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Camp Wilson, 29 Palms

Camp Wilson, 29 Palms Admin |

A Marine Corporal Remembers Camp Wilson

Submitted Aug. 10, 2019

By Cpl. Mike Kunkel, USMC Veteran

About the Photograph: Cpl. Mike Kunkel describes being pictured with "a buddy named Max Lesko outside the old tin and wooden huts at Camp Wilson" in Twentynine Palms, California, in June 1982 "before leaving for Med Cruise and, eventually, Beirut." Camp Wilson at that time was officially called Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, and still is the world's largest Marine Corps training base.

One day, just after arriving in June 1982 at Camp Wilson, but before going on the actual training exercise before ultimately heading to Beirut, a few of us decided to hump on over to the base of a nearby mountain range. Needless to say, we never got there.

Camp Wilson is the name given to the training base established in the California desert in 1952 for desert training exercises.

By 1982, it had been officially named Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. In 2000, the base became the Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command. However, veterans and local residents informally still use the words Camp Wilson.

We kept turning around and looking back at Camp Wilson and it kept getting smaller, but the base of the mountain never got closer and we just turned around and headed back. That Monday, we were trucked out to the area where the live-fire operations were taking place, but I never did pay attention to how far the base of the mountain range was from the camp.

Does any jarhead or doc who was ever at Camp Wilson know how far it actually is from Camp Wilson to the base of the mountain depicted in the photograph? Contact SGT GRIT to share what you know with other Marines who submit stories and news to the SGT GRIT website at

Incidentally, it was during this time at Camp Wilson in 1982 that I was involved in a minor helicopter crash. The Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (Lima 3/8) was a helicopter assault unit. One evening during a night training operation several of us who made up part of the Lima 3/8 0331 M60 infantry machine gunners were cross-training with a 50-caliber machine gun team. and we were loaded onto a CH-53 helicopter.

This next part I am unclear about, since my memory is a bit cloudy, but we were fully combat loaded down both sides of the benches of the CH-53, and I think we had a jeep in there with us as part of the cargo that belonged to the 50-caliber gun crew.

The helicopter lifted and moved up and forward as they typically did on takeoff, but the bird started shuttering and then dove forward and crashed.

It was pitch black outside in the desert, so we had no idea how high we were, but I later was told that we were only about 20 feet off the ground when the 53 pitched forward and crashed.

We were seat-belted into the bench seats, but the crew chief was thrown forward and bounced forward to the cockpit because he was just supported by a lanyard, I believe. We were not injured and the crew chief was only slightly hurt, but I never heard any more about the incident. Is there any jarhead or doc reading this who recalls that incident?

Semper Fi

Mike Kunkel

USMC Cpl. 0331

Lima 3/8 Weapons Platoon


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You don’t hump Alligator Ridge. Alligator Ridge humps you.

Stephen M Wilson,

Great stories my fellow Jarheads, hope that all you Beirut veterans have had a chance to check out the memorial at CLNC, and to attend the annual remembrance of the ones we lost in Beirut and Grenada during that time frame, I was with 22nd MAU both deployments and last October marked 35 years since we liberated Grenada and had the bombings in Beirut, Embassy in the spring(April) and “Barracks” Oct 23rd, to think that Al Gray(MARINE) main speaker, that’s always how he introduces himself and he stays behind to talk to all that want a moment of his time, in his 90’s, as spry as ever got a standing ovation and current commandant, a sprinkling of applause, all that served under General Gray respect the Hell out of he Marine, What a Warrior.

Earl R Gilpin,

Lol. Thanks Stoney. How about a box of grid coordinates, or a shoulder holster for a 105 recoilless rifle? Semper Fi Devildog!


Mike Kunkel,

I was stationed at Camp Geiger, NC. We were only out at 29 Palms at Camp Wilson for live fire training. We did go back into mainside several times, but not long enough to meet any other Marines.
Semper Fi Devildog!

Mike Kunkel,

Mike, if you do a Google search there’s several USMC sites for Camp Wilson and you can query about the distance. After all these years, surely someone has done a laser check on the distance. Or at least sent some new artillery Private with a tape measure to do it … like being sent for a bucket of muzzle blast, a battery adjusting wrench, an ST-One or TR-Double E.

‘Stoney’ Brook,

Thanks for the info! Yeah, I ran into another Devildog recently who agrees with you that the mountain range was about 15 miles out. For us, even though we were a Helo-assault Unit, the ride out to area where the live-fire exercise would begin was in the back of the covered deuce and a half trucks, so we didn’t have a frontal vision of where we were going. I only recall that the trucks left Camp Wilson in angled path to the mountain range as opposed to a direct shot, but I do know that it was a long ride. Easily a 15 mile ride. Oddly, we didn’t travel in the birds until we got out the where the operation took place.
My dad had been in the artillery in the army and I always wished I had been in the arty in the Marines, but as a machine gunner, we had a lot of fun shooting up targets as well. But I can bet you guys had a blast with the destruction those big guns could cause.
Semper Fi

Mike Kunkel,

Unfortunately Mike, I can’t tell you the distance from Camp Wilson to the mountains in the picture. I never had to pound the sand out there. However, if it’s worth anything at all to you, the name of those rattlesnake infested mountains in your photograph are the Bullion Mountains, which run in a northwesterly to southeasterly direction and are the most prominent range of desert peaks seen from “Twentynine Stumps” proper. My guess is, they are 12 to 13 miles distant. But don’t take my “guesstimate” as gospel. Whenever we headed out that way, we rode, because we were artillery – towed, [1st. Battalion 11th. Regiment] and rode in a prime mover. We never paid too much attention to the distance. We just moved along until we were ordered to stop at some firing point, set up, received a fire mission, fired, ceased fire, packed up and moved, stopped again…etc. As you might imagine, it was loads of fun. And may I add, damn dusty every time. Riding in a deuce-and-a-half, one had a tendency to eat a lot of dust. And to think I had serious asthma as a kid from 3 to 7 years old. How the hell did I survive? Hal K., Cpl. 0811, “Old Fart Service” (1958 – 1962). Gung Ho!

Hal K.,

Tim was there from around 1980 or 1981 to 84 or 85…

Anthony Armijo,

I have a Homeboy from AZ. He was a gunner stationed at 29 Palms his whole tour, Tim Valdez is his name maybe some of you might know him. My last duty station was Stumps, I lived off base across the main road from the Gung Ho Inn pink house 1984-1985, I was with 7th Engineers DET A Motor T…
Cpl. A.Armijo

Anthony Armijo,

Thanks for the reply! I was on the USS Inchon my first tour to Beirut and when we landed, we stayed down my the Beirut airport. Maybe several weeks after getting there they moved us away from the MAU headquarters up to what we called the American University. Our CO, Captain Chuck Johnson was the one who jumped up on the Israeli tank and pulled his .45.
We had a small LZ out by this old basketball court, but most of the Helo traffic up there were just to drop off mail. If I’m not mistaken, most of the mail runs were made by Hueys and the occasional CH46.
Semper Fi!

Michael Kunkel,

In the mid 80s (84, 85? or maybe 88, 89 with HMH-772 or HMH-363, haven’t talk about this stuff in so long can’t hardly remember) I and a couple of buddies tried to make a run to the hills, never made it. Even when doing ops around the air field (I was a CH53 crew chief) never got close; much farther than it looks. You could have multiple ops around the air field and by the mountains and never get in each other’s way. A large training area and a lot of busy but fun flying there.
I don’t really remember the 53 crash, most likely classified as a hard landing, I was at MCAS New River HMH-362 at the time, and went to HMM-264 in October to ready for a Med Cruise; we went with them to Beirut in January 1983 aboard the USS Guadalcanal. Glad no one was seriously hurt. And although I loved 53s and logged thousands of hours, sometimes 53s could be very unforgiving.

Semper Fi,
Paul L Jorgensen
GySgt 6173

Paul L Jorgensen,

We lived there for a year in 1970-71 and the sand storms were bad but I never heard of it taking the paint off anyones car, We lived in base housing and had a garage. The thing my wife hated was trying to keep the sand out of our house. There was no way to keep the sand from getting in the house.

Sgt. Robert L,

I was on both deployments as well. We did an operation with the Norwegian Home Guard. Even though we were a Helo Assault Unit, on that operation we moved in ten-man teams and humped everything on those snow sleds.

Mike Kunkel,

Was with HMM 263 from 1981 to 1984. Went to Beirut with BLT 3/8 on both deployments (Aug 1982 to Mar 1983 and Feb 1984 to Aug 1984). We also went to Norway and about 24 other countries during that deployment before going to Beirut. The MAU, they were MAU’s then, kept getting extended. I missed the CAX because I joined the squadron shortly before the first deployment.

USMC (Ret)
Frog Driver

Ronald Bean,

As I recall they told us that the pilots were using night-vision, but scuttlebutt had it a few days later that the crash had to do with overloading of the bird. It was so minor, I guess they wanted to keep it quiet. That’s all I ever really heard about it. You’d think I would remember the incident very clearly, but for some reason I don’t. All I can recall is that it was pitch black and we took off as we normally would, nose forward, but the bird make a weird shuddering motion when it lifted and just seemed to dive forward into the sandy LZ. If I recall correctly, we had several M60 teams and several 50cal teams plus the Jeep on board. Thankfully none of us was hurt. The crew chief was bruised up and shook up, but aside from that, no other injuries. Sadly, I do recall hearing of the crash you were talking about.
In regards to the sand storms at 29 Palms, I never had my own vehicle out there. Since 3/8 was stationed out of NC at Geiger, they flew us out to CAX via commercial airlines, but I have heard that the sandstorms could do damage to the paint jobs on cars.
Semper Fi brother!!


Mike Kunkel,

I meant to ask whether the sandstorms in 29 Palms could really take the paint off your car?
I heard stories about that happening. Marines would leave their POVs parked outside, leave for a 2-week field operation and return to a nice shiny hunk of steel with no paint on it… 🙂

Semper Fi

Robert Beresford,

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