Sunday, November 29, 2015

Pioneer monument to be dedicated at St. Helena Cemetery

A monument to honor pioneer John Searles will be dedicated on Dec. 5 in St. Helena.

Register Staff
Napa Valley Register

The public is invited to attend the dedication of the new monument honoring mining pioneer John Searles at St. Helena Cemetery on Dec. 5 at 10:30 a.m.

John Searles was an early California pioneer, arriving by ship in San Francisco in the spring of 1850. After mining gold for 23 years, he discovered that what had appeared to be just salt and mud, was in fact the largest mineral deposit in California. He began mining borax at his discovery. Today, mining of that deposit continues after more than 140 years, and today a variety of products in addition to borax are extracted.

In his honor, his mineral deposit was named Searles Lake.

Despite his importance to California, when Searles died on Oct. 7, 1897, in St. Helena, he was buried two days later with only a curb surrounding his plot marked with his last name. His grave provides no information as to who he was, or what he accomplished.

The St. Helena Historical Society, the Searles Valley Historical Society and several private individuals are erecting a proper monument at his grave.

Napa Marble and Granite Works helped design the marker with historic details from Searles Valley Historical Society. Donations have been collected since 2014 for the $8,000 project. Donations came from Searles Valley Historical Society, with major gifts from Jim and Bonnie Fairchild, Searles Valley Minerals Inc., Searles Lake Gem and Mineral Society and the Death Valley 49ers Club.

Kim Taylor, a Searles Valley native, realized at the Trona (Searles Valley) Centennial Celebration in 2014 that the founder’s grave was unmarked. Taylor, who now lives in Roseville, spearheaded the effort.

Descendants of John and Mary Searles, plus representatives from Searles Valley and St. Helena historical societies, will attend the Dec. 5 dedication at the cemetery, at 2461 Spring St. The dedication is rain or shine.

For information, contact the St. Helena Historical Society at 707-967-5502 or by email, or the Searles Valley Historical Society at 760-372-5222 or

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Yuma Proving Ground: Testing, training that keeps soldiers safer

A platoon of infantrymen at Camp Laguna, the first of the Arizona camps in the expanded Desert Training Center. (Photo: Yuma Proving Ground)

Work at the site also has yielded practical civilian items such as GPS

Roger Naylor
Special for The Arizona Republic

It all started with bridges.

In January 1943, the U.S. Army showed up in one of the hottest, driest corners of the American desert to build and test bridges. At first glance it may have seemed crazy, but the Yuma Test Branch was a brilliant idea. The new Imperial Dam created perfect conditions to test bridging equipment because the Colorado River flow could be controlled.

While engineers were trying to figure out how to build portable combat bridges that could handle tank traffic, Camp Laguna was established nearby to train the men who would drive the tanks and fight alongside them. Camp Laguna was one of a dozen U.S. Army training camps spread across 18,000 square miles of harsh terrain in Arizona and California. The location was chosen by Gen. George Patton to prepare troops for the rugged conditions and mechanized warfare of North Africa. Nearly 1.5 million men trained in this desert terrain.

As the fighting in Europe began winding down, bridges were no longer an urgent need. Yuma Test Branch began growing rice paddies on the banks of the Colorado to mimic conditions troops and equipment could face during the anticipated invasion of Japan. Camp Laguna closed at the end of World War II but work at Yuma continued. The focus shifted as engineers began pitting the fierce desert environment against a variety of machinery.

In 1950, the camp closed but reopened a year later with a greatly expanded mission. The renamed Yuma Test Station became the longest overland artillery range in the country. Armored vehicles, armored systems and air-delivery systems were tested. The installation was renamed Yuma Proving Ground in 1963.

“Far too often in the past we’ve used soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen as guinea pigs,” said William Heidner, museum curator at the proving ground’s Heritage Center. “We put them in situations with equipment that didn’t always work in certain conditions. We didn’t routinely test, even through World War II. Yuma Proving Ground really sprung from that.”

It has become a laboratory virtually unparalleled. Yuma Proving Ground covers 1,300 square miles in a landscape free from urban encroachment and with extremely consistent weather patterns —350 sunny days and fewer than 3 inches of rainfall annually. Sparse vegetation reduces many environmental concerns. Sea-level altitude makes it perfect place to test helicopters.

Every year here, tens of thousands of artillery, mortar and missile rounds are fired; 36,000 parachute drops take place; over 130,000 test miles are driven; and nearly 4,000 air sorties are flown.

“In terms of workload, we’ve been the Army’s busiest test center for the last three years,” Heidner said.

The Apache helicopter, M-1 Abrams tank, Bradley Fighting Vehicle, Stryker armored vehicle and virtually all of the Army’s artillery and ground-weapon systems were tested here. Yuma Proving Ground also contains the western world’s largest and most advanced mine, countermine and demolitions test facility. Much of the work done has civilian as well as military applications.

“One of the tests we pioneered was the benefits of using antifreeze in the summer,” Heidner said. “And GPS was initially developed here.”

Beginning in the 1970s, all developmental work on the global positioning system took place at Yuma Proving Ground. Before money could be allocated to align actual satellites, stand-ins had to be placed on mountaintops. Once promising data was gathered, a bevy of satellites were recalibrated to saturate the Yuma sky and the work on GPS was completed.

Visitors can learn the complex story of Yuma Proving Ground at the Heritage Center. Housed in the installation’s former headquarters, the museum features impressive displays and artifacts. The first several rooms follow a timeline of the installation. A fascinating component of the story is not just the staggering amount of equipment tested here but often how it was done.

“In many cases you had to invent the means to test the hardware,” Heidner said. “In the early days after a test, a team of engineers would lock themselves in a room with slide rules and pore over the data. The challenge was to shoot a test and get results in real time. Today, we have range data transmission systems all over the grounds connected by hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cables. As soon as the test is complete, you can view images of projectiles moving through the air at 5,000 feet per second and print out the data.”

The last few exhibits in the Heritage Center are especially powerful. An entire room is dedicated to the Holocaust and German concentration camps. Haunting images of living skeletons peer back from still photos and a short movie. The room is a tribute not only to those who suffered but also to the men who trained here. Of the 25 divisions stationed in the desert, 10 went on liberate concentration camps.

Another room is a memorial to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, featuring vivid photographs from the Library of Congress.

“Our core mission is training for the organization that’s here, which is by and large a civilian workforce,” Heidner said. “They understand the importance of their work. These are not refrigerators they’re testing. It’s the equipment we’re going to give to our sons and daughters when we send them into harm’s way.”

The newest exhibit commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. It includes images painted by soldiers who were there. A detailed map of Vietnam hangs in the hallway, covered with insignia.

“I’ve had a lot of wives tell me this is the first time their husbands really talked about their experience,” Heidner said. “They stand in front of the map for a long time and go, ‘I was here and this is who I was with’ and that’s how it starts.”

Yuma Proving Ground

Getting there: Yuma Proving Ground is about 187 miles southwest of central Phoenix. Take Interstate 10 east to U.S. 95. Turn south on U.S. 95 and go 60 miles. Turn right at the big guns onto Imperial Dam Road. Proceed 0.8 mile to the Visitor Control Center at the Wahner Brooks Military Exhibit Area, a collection of tanks, howitzers and rockets tested in the area.

Entering the site: Visitors must be U.S. citizens. Those who do not have a Department of Defense identification card will be subject to a background check. To complete a background check, which generally takes less than15 minutes, stop at the Visitor Control Center. Drivers must have a valid drivers license, registration and proof of insurance.

Details: 928-328-6533,

Heritage Center: Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. Admission is free.

Details: 928-328-3394.

Tours: The Yuma Visitors Bureau provides tours of Yuma Proving Ground during the winter months. The “Behind the Big Guns” tours give a behind-the-scenes look at the facility and include a narrated motorcoach ride with stops at the Heritage Center, mission-control rooms normally off-limits to visitors and lunch at an on-post restaurant. Dates are Dec. 9, Jan. 12, Feb. 2 and 23 and March 8. Tickets are $55. The “At Ease” tours offer a slightly shorter outing for $40 on Dec. 16, Jan. 26 and March 2.

Details: 928-783-0071,