California Militia and National Guard Unit Histories
Cabrillo Rifles, California Home Guard

San Diego's 'Cabrillo Rifles' Served as a Home Guard in World War I
by Alexander D. Bevil, California State Parks Historian
"We were known as the 'Cabrillo Rifles.' No, we didn't do any shooting: a few craps were shot."
- Lt. Lewis Kirby (retired), San Diego Union, August 1, 1941

On April 12, 1917, six days after America entered World War I, approximately 100 members of the Cabrillo Commercial Club volunteered for membership in the "Cabrillo Rifles."
The men were to serve as a unit of "home guards" to protect the city and county of San Diego in the event of a military emergency.

While San Diego was nearly 6,000 miles from the bloody French battlefields, hadn't the "Zimmerman Note" revealed that Germany had enticed Mexico to cross the International Border to retake territory lost during the Mexican War? With only miles separating the border from downtown San Diego, the Cabrillo Rifles would be among that city's first line of defense. San Diego's Cabrillo Rifles were officially members of the California State Defense Guard, which had been created by the June 3, 1916 National Defense Act. Under the authority of Governor William Stephens, it was armed military reserve with primarily constabulary duties to "repel invasion, suppress insurrection or riot, and to prevent destruction of life and property." Because the various companies were placed under the authority of the local County Sheriff 's office, all of its officers would also be sworn in as deputy sheriffs.

San Diego County Sheriff Ralph Conklin engaged the services of Colonel J. P. O'Neal, commander of the Army's 21st Infantry Regiment stationed in Balboa Park, to provide military advice and assisted in training San Diego's Home Guard. Colonel O'Neal led a committee that, on April 26, 1917, asked Fred Jewell, a former colonel of the Nebraska National Guard, to be the Cabrillo [Club] Rifles' commanding officer with the rank of major.
Jewell caustically accepted, saying "I consider it an honor to receive appointment from a Colonel of the regular U.S. Army, even though it is a demotion."

To be eligible for membership in the California Home Guard, a man had to be a citizen of the US, or have declared his intention of becoming a citizen, between the ages of 18 and 60 years. The Cabrillo Rifles' initial membership consisted of the cream of San Diego's banking and commercial leaders.

Major Jewell himself was President of the U.S. National Bank; while others included First National Bank President C. L. Williams, attorney Morris Binnard, and Club Director James G. Pfanstiel. The company commanders, Captains William H. Bush (Company A), J.V. Bush (Company B), and C.P. Hansen (Company C), appointed their companies' respective sergeants and corporals. The corporals, who were squad leaders, were responsible for getting a squad member to "volunteer" the use of his own car to transport his men.

When the Cabrillo Rifles opened its ranks to non-Cabrillo Club members, its ranks swelled to as many as 400 members; many of whom had to ask for assistance in purchasing their uniforms, weapons and ammunition.

While the Winchester 30-30 lever-action model and the Police model .38 revolver were the Cabrillos' rifle and pistol of choice, they could also bring and shoot other sporting rifles if they wished. It also appears that some men became proficient in the use of "automatics." This latter may be in reference to the Model 1911 Colt .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, or the Model 1918 .30 caliber Browning Automatic Rifle.

While the Cabrillo Rifles uniforms consisted of a light brown khaki shirt, riding breeches, and great coat, the battalion's commissary provided the men with peaked Army-style "campaign hats" (with "CR" devices on the front of each crown) and canvas leggings. To distinguish themselves from the regular Army, their officers' shoulder ranking consisted of a series of round or diamond-shaped silver or gold metal insignia.

Major Jewell, who wore a single gold diamond, boasted that, like volunteer firemen, his men would respond to any emergency within an hour after hearing the sounding of the city's steam fire whistle blow three loud blasts, three times (Note: four blasts would call out the city's Naval Militia; while five its National Guard units).

When Judge T. O. Lewis, president of the County Council of Defense, tested Major Jewell's claim, he ordered the fire whistle to blow at 7:00 p.m. that night. About a half hour later over half of the 80 members of the Cabrillo Riflemen showed up at the sheriff 's office equipped for duty. Major Jewell then marched them down Broadway toward the municipal pier to await orders.

No para-military unit is worth its salt without some semblance of exercise, close order drill, and field maneuvers. The Cabrillos were no exception. Members initially engaged in morning group exercises held on top of downtown's Marston building. A local newspaper reported that what those "huskies" who lost in weight during these workouts often regained it while attending evening smokers or dinners. "Field maneuvers" consisted of overnight or weekend automobile excursions out along dirt roads to backcountry destinations. More like "campouts," many members brought along their wives or lady friends. After arriving at their destinations, which could be at Lake Murray or Imperial Beach, there would be a commissary truck and mess kitchen waiting for them. The next morning the men would engage in close order drills, including the manual of arms, "brush fighting," and rapid-fire target practice. Many also honed their sharpshooting skills hunting wild game (and bass fishing).
In a 1941 San Diego Union newspaper "Half-minute Interview," former Cabrillo Rifles Lieutenant Lewis Kirby noted that, when the men returned to camp, they also became proficient at shooting dice or "Craps." Members also held Sunday rifle and pistol target practice at the San Diego Rifle Club's Ocean Beach shooting range. They were also given instructions on basic first aid techniques and how to serve as stretcher bearers.

For a short time the battalion even had a mascot: "Beachy," a little 2-year-old Boston bulldog.

On September 27, 1918, Col. Jewell announced that the men would not engage in their regular Friday night drill on the former Panama-California Exposition's Plaza de Panama due to the outbreak of the Spanish Flu pandemic at the nearby Naval hospital and training facilities.

Although the men of the Cabrillo Rifles never had to directly defend their home town, about 300 of them (more than two full companies) were able to do so by either enlisting or being drafted into the regular Army during the latter part of 1917. Of those, many were readily promoted to sergeant or corporal due to their training in the Cabrillo Rifles.

On November 11, 1918, the men of the Cabrillo Rifles marched down Broadway as part of a grand Armistice Day Celebration. Although members of San Diego's own Home Guard unit remained on call well after the Armistice, the organization's activities ended with the eventual termination of the Cabrillo Club.

In hindsight, the Cabrillo Rifles was a unique local expression of patriot fervor and commitment by San Diegans. Sixteen years after the Armistice, an article in the San Diego Sun noted that "Men who were then, and still are, prominent in civic life were proud to be members."

Editor's Note: This is second in a series of informational articles in Adelante augmenting the theme of the CoH March 2017 History Conference, The San Diego Region and the Great War: 1914-1919, commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the United States' Entry into World War I. There will be a different WWI-related article in each edition of Adelante, until the conference March 3 & 4, 2017. This series began with the history of the former Navy Chapel that now houses the Veterans Museum at Balboa Park, which will be the location of the March conference.

This article was originally published in the October-December 2016 edition of Adelante: Journal Congress of History of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

Additional Online Histories:

The Cabrillo Rifles

The following articles was published in the Fall 2017 edition of the Contra Costa County Historical Society Journal
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Posted 30 November 2017