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Vehicles in the
Vehicles in the "Tank Yard" bake in the desert sun, just like they did in Patton's day.

General Patton Memorial Museum

Field review by the editors.

Chiriaco Summit, California

George S. Patton Jr was a hard-charging American general -- a brilliant (though controversial) wartime tactician, both hated and admired. The eccentric leader claimed to have been a warrior in eight previous lives. He died in 1945, ingloriously, in a traffic accident. While Patton pilgrims can view the death car (and his ivory-handled revolvers) at his museum in Kentucky, an attraction in the California desert offers its own exhibits about the man whose nickname was "Old Blood and Guts."

Wrinkly mannequin of the general in his three-star helmet.
Wrinkly mannequin of the general in his three-star helmet.

Chiriaco Summit exists mostly as a food and fuel oasis for those exiting I-10 for Joshua Tree National Park. It seems like a remote place for a museum devoted to one of America's most image-conscious combatants. But Patton had a history here. In 1942 he personally chose this wasteland for the army's Desert Training Center: a proxy for the North African Sahara, a place to whip his tank corps into shape in authentic heat and sand.

3-D map of the region was originally built to plan a Los Angeles aqueduct.
3-D map of the region was originally built to plan a Los Angeles aqueduct.

Chiriaco Summit is named for Joe Chiriaco, who in 1933 founded the crossroads as a rest stop for travelers brave enough to drive this desolate stretch of highway. His descendants, out of patriotism -- or perhaps gratitude to the man who brought over a million soldiers to camp next to their general store -- started the General Patton Memorial Museum here in the late 1980s.

Patton admired Rommel's tank skills, but never faced him in battle.
Patton admired Rommel's tank skills, but never faced him in battle.

The museum briefly covers Patton's life before World War II and the war as a whole -- with exhibits, for example, on the USO and Rosie the Riveter -- but the image that predominates is of the breeches-wearing Wehrmacht-busting general. It is, one guesses, exactly as Patton would have wanted it. He stands in bronze overlooking the entrance, with riding crop in one hand and bull terrier by his side. We give a quick salute, then rush into the air-conditioned interior.

Just inside the entrance is a four-ton model of the 65,000 square miles of desert surrounding the museum. This 3-D map was originally commissioned by L.A.'s Department of Water and Power to scope out an aqueduct that would make the city hospitable. It was repurposed by Patton to plan the numerous camps and airstrips where he could train his tank troops.

The Patton museum probably would not exist without Patton the movie (1970), for which George C. Scott won (and famously refused) the best actor Oscar, and which transformed the long-gone general into a celebrity worthy of a museum (or two). For the most part the public image fostered in the film is supported by the exhibits at Chiriaco Summit. Wrinkled Patton mannequins are outfitted in jodhpurs and polished helmets. Scant attention is paid to his infamous slapping of a shell-shocked soldier for perceived cowardice, but the "Fair Weather Prayer" -- ordered by Patton from his chaplain for good killing weather -- is reproduced in full on one wall. Copies can be purchased at the gift shop.

Bronze Patton scans the horizon for careless enemies.
Bronze Patton scans the horizon for careless enemies.

Skeletal tanks were improvised for training.
Skeletal tanks were improvised for training.

The museum goes into exhaustive detail explaining the auto accident that ended his life, and leaves the door open for dark interpretations. Perhaps the brazen general, with the war over, was deliberately bumped off? This exhibit is placed next to a replica of his grave and to a real piano, purchased by Patton for his troops, with a sign forbidding it to be played by visitors.

Patton's generalship in WWII had many critics, but also led to many victories. One of his admirers was Richard Nixon, like Patton a native of California. Nixon supposedly watched and rewatched the Patton movie at the White House whenever he needed inspiration.

Tourists who don't mind dehydration can visit the museum's army tank collection, both outside and in an adjacent open-air pavilion. The vehicles go beyond those used during Patton's military career, including ones named for him posthumously. Also here are the curious "ghost tanks," jeeps augmented with tank-shaped exoskeletons used by Patton for his 1942 combat training. Fixed in place to the outside lot, they look more like monkey bars than military assets. Anyone tempted to climb them, however, will received a harsh hand-searing lesson in solar radiation.

Bench seat photo-op puts you safely in the path of a tank.
Bench seat photo-op puts you safely in the path of a tank.

For those whose idea of tanks veers to the conceptual, the museum has a collection of Leonardo Da Vinci's proposed machines of war, fabricated in wood from his sketches, including a "scythed chariot" and a 33-barreled "organ gun." The inclusion of the work by a 15th century polymath might seem odd in a museum dedicated to a 20th century general, but it's not as if Patton himself isn't becoming ancient history. He's been dead for nearly 80 years. Patton the movie is far closer in time to its namesake than to today.

The Patton Museum offers those passing through (and unless you are a Patton fan you are just passing through Chiriaco Summit) a biographical look at a controversial figure in his element. Without the post-service political career of a Ulysses S. Grant or George Washington, Patton was in danger of being forgotten, and he noted that, "Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser." Thanks to Hollywood, Americans rediscovered Patton -- who won most of his battles -- and fell in love with him again. This museum does its best to keep that love light burning, as bright as a flaming, Patton-blasted enemy tank at the Battle of the Bulge.

General Patton Memorial Museum

General Patton Memorial Museum

62510 Chiriaco Rd, Chiriaco Summit, CA
I-10 exit 173.
Museum daily 9:30-4:30 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $10.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Lost Desert Camp MonumentLost Desert Camp Monument, Chiriaco Summit, CA - 4 mi.
Bombay Beach: Odd ArtBombay Beach: Odd Art, Bombay Beach, CA - 21 mi.
Etherea: Wire CathedralEtherea: Wire Cathedral, Coachella, CA - 26 mi.
In the region:
Slab City, Niland, CA - 32 mi.

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