by Laura Davis, managing editor
So read the Los Angeles Times headline on the morning of February 25, 1942, the day of the Battle of Los Angeles, also known as the Los Angeles Air Raid. It’s an intriguing story, and witnesses, scholars, the U.S. military, UFOlogists, conspiracy theorists and average joes-on-the-street have been debating over what actually happened for 72 years, now. It’s a Schroedinger’s Cat of a tale: all possibilities remain both true and false until someone opens the box with definitive proof.
The facts of the case:
At 2:25 a.m., the United States Air Force IV Interceptor Command ordered a blackout of the entire Los Angeles area, from the coast in Santa Monica to Pomona, some 27 miles east of Los Angeles. Residents were awakened by air raid sirens, air raid wardens rushed to their posts, and, despite the danger, many residents took to the streets to find out what was happening. During the blackout and ensuing panic, five people died: two from heart attacks, and three in traffic accidents, and scores of others were injured by rushing around in the dark.
A group of 800 million candlepower searchlights scanned the skies overhead, until, finally, they converged on one point.
At 3:12 a.m., the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California began firing anti-aircraft missiles, 50 caliber machine guns, and any other weapons they had available. In all, they fired over 1,400 anti-aircraft missiles over the course of the next hour. The coastal area from Redondo Beach to Long Beach was peppered with falling shrapnel. People reported feeling the percussion of the artillery as far away as downtown L.A, and witnesses as far away as Whittier, California (about 30 miles away from Fort MacArthur) were able to see and hear the missile fire.
Where the facts run out:
But, what were they shooting at? Well, that’s the $64 question … and, to date, no one’s won the $64!
The incident took place less than three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the entire west coast was on edge because of the possibility of an attack from Japanese subs or aircraft. To further fuel people’s fears, the Japanese Navy had successfully used submarines to attack U.S. merchant ships along the Pacific coast, immediately following the Pearl Harbor attack. On Christmas Eve 1941, a Japanese sub designated I-17 sank a cargo ship off the coast in sight of Point Fermin (in San Pedro, California, adjacent to Fort MacArthur), then attacked the Ellwood oil refinery, on the central California coast near Santa Barbara only two days before the Battle of Los Angeles.
There had been rumors throughout the war that the Nazis had been secretly developing some kind of flying saucer aircraft. Could they have succeeded in getting them aloft? Reports of “Foo Fighters” from later in the war seem to support these rumors, however all of those reported sightings (during the war) were in Europe. There were reports of similar sightings over the Pacific in the years following the war.
Eyewitness accounts varied wildly, some people stated categorically that they’d seen airplanes, others were equally sure that they’d seen a blimp, and still others claimed they’d seen a flying saucer (descriptions varied, however, the L.A. Times photograph -above, right- does sort of look like a flying saucer could be in the center of all those lights). Some reported that they couldn’t see anything at all. Huell Howser did an interview with a group of eyewitnesses at a re-enactment of the battle (this is done annually at Old Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California). One man told Howser how a Lt. Col. Snell ordered him to a 50 cal gun emplacement on the hilltop facing the coast (by the Korean bell, if you know the area), and kept yelling for him to “FIRE!” The man reported that he looked at Snell and replied, “At what, Sir?”
Another man told Howser he’d been a radar operator on duty in Redondo Beach, California (about 10 miles up the coast, and around a peninsula from San Pedro) during the event. Their radar had a range of about 18 miles, he explained, and they’d been warned that a contact was inbound, on its way down from Santa Monica. They waited about an hour before they were able to acquire the contact, at which time their verdict was that it was a weather balloon with a length of wire tied to it. It was traveling at about 30,000 feet in altitude, he said, so no way was anyone going to hit it with anti-aircraft weapons. He opined, “The main purpose of the air raid was to uncover saboteurs.”
To further confuse the weather balloon theory, accounts do not agree as to where the flying object disappeared. Some accounts say that it vanished over Long Beach, California (which would make sense for a weather balloon), but other accounts state that the object reversed course, traveled back up along Santa Monica Bay, then vanished over the ocean. It is simply not possible that a weather balloon did that.
A third man told Howser, “It was a farce. There just wasn’t anything to hit.” he’s not alone in this opinion, either. Some historians agree that this was simply a case of war nerves, someone got twitchy and fired at nothing, which scared everyone else into firing, and there never was anything there at all.
Then, there are those who remain convinced that this was some kind of extraterrestrial UFO. One of these was C. Scott Littleton, Ph.D., who was a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Littleton witnessed the air raid as a child. “It was one of the largest mass UFO sightings ever,” he said in an interview with History.com, “over a million people saw it … The rumor is that it finally crashed into ocean and was recovered by navy divers … This would explain why the military was so quick to react to Roswell 5 years later; because they may already have had at least some inkling of what they would find there.”
An often-quoted, but never properly attributed (and possibly apocryphal) account from a woman who was an air warden states, “It was huge! It was just enormous! And it was practically right over my house. I had never seen anything like it in my life! It was just hovering there in the sky and hardly moving at all. It was a lovely pale orange and about the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. I could see it perfectly because it was very close.”
One interesting tidbit on the UFO-theory front is that later on December 25, 1942, a Royal Netherlands Navy ship named Tromp reported a sighting of a metallic saucer-shaped craft that flew around their ship for some period of time (accounts vary), then departing at high speed.
In the more extreme UFO camp are people like Preston Dennett, UFOlogist, and John Greenewald, Jr., founder of TheBlackVault.com. Dennett and Greenewald explained in an interview on Unsealed: Alien Files that Los Angeles is actually a “hot spot” for extraterrestrial activity. Also, there exists a “Devil’s Triangle of the West,” the points of which fall in downtown L.A., Long Beach, and Catalina Island. They suggest that there is some kind of alien base or settlement under the ocean within that triangle, possibly in the Redondo Trench, and that the UFO that was engaged in the Battle of Los Angeles may have been launched from that base.
Radio stations were ordered off the air for the duration of the blackout, so they had a bit more time to gather facts before reporting the next morning, but the newspapers had deadlines to meet for their early morning editions, so many ran with stories which, in hindsight, were simply preposterous. The Los Angeles Times ran, “Roaring out of a brilliant moonlit western sky, foreign aircraft flying both in large formation and singly flew over Southern California early today and drew heavy barrages of anti-aircraft fire, the first ever to sound over United States continental soil against an enemy invader.” They did go on to explain that no bombs were dropped, and that although LAPD had been called to investigate reports of a downed Japanese aircraft at 185th Street and Vermont Avenue, the reports turned out to be false.
Adding to the confusion were statements issued by the United States military itself. First, the story was that enemy aircraft had been defeated without so much as a single bomb being dropped on us. The next version of “facts” was released by the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, who stated that there had been no enemy military planes, but it was believed there had been 15 commercial planes flown by “enemy agents.” This version was likely developed to support the report which had already been sent to the president, but it did not play well with the public, so eventually, the official version became that this was a case of a wayward weather balloon and a lot of jittery gunners.
It’s a delightful mystery and, truthfully, it will be a little sad if anyone ever does come up with a definitive answer. We’d love to know what you think happened! Please weigh in below in the comments!