The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1984, Volume 30, Number 4
Thomas L. Scarf, Managing Editor

By Gerald A. Shepherd
Instructor, U.S. History, Helix High School, La Mesa

Images from the article

Although San Diego was geographically located about as far away from the battlefields of France as an American city could be, there was considerable interest here when the U.S. declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, in response to President Woodrow Wilson’s famous message to Congress. Despite a slumping local economy, a patriotic dinner was held that raised some four thousand dollars to encourage the construction of defenses (heavy mortars had already been placed at Fort Rosecrans to protect San Diego’s shoreline); buildings left over from the Panama-California Exposition were offered to the military for training purposes; and three hundred San Diegans offered their automobiles to the government.1It was clear that the city, despite its relative isolation on the Pacific coast, desired to play an important role in the war effort.

The young men of San Diego County responded enthusiastically to the colors. Many had been serving with the allied forces before the U.S. declared war, some were already members of the army or national guard units, and still others were called by the draft. A large number of the latter served with various units of the 91st Division, which trained at Camp Lewis, Washington.2 The nearly one hundred San Diegans who enlisted in various batteries of the 65th Artillery at Fort Rosecrans became the first local men to leave the city to serve overseas.3

For those who could not fight in the regular armed services or state militia but still wished to help protect San Diego, however, an unusual unit was formed a mere five days after America’s entrance into the war under the auspices of the Cabrillo Commercial Club. This organization, originally formed as the “San Diego Wheelmen Club” in 1891 in order to improve roads in the county, had developed into a 150-member civic group which now promoted commercial and athletic activities.4 In the fall of 1912, the Cabrillo Club boasted of the largest membership of any club in San Diego.5

On April 11, 1917, following a resolution of the Club’s Board of Directors, a military adjunct of the Club was created called the Cabrillo Rifles. The purpose of the new group was to serve as a unit of “home guards” to protect both San Diego city and county in event of military emergency. There was no age limit imposed on married men but single men had to be over forty. On the following day approximately one hundred men appeared for drill and were formed into “Company A,” and within the next twenty days some two hundred volunteers had enrolled. To give the unit an official standing, the men were placed under the direction of San Diego County Sheriff Ralph Conklin. Colonel J.P. O’Neal, commander of the 21st Infantry stationed in Balboa Park (known as “San Diego’s Own” and considered one of the best units in the regular army), was called upon by the Rifles for military advice and assistance in training.6

Colonel O’Neal also served as chairman of a committee which was formed to find a commander for this eager group of able-bodied San Diegans. Chosen to occupy this position was Fred Jewell, whose rank of colonel attained on the staff of the governor of Nebraska was reduced to major to command the battalion. Jewell, a local banker and boyhood friend of William Jennings Bryan, had come to San Diego in 1901 where he became the acknowledged leader of the city’s Populist movement, and later a Democratic party spokesman who welcomed young assistant naval secretary Franklin Roosevelt here on April 13, 1914. Jewell said of his selection on April 26, “I consider it an honor to receive appointment from a Colonel of the regular U.S. Army even though it is a demotion.”7

Major Jewell’s first act was to announce his company commanders and lieutenants, and the company commanders then named sergeants and corporals. Each squad was placed in command of a corporal, who saw to it that transportation was furnished by a member of his squad.8 Company commanders appointed were William H. Bush, Captain of A Company; J.V. Bush, Captain of B Company; and C.P. Hansen, Captain of C Company. Jewell’s official title was “Major of the Battalion of Cabrillo Rifles.” The Cabrillo Club officers initiating the Rifles were O.E. Darnell (Vice President of Security Trust Savings Bank), President; James G. Pfanstiel (a Director of the Cabrillo Club), 1st Vice President; Morris Binnard (a prominent San Diego pioneer lawyer active in Democratic party circles), 2nd Vice President; H.W. Hinman (a mercantile businessman from Escondido), Secretary; and C.L. Williams (President of First National Bank), Treasurer. The roster of Club directors included fifteen important local businessmen and bankers of the era, including many of the above and Major Jewell, who was President of the U.S. National Bank of San Diego.9 The financial and commercial nature of the Cabrillo Club was to heavily influence the leader-ship roster of its new stepchild.

The Cabrillo Rifles eventually opened up membership to all men within draft age who wished to join and became the largest division of the San Diego home guards. Major Jewell’s men were available for all emergencies at the sounding of the city’s fire whistle. The signal consisted of nine short blasts with a pause after each three whistles.10 Jewell proudly proclaimed that “the Rifles can be assembled for duty within one hour’s notice.”11 The president of the County Council of Defense, Judge T.O. Lewis, once asked if the riflemen could really be mobilized for duty on such short notice. That night the call was issued by the fire whistle at 7:00 p.m. and by 7:30 over half of the Cabrillo Riflemen equipped for service fell in at the sheriff’s office, and at 7:45 marched to the municipal pier and awaited their orders.12

Athletics played an important part in the Rifles’ schedule and exercises were held on top of the Marston building downtown. The men were led by Lt. Paul Hathaway and Sergeant Eels of the 21st Infantry. A local newspaper recorded that what these “huskies” lost in weight from the workouts they often regained at some of their smokers and dinners.13 Often drills of an overnight or longer nature were mobilized at the Sheriff’s office. Automobiles were used on these “field trips” but though the distance to the objective was given the destinations were not. A casual air of camaraderie prevailed, and often wives and lady friends were permitted on some of the shorter campouts. Duck hunting and fishing also took place on many such expeditions.14

Despite the social nature of many of the Rifles’ activities, the military aspect of the unit was never completely forgotten. Rifle drill and brush fighting were practiced in various parts around the county. A typical excursion might leave Saturday night and make camp with a mess and commissary truck. After a night sleeping on the ground, the men would arise the next morning to practice their sharpshooting skills while hunting or engage in rifle drill and rapid firing. The San Diego Union described how fifty men from A and B Companies drilled at Imperial Beach in August, 1917. “The camp was pitched in true military fashion,” the article related, and after a tent was erected to serve as a headquarters, “the men were put through their drills and manual of arms.”15

Drills in the regular army also took place frequently on the Plaza de Panama in the Exposition grounds Tuesday and Friday evenings during 1917, and Friday evenings during the first six months of 1918. Daily noontime drills were held on the roof of the Club building. These drills and forced marches got the men in such excellent shape that according to one report, had they ever been needed at home “they would have made it pretty hot for an enemy that might have attacked.” Companies A and B of the Rifles, just in case they ever got as far as the trenches, held regular shooting competitions at the La Mesa Reservoir.16

When the San Diego Rifle Club offered the use of its range at Ocean Beach to the Cabrillo Rifles, rifle and pistol practices were held on Sundays during 1917. Many of the members became fair marksmen and some even scored as sharpshooters.17 The 30-30 Winchester model was the preferred weapon of the Rifles, although members who owned other models could use them. Each member furnished his own gun and supplied his own ammunition. The official uniform consisted of an olive drab service hat with the letters “C R” on the front of the crown, light brown khaki shirt, outing coat, riding breeches, and canvas leggings. The hat and leggings were issued by the Cabrillo Rifles’ commissary, and the rest furnished by the member himself.18

The San Diego Union called the men to action with the following notice in 1918:

Officers and men of the Cabrillo Rifles are called to assemble tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock in Colonel Byers’ office, for rifle practice and drill with arms. Each rifleman having an automobile is asked to bring it equipped to carry as many passengers as convenient, and filled with sufficient gasoline for a round trip of 35 miles. Rifles and automatics should each have 20 rounds of ammunition; those having no guns will be supplied at the sheriff’s office. Members are also asked to bring a canvas and folding table and one meal ration for each of his party, also tin cup and spoon. Coffee, sugar, cream, and army hard tack will be furnished by the commissary.

To promote the social aspect, the men were encouraged to indulge in some recreational activities: 

The women will be welcome. Bass fishing is said to be good. Uniform consisting of hat and leggings may be procured from Adjutant Hinman.19

When Sheriff Ralph Conklin died of pneumonia during the winter of 1917-1918 while searching for a murderer in the mountains of San Diego county, the officers and men of the Cabrillo Rifles were genuinely saddened. It was felt that “no better officer ever served a county, or commanded an army.” He was replaced by the new County Sheriff James C. Byers, who was also given the rank of colonel and came to be heartily respected by the men.20

At this time the Cabrillo Rifles recorded a membership of over four hundred officers and privates, including the following staff:

Colonel James C. Byers
Major Fred Jewell
H.W. Hinman, Adjutant, rank of 1st Lt.
Ernest Davies, Quartermaster, rank of 1st Lt.
C.B. Hansen, Asst. Quartermaster, rank of 1st Lt.
Dr. R.L. Doig, Surgeon, rank of 1st Lt.
John F. Scott, Recruiting Officer, rank of Captain
O.O. Darnell, Ordnance Officer, rank of Captain
Dr. H.M. Casebeer, Surgeon, rank of 1st Lt.

All commissioned officers were made Deputy Sheriffs of the County of San Diego.

In a letter dated September 17, 1918, from Major Jewell to E.O. Busenbury, the Secretary of the County Council of Defense, Jewell stated that although the Cabrillo Rifles had raised some three companies of over one hundred members each, all except about one company had been called into government service or discharged from the unit for other reasons (a large percentage of the Cabrillo Riflemen who enlisted in the regular army during the latter part of 1917 were made corporals and sergeants as a result of their Cabrillo Rifle training).21

Although the Rifles were a strictly voluntary self-supporting unit organized by their own efforts, Jewell wrote to Busenbury that because members were now required to purchase khaki uniforms, “some assistance for purchase of uniforms, rifles, and ammunition would be acceptable at this time, for members who are unable to make those provisions for themselves.”22 San Diego was making the transition between a small seaport and what the Cabrillo Club now called “the greatest military rendezvous ever created west of Chicago, all branches of the army and navy being represented.”23

Although the Cabrillo Rifles continued subject to call for public service long after the war, and an attempt was made in the mid-1930s to revive the organization on a social basis, with the demise of the Cabrillo Club and of most of the members of the Rifles a unique and patriotic attempt by San Diegans to play a role in the Great War had come to an end. The unit had made its mark on local history, however, especially among the city’s leadership. The San Diego Sun wrote after the war, “Men who were then and still are prominent in civic life were proud to be members.”24 When a candidate for city council later in his life, Major Jewell reported to his credit “organizing and drilling the two companies of Home Guards, known as the Cabrillo Rifles, during the World War.”25



1. Richard F. Pourade, Gold in the Sun (San Diego: Union Tribune Publishing Company, 1965), pp. 224-225.

2. Clarence Alan McGrew, City of San Diego and San Diego County, Vol. 1 (Chicago: American Historical Society, 1922), p. 215.

3. Ibid.

4. “Cabrillo Commercial Club,” pamphlet published by Richard Wolfe, 1921, p. 1, San Diego History Center Research Archives.

5. “Welcome to our City,” pamphlet published by the Cabrillo Club, fall, 1912, San Diego History Center Research Archives.

6. San Diego County War History Committee, “History of the Cabrillo Rifles 1917-1918,” 1919, p. 1, San Diego Public Library.

7. Ibid., p. 3

8. “Home Guard to Organize a Battalion,” Evening Tribune, April 24, 1917.

9. “Stalwart Cabrillo Rifles Will Be Reorganized as New Social Group,” San Diego Sun, January 18, 1934.

10. Ibid.

11. Personal letter from Fred Jewell to E.O. Busenbury, September 17, 1918, U.S. National Bank stationery, San Diego County War History Committee, p. 21.

12. San Diego County War History Committee, p. 20.

13. San Diego Sun, January 18, 1934.

14. San Diego County War History Committee, p. 14.

15. “Cabrillo Rifles Drill and March on Ocean Shore,” San Diego Union, August 13, 1917.

16. San Diego Sun, January 18, 1934.

17. San Diego Union, May 28, 1917 (photograph).

18. San Diego County War History Committee, p. 4.

19. San Diego Union, 1918.

20. San Diego County War History Committee, p. 17.

21. Personal letter from Major Fred Jewell to E.O. Busenbury.

22. Ibid.

23. “Cabrillo Commercial Club,” p. 21.

24. San Diego Sun, January 18, 1934.

25. “Excursion to Yesterday,” San Diego Union, November 3, 1932.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS are courtesy of the San Diego Public Library. The author also gratefully acknowledges use of the biographical files of the San Diego Historical Society, and of the inspiration provided by his late aunt Velma Allison Moeller, longtime member of the San Diego Historical Society.