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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, 1942-1945 Steeves, Kerry Ragnar


For Canadians the Second World War traditionally evokes images of the invasion of Normandy, the Falaise Gap, and the ill-fated raid on Dieppe. Over the years Canadians who served overseas have been recognized but, at the same time, soldiers who served on the home front have been overlooked. This is because many of Canada's home defence soldiers were conscripted under the National Resources Mobilization Act, and were unwilling to go overseas. Thousands of Canadians, however, were denied entry into the regular forces because they were too old, too young, or classified as medically unfit. In British Columbia during the Second World War, these men were given the opportunity to enlist in a unique home guard unit called the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers (P.C.M.R.). The Pacific Coast Militia Rangers were organized in response to public pressure, and because existing coastal defences were inadequate. Composed of unpaid volunteers trained in guerilla tactics, the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers were a home defence force peculiar to British Columbia. The Rangers were not a typical military organization. Rather, they were a distinctively North American fighting force in the tradition of previous Ranger formations. A sense of historical tradition was evident in the designation of "Rangers" for British Columbia's Second World War guerilla home defence volunteers. In North America, since the 1700s, men born in and acquainted with the hinterland-frontiersmen, hunters, cowboys, and trappers proficient in the use of firearms-have been formed into irregular Ranger units in times of emergency. There is a long list of these North American Ranger organizations: Rogers' Rangers in the French and Indian War; Butler's Loyalist Rangers, the East Florida Rangers, and the Queen's Rangers in the American Revolution; the Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers in the revolution against Mexican authority; Mosby's Rangers in the U.S. Civil War; and the Rocky Mountain Rangers in the Northwest Rebellion. The Pacific Coast Militia Rangers were the twentieth century revival of this Ranger tradition. Throughout history, all Ranger units have used the same tactics: they employed guerilla warfare with an emphasis on surprise attacks, they operated in small units which were highly mobile, and they focussed on rifle training. A lack of formal military discipline has also been characteristic of all Ranger formations. The Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, then, were not an innovation in the Canadian military experience. They were part of a distinct military tradition of irregular troops adapted to suit North American frontier conditions. The Pacific Coast Militia Rangers reflected the character, fears, and internal conflicts of British Columbia's society. British Columbia was a predominantly white community and the P.C.M.R. mirrored the widespread white ethnic prejudices in the province. Ethnic groups were largely excluded from the Rangers and Native Indians, who were accepted as valuable recruits, were treated in a paternalistic manner. Militant trade unionism has been an important facet of B.C. history, and trade unionists were prominent in the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers. Trade unions fully supported the P.C.M.R. and Ranger membership was dominated by the working class. The labour movement's influence in the P.C.M.R. can be seen in the anxiety over the possible employment of Ranger units to break strikes. The role of war veterans in the P.C.M.R. also reflected the composition of the larger society. First World War veterans were a well-defined group in B.C. society, and their values and outlook were revealed through their Ranger participation. The veterans' zeal and rivalry with younger Rangers indicates that their patriotism was, at times, misguided, but it was rooted in a personal need to play a visible role in the war effort. The P.C.M.R. operated in a democratic manner: if the commander of a Ranger company was disliked by his men, he could be voted out of his position. Similarly, if Rangers disagreed with directives from P.C.M.E. headquarters they were quick to express their displeasure and threatened resignation. This would have been impossible in the regular army, but in the P.C.M.R.-composed of citizen-soldiers-it was a commonplace pattern. The social equality between ranks, and the egalitarian way in which the P.C.M.R. operated expressed the New World frontier values of British Columbia in the 1940s. The wartime fears and phobias of British Columbians showed in the actions of the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers. Life in British Columbia during the early years of the Second World War was, for the most part, as secure as life in other regions of Canada. This was changed, however, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The aggressiveness of Japan and the stunning success of her war machine, caused panic in the Pacific Coast province about the vulnerability of B.C. to an attack. In addition, the war sharpened the already existing white racial animosity against the Japanese, and _ provided a socially acceptable outlet for its expression. White British Columbia has had a history of fear of Asians and, subsequently, anti-Orientalism has been a current in the province's culture. In much the same way that anti-Japanese sentiment forced the federal government to intern and evacuate British Columbia's Japanese population, so too did public outcry prompt the formation of local home guard units. These two problems-the defence of British Columbia and anti-Japanese sentiment-became manifest in the history of the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers. From the Dominion government's viewpoint, the P.C.M.R. was a valuable organization. The Rangers provided military protection at a low cost, but they also comforted a frightened population which demanded protection from a Japanese invasion. It will be argued here that while the main purpose of the P.C.M.R. was home defence, the organization became much more than that to both the government and the people of British Columbia. Quite apart from its defence role, the P.C.M.R. provided reassurance, sustained the morale of a population at war, and acted as a means to indoctrinate civilians with military propaganda.

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