while training continued for a few years, the base all but shut down in 1923. It re-opened in 1927 and was then used to train some of the U.S. military's most famous flying aces and generals. Exhibits depict this history and then move onto the stories of World War II and how March was used extensively during the war for training. For more information, call (951) 697-6600 or visit

USS Midway

The naval contribution to our nation's war efforts is well represented in San Diego's popular floating museum, the USS Midway.

A visit to the museum makes it easy to see why this attraction is setting box office records. With all the precision you would expect from a military-based organization, the founders of the Aircraft Carrier Museum have put together an impressive visual and historical experience that appeals to all ages, and especially to those who have any sort of fascination with things military.

We found the Midway to offer just the right balance between a structured, orderly display and one that is more individualized to fit each visitor's particular interests and time available to tour the museum. As part of the $15 admission, each visitor is loaned a "Walkman"-like audio device and headphones to hear pre-recorded explanations of 29 different points of interest in various locations around the ship. But you're totally on your own -- you can see these points of interest in any order or even skip some if you like.

For more information on the USS Midway, call (619)544-9600 or visit

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