The Strange Story of the Battle of Los Angeles

Late February 1942 was a time of great angst for all of America, especially along the west coast.    A little more than three months earlier, America had been shocked out of its isolationism by the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.  The laid back culture of sunny southern California had become one of nervous fear, anger, and anxiousness.  Young men were being shipped off to fight, women were taking their place in the factories and the fields, and children were going door to door to collect anything that might be used to help in the war effort.  Adolph Hitler was taking over nearly all of western Europe and about to try to do the same to the Soviet Union.  The Japanese empire had expanded its rule from China to Korea to the Philippines, nearly all the way south to Australia.  On February 19, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed executive order 9066, calling for the detention of all Japanese Americans living in the west.  German U-Boats were wreaking havoc off of the east coast of the United States, and Japanese submarines patrolled perilously close the west coast.

All of this set the stage for one of the strangest  events of World War Two, which took place 77 years ago tonight: The Battle of Los Angeles.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan sent a small contingency of submarines to patrol the American west coast.  They had several engagements with the U.S. navy right away. The Japanese subs already already had sunk two merchant ships and damaged six more, when on February 23, 1942, one made its way into a channel slightly north of Santa Barbara.  As the Japanese knew President Roosevelt was scheduled to make a speech to the nation that evening, they wanted to create fear amongst the already skittish Americans.  The Japanese sub came to the surface and open fired on the Ellwood oil field for about 15 minutes.  No one was injured, and there was only minimal damage to the oil field, but they had succeeded in terrorizing the people of southern California.  The United States mainland had been attacked by a foreign adversary.  The future of America was far from guaranteed.

Ellwood-oilfield-sub-attack-AOGHS
Photo Credit: Goleta Valley Historical Society

People were on edge.  Secretary of war Henry Stimson advised American cities to be prepared to withstand “occasional blows” from the enemies.  On the night of February 24, Naval intelligence instructed units on the west coast to be prepared for a Japanese attack.

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Photo Credit: Airminded

A little after 2:00 a.m. on the morning of February 25, the silent, clear, moonlit  in the city of Angels was torn apart by the sounds of sirens and panic as the city’s air raid system was used for the first time during the war.  Gun crews began firing, and didn’t stop until they had discharged nearly 1500 rounds.

From the Los Angeles Times article the next day:
“Thousands of volunteer air-raid wardens tumbled from their beds and grabbed their boots and helmets–those who had helmets — and rushed into the night. Tens of thousands of citizens, awakened by the screech of sirens and the popping of shells, jumped out of bed and, heedless of blackout regulations, began snapping on lights. It was pandemonium. …

Although no bombs were dropped, the city did not escape its baptism of fire without casualties, including five fatalities. Three residents were killed in automobile accidents as cars dashed wildly about in the blackout. Two others died of heart attacks.”

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Photo credit: Rare Newspapers

Here is the most interesting thing: to this day, no one is really sure at what they were firing at. It may have been nothing at all.

People often overuse and misunderstand the term U.F.O., which stands for “unidentified flying object.”  This was a real case of an unidentified flying object!   There likely was something flying over Los Angeles that night, but no one is really sure what it was.  The government could not get its story straight in the next few days and weeks.  The Western Defense Command of the Army, headquartered in the San Francisco area declared that there were “unidentified planes” flying in the area.  The Secretary of the Navy said it was all a false alarm caused by excessive war nerves.  Eyewitnesses had reported a single large object flying over Los Angeles.  Others reported as many as 200 planes swarming the greater Los Angeles area.  However, not a single bomb was dropped, and no enemy planes were shot down.  An investigation in the 1980s concluded that it could have been a drifting weather balloon.

Conspiracy theorists have found the Battle of Los Angeles to be a source of great fuel.   Some think it was really an invader from outer space that the government wanted covered up, some think the government staged the whole thing to convince defense contractors to move inland.  Others believe there really was Japanese attackers in the area, but that was kept quiet so people would’t panic.

The truth will probably never fully be known. The whole story illustrates how scary the times must have been, and how the rest of us should be thankful that we didn’t have to live through them.

It did give us a cool album title for one of the greatest band of all time though:

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Photo Credit: Itunes

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