California Militia and National
Guard Unit Histories
Cabrillo Rifles, California Home
'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
- 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
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
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
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
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.