The weather was pleasantly balmy when a contingent of khaki-uniformed soldiers arrived in the arid desert of Southwest Arizona in late January 1943. The United States has been at war with the Axis powers for over 2 years and major battles were raging in both the European and Pacific theaters. The U.S. military had decided that a wide variety of bridging equipment needed to be thoroughly tested and developed, which is why large groups of military personnel had begun descending on Yuma.
But why Yuma? Why would the military decide to test river bridging equipment in one of the hottest and driest places in the entire North American continent?
The reason is a simple one -- the Colorado River. This mighty 1,450-mile long watercourse is one of the world's great rivers. Beginning as melted snow from the Rocky Mountains and emptying into the Gulf of California in Mexico, nearly 6 billion gallons of water flow between the banks of the Colorado River each year. By the time of the Second World War, the river had been extensively dammed to generate electricity, provide drinking water, and irrigate fields.
Hydraulic planners recognized that Yuma County's Imperial Dam offered engineers the unique opportunity to control the river's flow as they wished. It could be a raging torrent one minute and a placid stream the next. This, in combination with Yuma County's clear climate and excellent transportation, made the decision an easy one.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Yuma Test Branch near the present site of U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in early 1943. Initial office and dormitory buildings were obtained from the Bureau of Reclamation about 1 mile from the test site. Additional facilities were constructed right at the Colorado River test site by Italian Prisoners of War who had been captured in North Africa.
Two units of the Italian prisoners were assigned to the camp. All were paid $9.00 per month, regardless of rank, and had pledged to assist in the war against Germany and Japan. Permitted to visit the town of Yuma once each week, most continued to avidly dislike the southwestern desert that bore such a close resemblance to the deserts in which they had been captured in North Africa.
The first major project undertaken at the test branch was the redesign of a portable steel treadway bridge used by heavy armored vehicles in combat areas. Three months after the first contingent of soldiers arrived, a 16-hour per day test schedule was in effect. When it was completed several months later, test managers estimated the entire bridge test was finished in 10-percent of the time it would have taken in peacetime.
Testing continued to take place until the conclusion of the war in 1945. No fatalities occurred at the station during the war years, but there were numerous accidents. The most common were people falling into the river or vehicles being driven into the water.
The high heat, especially during the summer months, was an important factor in nearly everything that went on. Everyone was required to take daily salt tablets. Any soldier who didn't like the tablets was forced to swallow his pill in the mess hall before filling his tray. Records show that key officers attended a special "conference" each afternoon in which they took a cooling dip in the Colorado River.
Tactical bridge testing slowed down in the months prior to the end of the war, but new projects were brought to the proving ground. One test concerned methods of troop and vehicle movements through rice paddies -- which would be of particular concern during any invasion of Japan. Records show that rice and hemp plants were grown next to the river to establish realistic conditions and a team of experts from Yuma were even positioned in the Philippines to be present during the planned invasion of Japan.
Though work at the test branch declined after the war, it remained in operation for several more years. The Italians left for their homes in September 1945, as did most of the servicemen. The majority departed Yuma aboard passenger trains which stopped at the Southern Pacific railroad depot in the old town area. The historic depot was destroyed by fire in 1993.
Five years after the war ended, the test branch closed, only to reopen -- with a greatly expanded mission -- in 1951. It is from these beginnings, based on steel bridges and miscellaneous other river- related equipment, that the Yuma Proving Ground of today has grown.
The U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground of today features approximately 1,700 military and civilian employees. Employed in a wide variety of occupations, the mission of USAYPG's workforce is to use advanced technology to carry out sophisticated tests of aircraft armament systems, air delivery systems, tank-automotive equipment, and much more. Approximately 100 tests are ongoing at the proving ground at any single time.
phone numbers: (928)328-2151 or DSN
address: Yuma proving Ground, AZ 85365
1,700 active duty and civilians
officer family units; 151 enlisted family units; 15
unaccompanied spaces; short wait (928)328-2127/3766
lodging: 10-unit gues house, campground
Support Center: (928)328-3350/2513
school on post operated by Yuma School District
Care: Center for 99, three approved home
Appointments (928)328-2502; benefits (928)328-2237;
Yuma Proving Ground - Arizona
has a small size commissary - (928)328-2252, and a small
exchange (928)328-2240. Recreation at Yuma Proving Ground - Arizona
includes arts and crafts, bowling, library, auto hobby,
theater, gym, tennis, swimming, outdoor activities,
camping, and stables.