The ‘Greatest Generation’ Soldiers of U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground helped liberate Europe
YUMA — As we commemorate the anniversary of the Normandy Campaign that began on June 6, 1944, we honor the men and women whose efforts at what is now U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) played a vital role in the Allied victory.
Today, YPG is most renowned for its position at the forefront of Army modernization efforts, testing virtually every piece of equipment in the ground combat arsenal. To ensure continuity in this vital mission, the proving ground’s civilian workforce of engineers, data collectors and others have usually exceeded the number of Soldiers throughout it’s 80 year history.
Army testing in the desert near modern YPG occurred during World War II, too, but back then training Soldiers was the prime activity– and what Soldiers they were.
Seven of the 20 divisions that trained in the Desert Southwest were in the first wave that assaulted the beaches at Normandy in June 1944, including the Eighth and 79th Infantry Divisions that trained at Camp Laguna. They helped repel Hitler’s massive, but unsuccessful, last gasp offensive in the Ardennes Forest that bitterly cold winter. As German resistance melted away with the spring thaw, they liberated Nazi death camps inside Germany.
The men who engaged in these heroics were made, not born. The destinies of 20 divisions, more than 200,000 men, were forged in the massive Desert Maneuver Area that spanned Arizona, California, and Nevada. They trained in the blazing hot desert to prepare for combat in North Africa, but the Allies defeated the Nazis there before their training was finished. Nonetheless, it served them well in their deployment to Europe: more than one veteran of Desert Maneuver Area training said that the intense hardships of combat in Belgium’s raw winter were less grueling than a summer in southwestern Arizona subsisting on two quarts of water per day.
Their efforts were greatly aided by the M2 Treadway Bridge, the Army’s first modern tactical pontoon bridge, which had been rapidly tested at Yuma Test Branch prior to the invasion of Normandy. YTB engineers also developed the cantilevered delivery system for the more versatile and robust Bailey Bridge, which enabled Soldiers to construct a bridge on the friendly side of a gap and push it across before engaging the enemy. By the end of the war, Allied combat engineers had erected thousands of these temporary bridges as retreating Axis forces destroyed permanent bridges behind them.
YPG is the last active Army installation in the Desert Maneuver Area, and within its massive boundaries lies what once was Camp Laguna. Today, all that is left on the desert floor are concrete pads, rock-lined pathways that were once flanked by hundreds of tents, the occasional unit insignia rendered in rocks, and scattered detritus of camp life: badly rusted tin ration cans and cups, and the occasional glass Coke bottle. The camp’s legacy lives on in a free Europe, not in architectural remains.