Camp Wilson, 29 Palms

Sgt. Grit,

Attached is a picture of me and a buddy named Max Lesko outside the old tin and wooden huts at Camp Wilson CAX 29 Palms, California in June 1982 before leaving for a Med Cruise and eventually Beirut. One day just after arriving, but before going on the actual training exercise a few of us decided to hump on over to the base of the mountain range. Needless to say, we never got there. 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. Can any Jarhead or Doc who was ever at Camp Wilson tell me how far it actually is from Camp Wilson to the base of the mountain in the photo?

Incidentally, it was during this time that I was involved in a minor Helicopter crash. One evening during a night Helo operation (Lima 3/8 was a Helo Assault Unit) several of us 0331 m60 machine gunners were cross-training with a 50 cal machine gun team and we were loaded onto a CH53. This next part I am unclear of as my memory is a bit cloudy, but we were fully combat loaded down both sides of the benches of the 53 and I think we had a jeep in there with us as part of the cargo that belonged to the 50cal gun crew. The 53 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 that recalls that incident?

Semper Fi
Mike Kunkel
Cpl 0331
Lima 3/8 Weapons Platoon

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26 thoughts on “Camp Wilson, 29 Palms”

  1. Great stories, Mike! I went through Comm Chief course at “The Stumps” early in ’77. A classmate and friend, MSgt Dwight Whitmire, was originally from the Phoenix AZ area and a real rock hound. We spent several weekends roaming through the desert and exploring anything we found. We would find some place to hole-up during the heat of the day and traveled mostly at night. I was most impressed by the night time sky, so huge and beautiful, like you could just reach up and grab the moon and stars. I don’t know the distance to the mountains, but I do know its really hard to judge distance out there. Semper Fi!!

    1. Edd,
      A few months ago another Marine that I recently met said, that he and a few buds tried to hump it over to the mountain base from Camp Wilson as well, but they too never got there. He said he was told the mountain base was about 15 miles out from Camp Wilson.


    1. Al,
      That name does not ring a bell, but John might have been attached to the Weapons Company? Or maybe he was with Lima 3/8 weapons platoon before or after me? I was with them from December 1981 until about April 1985 or thereabouts.


  2. had a Marine was stationed with- from 29 Palms to D. C.- said that they had a girl behind every palm tree. Sometimes I wonder where these Marines are now? In the 1960’s no internet- and usually did not get addresses of buddies leaving one duty station- no cell phones then either. Did hook up with 2 Brothers many years later. One called my house and my daughter answered and took a message for me= called back my Brother and he lived in Pennsylvania- e-mailed back and forth and met him and his wife in Atlantic City- stayed friendly for many years – one day did not see return e-mails from him- was on face book with his wife-hate to ask if he WAS DECEASED.

    Another Marine saw my post on Sgt Grit and they(Sgt Grit) forwarded me his e-mail- Have been back and forth with my Brother for many years now. Glad Sgt Grit is around so we have a place to either vent- or relive our proud Past. Semper Fi mt Brothers!

  3. Great stories Mike. I was with Lima 3/8 starting in Jan 1980. I was the Embark NCO during that CAX at 29 Palms and in Supply during our time in Beirut.

    1. Semper Fi Mike. I came to Lima 3/8 in December 1981 just after ITS (0331 Machine Gunner school). Since the school was at Geiger, when I graduated, all I had to do was walk across the street to Lima Company. I remember the Company Gunny was a hard charger named Gunny Silas. He used to call us all “Broke-dicks.” Lol. I think Lima had just come back from a Med cruise when I joined them, but it was quite an awakening for me joining the FMF after just graduating Parris Island and then ITS.

      Semper Fi

      1. 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

        1. Anthony,
          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!

  4. Hey Mike,
    In 1984, I was a Gunner in a 60mm Team at the rank of Lance Corporal in Weapons Platoon, Kilo Co, 3rd Bn 5th Marines. My unit was in Korea participating in Team Spirit. During night operations, Kilo Company was being transported via CH43 helos to a ridge that I would guess was 2 or 3 clicks away. We were sitting around smoking and joking in our flight sticks waiting to be flown out when we were suddenly told that 3rd platoon had gone down in one of the 43s. Apparently, it had crashed into the side of a mountain at high speed. The Marine Corps at that time was experimenting with Night Vision. It was later rumored that the helo pilots were operating the bird with night vision scopes and that the use of these scopes contributed to the crash that wiped out 3rd platoon. Needless to say, all helicopter ops were halted. It was sudden and tragic and affected all of us. I can still see the faces of the Marines we lost that night.
    I read your article in which you mention the helicopter crash you and other Marines suffered at Camp Wilson and wondered whether your pilots were also experimenting with Night Vision…?
    In any event, glad you survived the crash.
    Is it true the sandstorms at 29 Palms

    Semper Fi
    Robert Beresford
    1982 – 1987
    Sgt 0341
    Kilo 3/5 Weapons Platoon
    Instructor, MWTC, Bridgeport

    1. Robert,
      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!!


  5. 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

    1. 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.

  6. 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

    1. Ronald,
      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.

  7. Mike,
    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

    1. Paul,
      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!

  8. 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!

    1. Hal,
      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

  9. 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.

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


  10. 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.

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