The military has had a strong presence in Yuma for many years, so it's not surprising that the region has been the subject of numerous myths and misconceptions relating to the military. Which stories are real? Which ones are only legend — with perhaps a kernel of truth?
Camels in the desert
Other legends revolve around camels that the Army reportedly used at Fort Yuma in the 1880s and the descendants of those camels, which supposedly still roam in the area, either in ghostly form or flesh and blood.
“The best legend is the legend of the Red Ghost. As the story goes, sometime back in the late 1880s, an Arizona women was killed on her homestead. All they found were tufts of red hair and weird looking tracks. People concluded a red-haired camel must have killed the woman,” said Bill Heidner, curator of the Yuma Proving Ground Heritage Museum.
Then one day a red camel with a dead rider reportedly rampaged through the town. Residents determined that the Army had a recalcitrant soldier who didn't want to ride a camel, so they tied him to the camel to get him used to it.
“The camel took off and they never were able to catch it. They say the rider died and the camel went crazy trying to get rid of the corpse. The Red Ghost is still reported to be sighted occasionally,” Heidner said.
Another story says that a gold miner who used camels struck it big and bragged in town. The next day the miner was robbed and both the miner and the camel killed.
According to the legend, “the prospector and the camel are still rampaging in the desert,” Heidner said.
Again, these legends have a kernel of truth. The Army did experiment with camels, but it was a short-lived experiment. The camels spooked the horses and mules, and the disposition of camels made it hard to work with them. In 1863, the Army ordered that the camels be auctioned off.
Lt. Edward Beale led the experiment, and Hadji Ali (aka Hi Jolly) and Yiorgos Caralambo (aka Greek George) were among the men hired as camel drivers.
Official records indicate only three camels were stationed in Fort Yuma, Heidner said.â€¨One story says Beale crossed the Colorado River on the steamboat General Jessup at Fort Yuma on his way to Washington, D.C. The pilot is supposed to have said, “I ferried Beale's beasts.” Some people believe he meant camels, but he never specified the animals and it could have been horses, Heidner said.
Legend says that when the Army no longer wanted the camels, it released them in the desert. Heidner says this is unlikely as the camels were considered Army equipment and someone was responsible for them. If they had been lost, someone would have had to pay for them.
A businessman, Mr. McLenaghan, bought some of the auctioned camels to use in mining operations in Mexico and hired Hi Jolly and Greek George to help him drive them there.
In 1866, the men reportedly took the camels to Fort Yuma on the way to Mexico.
“He shows up in Yuma, with Hi Jolly leading the parade through town, and goes to Fort Yuma and dies the next day,” Heidner said.
Rumor is that Hi Jolly and Greek George did not know what to do with the camels, so they released them. The camels would have had been branded by the Army, perhaps leading people who spotted them to believe they had been released by the Army.
“There are notions that all camels seen around here are descended from the Army's camels. Maybe, maybe not,” Heidner said.
Patton in Yuma?
General George S. Patton left a big impression in the area when he trained his troops in the nearby desert for battle in World War II. But did Patton actually train in Yuma County?
No, says Heidner. During Patton's stint, the training center was only in California and was not expanded to Arizona until after the general had already gone to Europe.
“Patton's legacy lived much longer than Patton,” Heidner said.
Patton opened the training center, dubbed by troops as “the place God forgot,” in April 1942. Gen. Lesley McNair tasked Patton with finding an appropriate training area in preparation of an invasion into North Africa. The general found it in the desert of southeast California, later known as the Desert Training Center, California-Arizona Maneuver Area (DTC-CAMA).
“Patton called it ‘the best place I have ever seen' because it was so vast and remote,” Heidner said.
However, Patton only trained his troops on the California side.
“Patton, at its height, only had 10,000 men in the desert, not even a division,” Heidner explained.
Patton used a “primitive, no nonsense” approach to training his men. His troops had to forgo luxuries and lived in tents. Patton himself lived in a tar paper and wood structure.
“He wasn't here to get comfortable. He was here to train for war,” Heidner said.
In the end, Patton left earlier than expected, in July 1942, to lead the North Africa invasion.
“He was here a short time. Only four months,” Heidner noted. “The irony is that the troops he trained never went to North Africa.”
The majority of training took place after Patton left. The training center expanded into Arizona under Gen. Walton Walker. Between 1942 and 1944, more than 1 million troops from about 400 military units trained there.
“Patton started it, Walker expanded it,” Heidner said.
Buried military treasures?
Another myth is that Patton buried military vehicles, ammo, weapons and other equipment in the Imperial Sand Dunes in anticipation of a West Coast invasion. Fact or fiction?
“The legend told around campfires in the dunes is that General Patton, fearing that the Japanese would take the Southwest by invading from Mexico, hid military equipment and supplies in the sand dunes. This is incorrect as are most legends,” wrote Dan Rasp, author of “Following Footprints Around Yuma, Arizona.”
However, Rasp noted that the Japanese did have a plan to attack the U.S through Mexico. “The plan was to send aircraft carriers up the Gulf of California and launch aircraft to attack San Diego from its almost defenseless east,” he wrote.
“They also planned to destroy Boulder, Parker and Imperial dams. That would not only have isolated and crippled Southern California, the resulting flood would have eliminated Yuma.”
The legend of the buried military equipment is so pervasive that the desert has been surveyed in search of buried equipment.
“If you dug a ditch to hide a column of armor, we'd know it. We would be able to see it. With all the satellite imaging and ground searches done, they'd know it,” Heidner said. “Once you disturb the desert, you leave a scar.”
The exception, however, would be the ever shifting sand dunes.
But, as Heidner noted, burying military equipment there would have been an “dumb” idea. The abrasive sand would have ruined the equipment.
“The last thing you would want to do is bury them in sand. The equipment would have been useless,” he said.
In addition, he pointed out, “Patton wasn't worried about invading Japanese. He was preparing for North Africa.”
Nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth to the legend of Patton's buried “treasure.” He did lose a .45-caliber pistol in the desert. Some people are still searching for it.
“It would be quite a find,” Heidner noted.
Italians POWs in Yuma?
Another myth is that Italian POWs were forced to work at Yuma Test Branch during WWII.
“It's almost true, but not quite true,” Heidner said. “They were former POWs. Under the rules of war, POWs cannot be made to work against their own country.”
But when the Allies overthrew Mussolini, “their legal status changed. Now the soldiers were of an allied country. All wanted to go home ... but now they could be used in view of the shortage of men,” Heidner said.
The Italians were formed into two units and stationed at the Yuma Test Branch from 1944 to 1945, where they tested floating bridges. They left their mark in the form of a stone “castle” storage shed constructed by them along Highway S24, not far from the Colorado River.