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The Battle of Los Angeles: What Really Happened?

Updated on December 22, 2016
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

Photo with retouched searchlights from Los Angeles Times
Photo with retouched searchlights from Los Angeles Times | Source

Two pieces of shrapnel kept in an old jar is a reminder of what Thomas Dale witnessed on the night of February 24, 1942 and the early morning hours of February 25th.

At a time when he and his family were in bed, the night sky exploded in a brilliance of searchlight beams and anti-aircraft shell bursts. The house shook with every thunderous thump of anti-aircraft guns that were only a few miles away.

His family huddled near the living room window to watch this horrifying spectacle take place over a blacked-out city. For month they had been told that an attack by enemy planes could happen. Was this the attack that was forewarned by the government and the media? Thomas strained to see the enemy aircraft, but failed to spot them or hear their distinctive engines.

And through it all, the shrapnel started to fall. Pinging off the roof, cars and anyone who was unlucky enough to be caught outside when the guns started firing.

“They (the shrapnel) were all over the street,” he recalled. “They came down like rain.”

The next morning, after 7:21 AM when the “all-clear” sirens blared and the guns fell silent, Thomas ventured outside and retrieved the shrapnel. He kept them as a memento of his first experience of war. But these shrapnel also represented a mystery for him that still lingers.

The event Thomas witnessed as a child was dubbed the Great Los Angeles Air Raid. It would later become known as the Battle of Los Angeles.

“Nobody knew what [the army] was shooting at,” he said.

From his account, one would think he was in the middle of London during the Nazi Blitzkrieg. But this wasn’t London. Instead, Thomas was watching this “air battle” from his home in Gardena, just southwest of downtown Los Angeles, California.

The event Thomas witnessed as a child was dubbed the Great Los Angeles Air Raid. It would later become known as the Battle of Los Angeles. No Japanese planes were ever shot down in the “melee,” nor were there any bombs dropped on the city. Still, six people died; three by shrapnel and another three by heart attacks brought on by the agonizing hours that the “battle” lasted.

It has always been dismissed as being a case of “jittery nerves” – as Secretary of the Navy at the time, Frank Knox, stated after the incident. Knox explained that the stress caused by the early days of the war and the mounting fear of a west coast invasion by Japan had many soldiers in the coastal brigades edgy and nervous. He suggested that whatever was spotted in the skies above Los Angeles may have been misidentified as being a plane.

While jittery nerves can explain the action of the gun crews of the Army’s 37th Coast Artillery Brigade that night, it doesn’t shed much light on what exactly was up there during that fateful night in February.

Reasons for the "Jittery Nerves"

The Battle of Los Angeles couldn’t have come at a worst time. Pearl Harbor had been attacked less than three months prior to this event. The surprise Japanese attack and the possibility that the west coast of the United States was going to be next had many people worried.

Also, an incident only known to the military and the government at the time may have added fuel to the paranoia being felt on the west coast. A few days before the Battle of Los Angeles, a Japanese sub surfaced off the coast of Santa Barbara near Ellwood Oil Field. The crew of the submarine manned the deck-gun and fired several shots at it. While the damage was minimal, and nobody was hurt, it was a sober reminder that Japan could bring the war to the states (the event was kept from the public until after the war was over).

And, in the events that followed the Battle of Los Angeles, conflicting reports from officials created more anxiety as well as confusion. While Knox was quick to call the event a false alarm, The Army released a statement placing the blame on the incident to commercial airplanes being used by the enemy as a psychological warfare campaign to generate panic.

Matters didn’t get any better. The area newspapers reported conflicting accounts from the government officials, as well their own opinions. The Long Beach Independent ran an editorial which stated: “There is a mysterious reticence about the whole affair and it appears that some form of censorship is trying to halt discussion on the matter.”

more images from Los Angeles Times, Feb.26 ,1942 edition.
more images from Los Angeles Times, Feb.26 ,1942 edition. | Source
L.A. Harbor During the Battle of Los Angeles
L.A. Harbor During the Battle of Los Angeles | Source

Japanese or UFO?

In the early days of 1942, nobody was sure what to believe. Rumors ran rampant about secret Japanese airbases in Mexico and the presence of Japanese submarines capable of launching planes (this particular technology was, in fact, being developed by the Japanese Navy during World War II). Others, such as Representative Leland Ford of Santa Monica, had the outlandish belief that it was a practice raid meant to frighten the public in order to prepare them for the real thing.

Speculations persisted well beyond the time of the event. In the years after the war, a certain group of "investigators" began pointing their fingers at another cause: Extraterrestrial spacecrafts.

An article by Jeff Rense, posted on Rense.com, analyzed a photo of the event published in the February 26th, 1942 edition of the Los Angeles Times. The black and white photo shows eight searchlight beams converging on one spot in the sky while several anti-aircraft shell bursts explode nearby.

He pointed out that the converging searchlight beams were focused on a "flying saucer." And, when one looks closely at it, it does appear to look like a saucer. However, the area may be the result of a person’s perception as well as the angle upon which one is looking at it (in this case, the angle of the photographer’s view).

Rense wasn’t the first to point this out, nor was he the last. The first time extraterrestrial spacecrafts were mentioned as a possible cause of the Battle of Los Angeles came from a 1980s paranormal-themed publication Fate magazine. In 2009, The History Channel aired a pro-UFO segment on the incident for the show, UFO Hunter.

Despite circumstantial evidence and scant support from military historians, the UFO theory has gained momentum over the years. However, during all the hoopla about flying saucers over L.A., a nearly-forgotten 1983 report suggested another more terrestrial object as a possible culprit.

Official Report Findings

Members of an organization called the Office of Air Force History, released a study entitled, "The Army Air Forces in World War II: Defense of the Western Hemisphere" had a section on the Battle of Los Angeles. The article, written by W.Franks, and J. Lee Cate, explored the evidence of that that fateful night and came to the following conclusion: the culprits were meteorological balloons.

Many details emerged in this report: unidentified objects caused a succession of alerts throughout Southern California; blackouts were issued from San Joaquin Valley to the North to the Mexican Border; radars located unidentified objects 120 miles west of L.A.; naval intelligence indicated that an attack could happen within a ten hour frame; large number of flares and blinking lights were reported from the vicinity of defense plants; and a yellow alert first issued at 7:18 pm would later be changed to a green alert – ready to fire.

Also, the report stated that much of the confusion during that particular night was caused from a combination of AAF bursts, searchlights, smoke from the guns and shells, and the darkness of a blacked-out city. This particular finding suggested that nothing could be clearly seen at night.

Finally, it supported its conclusion by pointing out that:

(1) the Japanese stated that they did not send planes over L.A. during that time;

(2) meteorological balloons were often released over the city; and

(3) anti-aircraft artillery units were officially criticized for having wasted ammunition on targets which moved too slowly to have been airplanes (Frank, 1983).

Upon seeing the evidence presented in the report, Thomas, a retired teacher and navy veteran now in his 70s, stated that the balloon was a plausible explanation, Still, with no real evidence, such as a downed balloon fragments, he’s still hasn’t come to any definitive conclusion about the mystery item that caused the Battle of Los Angeles. He is, however, sure of one thing.

“It could’ve been nothing up there for all we know,” he said. “It was definitely war nerves [among the anti-aircraft units], that started the shooting

Source

What was in the Sky over Los Angeles?

What do you think: Was the mysterious thing in the night sky a Japanese plane, UFO, weather balloon, or something else?

See results

© 2015 Dean Traylor

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    • MonkeyShine75 profile image

      Mara Alexander 2 years ago from Los Angeles, California

      Wow great hub. I live in the dorms here at the University of California (UCLA), and I didn't know this. I'm sure the government has hidden a few of these kind of things from us.

      Good to know

      Voted up and AWESOME

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 2 years ago from North Carolina

      With all due respect handymanbill, a weather balloon is absolutely one of the worst guesses for a myriad of reasons.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Great story. I never heard of the "Battle of Los Angeles" before. I know there were alarms further north, in the Pacific Northwest, but was unaware that LA had its own scare. Fascinating story. I suspect that after all this time, if no definitive explanation has been revealed, it never will be.

    • handymanbill profile image

      Bill 2 years ago from western pennsylvania

      They were probably trigger happy. they first time they had a chance to fire there guns at something they did. Weather Balloon would be the best guess.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 2 years ago from North Carolina

      OK, back for more. You really did do a good job of putting forth the attempted mundane explanations, Dean, really you did. You surely know where the band Foo-Fighters got their name from. All those strange little, seemingly intelligently-controlled objects zipping around and through aircraft in WW2. The Germans, Brits and Japanese pilots also experienced them. Named Foo-Fighters by the highly-trained American air crews whose very survival counted on knowing what was what in those embattled skies. The Americans got the name from an old saying...which seems fit for both the Battle of LA and the smaller phenomenon. "Where there's foo there's fire."

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 2 years ago from North Carolina

      Nice write, Dean. How many anti-aircraft shells were fired at the oval object? I believe it was something like 1200 to 1400, most directly on or right around the object...and from everything I've seen and read it was an object as in singular. A meteorological balloon(s). That's kookiest theory of them all. There's a new book just released with the evidence of what Presidents from FDR to Obama know or knew about UFOs. FDR most certainly knew this so-called Battle of LA was an event extraordinary.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      Do you think the answer will ever be known? Surely somehow knows (or knew)---there may be no one living now who could tell us for certain. and no doubt records are closely guarded if there are even any.

      Very interesting...this was the first time I knew of this.thanks for sharing.

      Angels are on the way ps

      Voted up++++ and shared