Sherman tank
A Sherman tank from the 6th Armored Division, known as the “Super Sixth,” lands on Normandy’s Omaha Beach in July 1944. (A Pictorial History of the Super 6th photo)

Philip St. George Cooke was a Union general during the Civil War, a cavalry officer, explorer and historian who led the Mormon Battalion to California from Santa Fe in the Mexican-American War. His efforts established and protected a southern route to the Golden State during the California Gold Rush.

Justin Ruhge

Justin Ruhge

The Army Triangular Division Camp, 36th Army Corps, was named in his honor.

In March 1941, the Army began the development of Camp Cooke as a tank-training base in a remote area of Santa Barbara County that eventually would become Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Military leaders, looking over the country for suitable sites, happened upon the Lompoc-Guadalupe-Santa Maria triangle. Here, terrain, ocean and climate conspired to produce a country ideally suited for armored forces.

The War Department purchased 122 tracts totaling 92,000 acres, and a $17 million bid was the lowest offer for construction of the base. The Leeds-Hill company was retained as the surveying outfit to supervise the construction of the camp.

On Sept. 11, 1941, there was a public dedication ceremony for the camp. In early October that year, the first military contingent moved in, and Camp Cooke’s Service Command Unit was activated on Oct. 5, 1941.

On Oct. 15, 1941, Lt. Col. John B. Madden assumed the duties of commanding officer. On Nov. 20, the first flag-raising ceremony was held at Camp Cooke, with a eucalyptus tree serving as flagpole.

In November, building went on apace, with every effort made to be ready by the end of 1941 for war!

In early January 1942, the second of Camp Cooke’s four commanding officers, Lt. Col. Carle H. Belt, assumed the duties of post commander, and he was promoted to full colonel in April.

The water treatment and filtration plant was completed on March 21, 1942. The base supported a peak population of 38,000, quite a sizable city for the 1940s.

Government funds also were used to build USO facilities in Santa Maria and Lompoc, which opened March 1, 1942, and Aug. 7, 1942, respectively.

Test ranges were laid out from one end of the base to another. 90mm anti-aircraft, 105mm artillery, a Sherman tank, a bazooka, machine gun, rifle and pistol ranges and remote target ranges were all planned forward. Urban villages were set up for realistic door-to-door fighting.

In August 1942, construction of the second part of the camp began.

The camp’s primary training function was for armored tank divisions. The first such division to arrive was the 5th Armored Division and its Sherman tanks, in February 1942. Six months were spent in training on the camp’s Burton Mesa, with three at the Southern California Desert Training Center.

D-Day was launched on June 6, 1944, and the division reached France in August of that year. Numerous other divisions followed, all of them destined to engage in many battles across Europe.

In April 1944, Camp Cooke was designated a camp for German prisoners of war. Construction of a separate fenced camp was begun in the northeastern area of the camp.

The first group of 587 prisoners arrived on June 16, 1944. At Camp Cooke, they were organized in 16 branch camps that placed prisoners up to 200 miles away, where they were needed to help plant crops and harvest them, as well as do road work. These students replaced the men who were fighting in Europe and the Pacific.

The camp had a peak population of about 36,000 in June 1943. During the course of Cooke’s life, nearly 400 separate and distinct outfits moved in and out of the camp.

Upward of 175,000 personnel were stationed at Camp Cooke. Part of the camp became an Army disciplinary barracks and, later, the U.S. Penitentiary in Lompoc. The camp was placed in caretaker status in 1946.

Camp Cooke was reactivated in August 1950 after the outbreak of the Korean War, and Burton Mesa once more echoed to the sounds of war. Its rejuvenation lasted exactly 2½ years.

The camp received a new lease on life when the Air Force transferred it from the Army in September 1956 and, in June the following year, North Camp Cooke and its approximately 65,000 acres, was renamed Cooke Air Force Base.

Over the years, most of the original Camp Cooke has been replaced by modern Air Force facilities. A Patton tank monument at the Y on base is a reminder that the base had another beginning and role in its history, which was renamed Vandenberg Air Force Base on Oct. 4, 1958.

— Justin Ruhge is retired aerospace engineer and program manager, and author of 17 books on local, Santa Barbara County and California history, especially military and maritime history. The opinions expressed are his own.