An unassuming yet historically significant midcentury-modern building can be found on a small patch of land in a desert city known all over the world. Without further ado, we present the Owen Coffman American Legion in Palm Springs.
The original American Legion in the great town actually goes back to the late 1930s, when a group of local veterans from WW-1 would gather at the famous “Desert Inn,” for camaraderie and recreation. Among them, Earl Coffman, son of the resort’s founders. The vets would meet in the spacious dining room at the Inn, and seemed content with the location, at least for a time. They may very well have dined there while discussing the ongoing world war. Not theirs, but the current one.
In the Spring of 1944, Earl Coffman was given the most distressing news that a parent can ever receive. Earl learned his 24 year old son, Owen Coffman, a crew member on a B-17, was one of seven killed in action over the skies of England a few days earlier while returning from an aborted bombing mission due to severe weather.
There were three survivors who parachuted before the plane exploded. Owen was a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Force’s 748th Bomber Squadron, 457th Bomber Group, Heavy. It was decided to build a new American Legion in the young Coffman’s honor.
Earl’s mother, Nellie Coffman, was the co-founder of the Desert Inn, and Owen’s grandmother. The matriarch worked with the local American Legion post to establish a permanent memorial. The Desert Inn was the second resort in Palm Springs and put Palm Springs on the map.
The Desert Sun 02 Jan 1948, Fri · Page 4
In 1945, the year after Owen’s death, the Legion purchased land on Belardo Road, obtained from Austin and Pearl McManus for $9.90. Coffman bought adjoining land and gave it to the Legion. Architects Albert Frey and John Porter Clark designed the building and Ryland Pinckard became its contractor. It’s no secret the military commemorates its heroes openly and passionately. Honor is infused in the very foundation of American Post 519.
The Owen Coffman American Legion Post 519 came into its own when the National Broadcasting Company assisted in building a working commercial radio studio at the site. The station’s maiden broadcast was the Frank Sinatra program held at the Plaza Theatre, which was used in part as a fundraiser for the post. Comedian Jack Benny, a Palm Springs resident, made an appearance on that program as well. Immediately following Sinatra’s show was the formal inauguration of station, KCMJ, “1340 on your radio dial,” a 250-watt radio station built north of the city by Palm Springs Broadcasting Company, comprised of Dick Joy and Donald McBain.
The new building had a 3,000 square-foot hall with a stage and broadcasting booth which served local radio station KCMJ, featuring live broadcasts featuring popular stars such as Al Jolson, Doris Day, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Red Skelton and many other luminaries of the era from 1948-1954. They were live broadcasts, hard-lined into Los Angeles –way up on a 50,000-watt transmitter where it went on the air.
After 60 years as the meeting place for hundreds of local military veterans, the Coffman American Legion Post 519 War Memorial Building received its overlooked historical plaque on May 18, 1999. Gradually, the radio sound booth was used as an inglorious storage closet filled with boxes of mementos and supplies.
On the 72nd anniversary of the opening of Post 519, a new historic plaque was dedicated to replace its original stolen plaque. Many local officials and dignitaries participated in the event, and received several proclamations, including one from the City of Palm Springs, the California State Senate, and the office of Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz. Coffman Post 519 historian, Lee C. Wilson, said at the time the long-term goal was to restore the post to its 1940s USO-themed style. Interest in the ignored radio booth began to ramp up.
Legion member, Glenn Morrison, who has been a Ham radio operator for nearly 50 years, did some checking on the Internet and found that K6TAL, a “vanity call” – think vanity license plate for ham radio operators – was available. In the language of the Federal Communications Commission, the ‘K’ designates for stations operating west of the Mississippi River, the ‘6’ is for stations in California, and ‘TAL’ stands for The America Legion. The FCC approved the callsign, and the station became a reality. By 2015, thanks to the dedication of legion volunteers, the radio booth had been restored and still serves as an emergency communications center.
On the day we visited, veteran Tom McLean gave us a wonderful tour inside the radio booth. The radio booth even features an original microphone used by Judy Garland and a radio used by WWII Navajo Code Talkers. “All of live radio happened on stage,” explains McLean, Vice President of amateur radio club K6TAL. “When I say ‘live radio,’ people go silent. There was no TV back then. None whatsoever.” Tom’s passion for the radio booth runs deep, and one cannot help but to catch the same enthusiasm as he proudly showed us vintage treasures from the nostalgic radio past of days gone by.
By September 1967 the entire Desert Inn was demolished, replaced by an indoor shopping mall that was in turn demolished in 2009, but Post 519 lives on. The Legion’s Amateur Radio Club is located at 400 North Belardo Road in Palm Springs. K6TAL’s longitude is 33.49.44N, Latitude 116.32.52W and Grid is DM13rt. Please contact Tom McLean at 760-393-1799 for further information.
The Coffman American Legion in Palm Springs is still a popular place for entertainment, dining and camaraderie. You can find live music by local performers every Friday evening, accompanied by a varied menu created by their own in-house chef for only $20 per person, 5:30 p.m-8 p.m. Lunch is served Monday-Saturday, 12 p.m-3 p.m. The Legion also serves a delicious Sunday Brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. They feature a large dining room, stage and full-service bar. You will find the radio booth to the right of the stage area. Any card carrying member of the American Legion, Auxiliary, Sons of the American Legion, American Legion Riders, or Voiture 1341 of the 40/8 may attend dinners, Post functions and events, as long as it is not a private event. Only American Legion members may sign in a guest.
In an effort to help veterans with their groceries, House Committee Member Ron Webster currently brings FREE food every Monday, Tuesday and Friday after 11:30 a.m. Items include baked goods, fresh fruit, dairy products, yogurt, vegetables and even eggs to the Owen Coffman American Legion Post 519. Every first and second Monday of the month, he brings a big load of produce.
You can also find Coffman American Legion Post 519 volunteers at the Village Fest every Thursday evening in downtown Palm Springs, where they promote the post, help vets with their VA claims, recruit new members and pass out American flags to kids. Located on Palm Canyon Drive just south of the Hyatt. Come and see for yourself how great this is for the post and our community!