Warfare erupted on Southeast Asia's Korean Peninsula in 1950, a war which was to last three years before a truce was called. One reserve unit that was activated to support the war effort was the 412th Construction Engineer Company, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. But the unit never made it to Korea.
Don C. Chapman was a private then. Along with the other 400 members of the unit, he was sent to a lonely patch of desert outside Yuma, Ariz., in May, 1951, to construct an airstrip that grew into today's modern Laguna Army Airfield at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground.
"My job was to maintain equipment used by the unit," said Chapman as he recently relaxed in an air conditioned office at the proving ground. "That was a big job, for we had all sorts of heavy equipment -- bulldozers, graders, trucks, low boys, and front end loaders."
The members of the unit lived in un-air conditioned canvas five man squad tents and dined in a larger tent used as a mess hall. He remembers the food as being pretty good, though he recalls that powdered eggs and reconstituted milk were served each day. He got mighty tired of that.
"There wasn't much of anything going on out here when I arrived," he recalled. "We'd hit the watermelon patches for fun and sometimes we went swimming in the Colorado River, but that was about it. Most of us didn't have our own transportation, so we didn't even get into town much."
Chapman says the weather was hot when the unit arrived. Typical work hours were early in the morning to around noon, with a break during the blazing afternoon hours, then more work in the evening. During the long afternoons, soldiers relaxed on their bunks or took naps. Everyone tried to stay cool.
"The soldiers were trucked out here after we arrived in Yuma by train," he said. "Our commander told us to stick together and not get lost in the desert. Along with the others, I couldn't imagine why the Army had decided to build a base here. But we had a job to do, so we just did it. But even when I left about a year later, I still didn't have a complete picture of what the Army intended."
Chapman had spent his early years in the high deserts of New Mexico, so he had developed an appreciation for the rugged beauty of southwest desert terrain.
"Many of the other guys had never been to the desert before, so they treated it just like anywhere else," he smiled. "I guess I stood up to the heat better than most."
Though Chapman says he was glad to leave the proving ground when his tour was complete, the desert seemed to have woven some kind of magic spell on him. He eventually settled in Kingman, Ariz., where he has resided the last 30 years. Though the temperatures aren't quite as extreme, the heat difference between Kingman and Yuma is marginal. Until his recent visit, he had never returned to the proving ground where he had labored over 45 years before.