Preamble: On the night of February 25, 1942 an incident occurred over the city limits of Los Angeles, California. Some say that there were visiting spacecraft from another world, or dimension, that hovered over a panicked and blacked-out LA in the middle of the night just weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack. Others were convinced that this huge ship was some unknown Japanese aircraft. It was attacked as it hung, nearly stationary, over Culver City and Santa Monica by dozens of Army anti-aircraft batteries in full view of hundreds of thousands of residents. This was the Battle of Los Angeles.
Incident: The sudden appearance of the enormous round object triggered all of LA and most of Southern California into an immediate wartime blackout with thousands of Air Raid Wardens scurrying all over the darkened city while the drama unfolded in the skies above...a drama which would result in the deaths of six people and the raining of shell fragments on homes, streets, and buildings for miles around.
Dozens of gun crews and searchlights of the Army's 37th Coast Artillery Brigade easily targeted the huge ship which hung like a surreal magic lantern in the clear, dark winter sky over the City of the Angels. Few in the city were left asleep after the Coastal Defense gunners commenced firing hundreds and hundreds of rounds up toward the glowing ship which was apparently first sighted as it hovered above such west side landmarks as the MGM studios in Culver City. The thump of the batteries and the ignition of the aerial shells reverberated from one end of LA to the other as the gun crews easily landed scores of what many termed "direct hits"....all to no avail. Here now, is what the night skies of LA looked like at the height of the firing.
Pay close attention to the convergence of the searchlights and you will clearly see the shape of the visitor within the illuminated target area. It's a BIG item and seemed completely oblivious to the hundreds of AA shells bursting on and adjacent to it which caused it no evident dismay. There were casualties, however...on the ground. At least 6 people died as a direct result of the Army's attack on the UFO which slowly and leisurely made its way down to and then over Long Beach before finally moving off and disappearing.
WITNESS ACCOUNT: In February, 1942, Katie was a young, beautiful, and highly-successful interior decorator and artist who worked with many of Hollywood's most glamorous celebrities and film industry luminaries. She lived on the west side of Los Angeles, not far from Santa Monica. With the outbreak of the war with Japan and the rising fear of a Japanese air attack, or even invasion of the West Coast, thousands of residents volunteered for wartime duties on the home front. Katie volunteered to become an Air Raid Warden as did 12,000 other residents in the sprawling city of Los Angeles and surrounding communities.
In the early morning hours of February 25th, Katie's phone rang. It was the Air Raid supervisor in her district notifying her of an alert and asking if she had seen the object in the sky very close to her home. She immediately walked to a window and looked up. "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!" she said. "It was just hovering there in the sky and hardly moving at all." With the city blacked out, Katie, and hundreds of thousands of others, were able to see the eerie visitor with spectacular clarity. "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. It was big!"
The U.S. Army anti-aircraft searchlights by this time had the object completely covered. "They sent fighter planes up (the Army denied any of its fighters were in action) and I watched them in groups approach it and then turn away. There were shooting at it but it didn't seem to matter." Katie is insistent about the use of planes in the attack on the object. The planes were apparently called off after several minutes and then the ground cannon opened up. "It was like the Fourth of July but much louder. They were firing like crazy but they couldn't touch it." The attack on the object lasted over half an hour before the visitor eventually disappeared from sight. Many eyewitnesses talked of numerous "direct hits" on the big craft but no damage was seen done to it. "I'll never forget what a magnificent sight it was. Just marvelous. And what a gorgeous color!", said Katie.
Chilly Throng Watches Shells Bursting In Sky By Marvin Miles (Los Angeles Times)
Explosions stabbing the darkness like tiny bursting stars... Searchlight beams poking long crisscross fingers across the night sky...Yells of wardens and the whistles of police and deputy sheriffs...The brief on-and-off flick of lights, telephone calls, snatches of conversation: 'Get the dirty...' That was Los Angeles under the rumble of gunfire yesterday.
Sleepy householders awoke to the dull thud of explosions... "Thunder? Can't be!" Then: "Air Raid! Come here quick! Look over there...those searchlights. They've got something...they are blasting in with anti-aircraft!" Father, mother, children all gathered on the front porch, congregated in small clusters in the blacked out streets -- against orders. Babies cried, dogs barked, doors slammed. But the object in the sky slowly moved on, caught in the center of the lights like the hub of a bicycle wheel surrounded by gleaming spokes.
Speculation fell like rain. "It's a whole squadron." "No, it's a blimp. It must be because it's moving so slowly." "I hear planes." "No you don't. That's a truck up the street." "Where are the planes then?" "Dunno. They must be up there though." "Wonder why they picked such a clear night for a raid?" "They're probably from a carrier." "Naw, I'll bet they are from a secret air base down south somewhere." Still the firing continued. Like lethal firecrackers, the anti-aircraft rounds blasted above, below, seemingly right on the target fixed in the tenacious beams. Other shots fell short, exploding halfway up the long climb. Tracers sparked upward like roman candles. Metal fell. It fell in chunks, large and small; not enemy metal, but the whistling fragments of bursting ack-ack shells. The menacing thud and clank on streets and roof tops drove many spectators to shelter.
WARDENS DO GOOD JOB
Wardens were on the job, doing a good job of it. "Turn off your lights, please. Pull over to the curb and stop. Don't use your telephone. Take shelter. Take shelter." On every street brief glares of hooded flashlights cut the darkness, warning creeping drivers to stop. Police watched at main intersections. Sirens wailed enroute to and from blackout accidents. There came lulls in the firing. The search lights went out. (To allow the fighter planes to attack?). Angelinos breathed deeply and said, "I guess it's all over." But before they could tell their neighbors good night, the guns were blasting again, sighting up the long blue beams of the lights.
The fire seemed to burst in rings all around the target. But the eager watchers, shivering in the early morning cold, weren't rewarded by the sight of a falling plane. Nor were there any bombs dropped. "Maybe it's just a test," someone remarked. "Test, hell!" was the answer. "You don't throw that much metal in the air unless you're fixing on knocking something down." Still the firing continued, muttering angrily off toward the west like a distant thunderstorm. The targeted object inched along high, flanked by the cherry red explosions. And the householders shivered in their robes, their faces set, watching the awesome scene.
The following are excerpts from the primary front page story of the LA Times on February 26th:
Army Says Alarm Real Roaring Guns Mark Blackout
Identity of Aircraft Veiled in Mystery; No Bombs Dropped and No Enemy Craft Hit; Civilians Reports Seeing Planes and Balloon
Overshadowing a nation-wide maelstrom of rumors and conflicting reports, the Army's Western Defense Command insisted that Los Angeles' early morning blackout and anti-aircraft action were the result of unidentified aircraft sighted over the beach area. In two official statements, issued while Secretary of the Navy Knox in Washington was attributing the activity to a false alarm and "jittery nerves," the command in San Francisco confirmed and reconfirmed the presence over the Southland of unidentified planes. Relayed by the Southern California sector office in Pasadena, the second statement read: "The aircraft which caused the blackout in the Los Angeles area for several hours this a.m. have not been identified." Insistence from official quarters that the alarm was real came as hundreds of thousands of citizens who heard and saw the activity spread countless varying stories of the episode. The spectacular anti-aircraft barrage came after the 14th Interceptor Command ordered the blackout when strange craft were reported over the coastline. Powerful searchlights from countless stations stabbed the sky with brilliant probing fingers while anti-aircraft batteries dotted the heavens with beautiful, if sinister, orange bursts of shrapnel.
City Blacked Out For Hours
The city was blacked out from 2:25 to 7:21 am after an earlier yellow alert at 7:18 pm was called off at 10:23 pm. The blackout was in effect from here to the Mexican border and inland to the San Joaquin Valley. No bombs were dropped and no airplanes shot down and, miraculously in terms of the tons of missiles hurled aloft, only two persons were reported wounded by falling shell fragments. Countless thousands of Southland residents, many of whom were late to work because of the traffic tie-up during the blackout, rubbed their eyes sleepily yesterday and agreed that regardless of the question of how "real" the air raid alarm may have been, it was "a great show" and "well worth losing a few hours' sleep." The blackout was not without its casualties, however. A State Guardsman died of a heart attack while driving an ammunition truck, heart failure also accounted for the death of an air raid warden on duty, a woman was killed in a car-truck collision in Arcadia, and a Long Beach policeman was killed in a traffic crash enroute to duty. Much of the firing appeared to come from the vicinity of aircraft plants along the coastal area of Santa Monica, Inglewood, Southwest Los Angeles, and Long Beach.
In its front page editorial, the Times said: "In view of the considerable public excitement and confusion caused by yesterday morning's supposed enemy air raid over this area and its spectacular official accompaniments, it seems to The Times that more specific public information should be forthcoming from government sources on the subject, if only to clarify their own conflicting statements about it."
"According to the Associated Press, Secretary Knox intimated that reports of enemy air activity in the Pacific Coastal Region might be due largely to 'jittery nerves.' Whose nerves, Mr. Knox? The public's or the Army's?"
WORLD WAR II UFO SCARE By Paul T. Collins Fate Magazine July, 1987
On Wednesday, February 25, 1942, as war raged in Europe and Asia, at least a million Southern Californians awoke to the scream of air-raid sirens as Los Angeles County cities blacked out at 2:25 AM. Many dozed off again while 12,000 air raid wardens reported faithfully to their posts, most of them expecting nothing more than a dress rehearsal for a possible future event - an invasion of the United States by Japan. At 3:36, however, they were shocked and their slumbering families rudely roused again, this time by sounds unfamiliar to most Americans outside the military services.
The roar of the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade's antiaircraft batteries jolted them out of bed and before they could get to the windows the flashing 12.8 pound shells were detonating with a heavy, ominous boomp - boomp - boomp and the steel was already raining down. All radio stations had been ordered off the air at 3:08. But the news was being written with fingers of light three miles high on a clear star-studded blackboard 30 miles long.
The firing continued intermittently until 4:14. Unexploded shells destroyed pavement, homes and public buildings, three persons were killed and three died of heart attacks directly attributable to the one hour barrage. Several persons were injured by shrapnel. A dairy herd was hit but only a few cows were casualties.
The blackout was lifted and sirens screamed all clear at 7:21. The shooting stopped but the shouting had hardly begun. Military men who never flinched at the roar of rifles now shook at the prospect of facing the press. While they probably could not be blamed for what had happened, they did have some reason for distress. The thing they had been shooting at could not be identified.
Caught by the searchlights and captured in photographs, was an object big enough to dwarf an apartment house. Experienced lighter-than-air (dirigible) specialists doubted it could be a Japanese blimp because the Japanese had no known source of helium, and hydrogen was much too dangerous to use under combat conditions.
Whatever it was, it was a sitting duck for the guns of the 37th. Photographs showed shells bursting all around it. A Los Angeles Herald Express staffer said he was sure many shells hit it directly. He was amazed it had not been shot down.
The object that triggered the air raid alarm had drawn 1430 rounds of ammunition from the coast artillery, to no effect. When it moved at all, the object had proceeded at a leisurely pace over the coastal cities between Santa Monica and Long Beach, taking about 30 minutes of actual flight time to move 20 miles; then it disappeared from view.
You can well imagine with what chagrin public information officers answered press queries. The Pasadena Office of the Southern California Sector of the Army Western Defense Command simply announced that no enemy aircraft had been identified; no craft was shot down; no bombs were dropped; none of our interceptors left the ground to pursue the intruder.
Soon thereafter US Navy Secretary Frank Knox announced that no planes had been sighted. The coastal firing had been triggered, he said, by a false alarm and jittery nerves. He also suggested that some war industries along the coast might have to be moved inland to points invulnerable to attacks from enemy submarines and carrier-based planes.
The press responded with scathing editorials, many on page one, calling attention to the loss of life and denouncing the use of the coast artillery to fire at phantoms. The Los Angeles Times demanded a full explanation from Washington. The Long Beach Telegram complained that government officials who all along had wanted to move the industries were manipulating the affair for propaganda purposes. And the Long Beach Independent charged: "There is a mysterious reticence about the whole affair and it appears some form of censorship is trying to halt discussion of the matter. Although it was red-hot news not one national radio commentator gave it more than passing mention. This is the kind of reticence that is making the American people gravely suspect the motives and the competence of those whom they have charged with the conduct of the war."
The Independent had good reason to question the competence of some of the personnel responsible for our coastal defense operations as well as the integrity and motives of our highest government officials. Only 36 hours before the Long Beach air raid, a gigantic Japanese submarine had surfaced close to shore 12 miles north of Santa Barbara and in 25 minutes of unchallenged firing lobbed 25 five-inch shells at the petroleum refinery in the Ellwood oil field. The Fourth Interceptor Command, although aware of the sub's attack, ordered a blackout from Ventura to Goleta but sent no planes out to sink it. Not one shot was fired at the sub.
After the Ellwood incident had alerted all the West Coast defense posts to possible repeat attacks, these units were sensitive to anticipated invasion attempts. By Wednesday morning in the Los Angeles area they were ready to open fire on a boy's kite if it in any way resembled a plane or a balloon. Secretary of War Henry Stimson praised the 37th Cost Artillery for this attitude. It is better to be a little too alert than not alert enough, he said. At the same time he delicately suggested that it might have been a good idea to send some of our planes up to identify the invading aircraft before shooting at them.
Planes of the Fourth Interceptor Command were, in fact, warming up on the runways waiting for orders to go up and interview the unknown intruders. Why, everybody was asking, were they not ordered to go into action during the 51-minute period between the first air-raid alert at 2:25 AM and the first artillery firing at 3:16?
Against this background of embarrassing indecision and confusion, Army Western Defense Command obviously had to say something fast. Spokesmen told reporters that from one to 50 planes had been sighted, thus giving themselves ample latitude in which to adjust future stories to fit whatever propaganda requirements might arise in the next few days.
When eyewitness reports from thousands searching the skies with binoculars under the bright lights of the coast artillery verified the presence of one enormous, unidentifiable, indestructible object - but not the presence of large numbers of planes - the press releases were gradually scaled downward. A week later Gen. Mark Clark acknowledged that army listening posts had detected what they thought were five light planes approaching the coast on the night of the air raid. No interceptors, he said, had been sent out to engage them because there had been no mass attack.
Believing an aerial bombardment was in progress, some people thought they saw formations of warplanes, dogfights between enemy craft and our fighter planes and other things that they assumed were evidence of such an attack. Obviously there were no dogfights because none of our interceptors were in the air. Tracer bullets were fired from military ground stations and some people mistook the fire pattern made by these projectiles for aerial combat. Other observers reported lighted objects which were variously described as red-and-white flares in groups of three red and three white, fired alternately, or chainlike strings of red lights looking something like an illuminated kite.
People suggested that some of these lights were caused by Japanese-Americans signaling approaching Japanese aircraft with flares to guide them to selected targets, but because no bombs were dropped, the theory was quickly abandoned. In any case, such charges fitted in perfectly with a hysterical press campaign to round up all citizens of Japanese descent and put them in concentration camps.
During the week of the Japanese submarine attack on the Ellwood oil field and the air raid on Los Angeles County, the press took full advantage of the made-to-order situation. Arrests of suspects were quickly made and the FBI was called in, but the Long Beach Press Telegram stated all investigations indicated nobody was signaling the enemy from the ground.
Santa Barbara's Ellwood Oil Field Submarine Attack
The LA Times: "From Santa Barbara, area of the submarine attack Monday night, District Attorney Percy Heckendorf said he would appeal to Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, commanding officer of the Western Defense Command, to make Santa Barbara County a restricted area for enemy nationals and American-born Japanese as well. "There is convincing proof," Heckendorf asserted, "that there were shore signals flashed to the enemy." Heckendorf said the people will hold Gen. DeWitt responsible if he failed to act. Army ordinance officers, meanwhile, were studying more than 200 pounds of shell fragments from missiles fired by the submarine, which caused only $500 damage in the Ellwood oil field near Santa Barbara."
It is said by some locals that the skipper or one of the officers on the Japanese sub had worked in the Ellwood oil field some years prior to the outbreak of the war. The story claims that the man had been mistreated by some of his co-workers during that time, had returned to Japan before the war began, and had then subsequently helped lead the submarine back to the area to make it's attack.
Glendale News Press
Wednesday, Feb. 25, 1942
ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUNS BLAST AT L.A. MYSTERY INVADER
Raid Scare Blacks Out Southland, but Knox Claims 'False Alarm'
Washington(AP)-Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox said today that there were no planes over Los Angeles last night. "That's our understanding," he said. He added that " none have been found and a very wide reconnaissance has been carried on." He added, "it was just a false alarm."
Anti-aircraft guns thundered over the metropolitan area early today for the first time in the war, but hours later what they were shooting at remained a military secret. An unidentified object moving slowly down the coast from Santa Monica was variously reported as a balloon and an airplane.
No bombs were dropped and no planes were shot down during the anti-aircraft firing in the Los Angeles area, the western defense command said in San Francisco.
"Cities in the Los Angeles area were blacked out at 2:25 a.m. today on orders from the fourth interceptor command when unidentified aircraft were reported in the area," the western defense command said.
"Although reports are conflicting and every effort is being made to ascertain the facts, it is clear that no bombs were dropped and no planes were shot down."
"There was a considerable amount of anti-aircraft firing. The all-clear signal came at 7:25 a.m."
Army Scofts at Civilian Reports
Army intelligence, although uncommunicative, scoffed at reports of civilian observers that as many as 200 planes were over the area.
There were no reports of dropping bombs, but several instances of damaged property from anti-aircraft shells. A garage door was ripped off in a Los Angeles residential district and fragments shattered windows and tore into a bed where a few moments before Miss Blanch Sedgewick and her niece, Josie Duffy had been sleeping.
A santa Monica bomb squad was dispatched to remove an unexploded anti-aircraft shell in a driveway there.
Wailing air raid sirens at 2:25 a.m. awakened most of the metropolitan's three million citizens. A few minutes later they were treated to a gigantic Fourth-of-July-like display as huge searchlights flashed along a 10-mile front to the south, converging on a single spot high in the sky.
Anti-Aircraft Guns Open Fire
Moments later the anti-aircraft guns opened up, throwing a sheet of steel skyward.
Tracer bullets and exploding shells lit the heavens.
Three Japanese, two men and a woman, were seized at the beach city of Venice on suspicion of signaling with flashlights near the pier. They were removed to FBI headquarters, where Richard B. Hood, local chief, said, "at the request of Army authorities we have nothing to say."
A Long Beach police sergeant, E. Larsen 59, was killed in a traffic accident while in route to an air raid post.
Henry B. Ayers, 63-year-old state guardsman, died at the wheel of an ammunition truck during the black-out. Physicians said a heart attack was apparently responsible.
Rumors of Planes Downed Spiked
Police ran down several reports that planes had been shot down, but said all were false alarms.
Aircraft factories continued operation behind blackened windows, while ack-ack guns rattled from batteries stationed near-by.
A Japanese vegetable man, John Y. Harada, 25, was one of three persons arrested on charges of violating a county black ordinance. Sheriff's Capt. Ernest Sichler said Harada, driving to the market with a load of cauliflower, refused to extinguish his truck lights.
Others held on similar charges were Walter E. Van Der Linden, Norwalk dairy man, accused of failing to darken his milking barns, and Giovouni Ghigo, 57, nabbed while driving to market with a truckload of flowers.
Traffic Snarl Follows All Clear Signal
Soon traffic was snarled. Thousand of southern Californians were an hour or more late to their jobs.
There were isolated incidences of failure to comply with black-out regulations. Neon signs were glowing inside stores. Traffic signals continued to flash in some areas.
Radio stations went off the air with the first alert, and were not permitted to resume broadcasting until 8:23 a.m.
There was speculation, that the unidentified object, might have been a blimp-although veteran lighter-then-air-experts in Akron, O., the nations center of such construction, said Japan was believed to have lost interest in such craft following experiments in World War I. These sources said inability to obtain fire proof helium caused discarding of such plans.
Observers lent some credence to the blimp theory by pointing out that the object required nearly thirty minutes to travel 20 or 25 miles-far slower then an airplane.
Unidentified Planes Pass Over Harbor
An official source which declined to be quoted directly told The Associated Press in Los Angeles that United States Army Planes quickly went into action. Later however, another official said no United States craft had taken off because of possible danger from the army's own anti-aircraft fire.
A newspaper man at San Pedro said airplanes passed over the Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor area. The craft were not identified.
There were no reports of any attempt to bomb southern California from the air although many war-vital factories, shipyards and other defense industries were on the route the object followed.
Although some watchers said they saw airplanes in the air, semi-official sources said they probably were the United States Army's pursuits.
All the action, clearly spotlighted for ground observers by 20 or so searchlights, was just a few miles west of Los Angeles proper.
Object Disappears Over Signal Hill
Observers said the object appeared to be 8000 ft or higher.
Firing, first heard at 3 a.m., ceased suddenly at 3:30 a.m., after the object disappeared south of Signal Hill, at the east edge of Long Beach. Anti-aircraft guns fired steadily for two minute periods, were silent for about 45 seconds, and continued that routine for nearly a half an hour.
All of southern California from the San Juaquin valley to the Mexican border was blacked out. Los Angeles doused its lights first, at 2:25 a.m.. San Diego, just 17 miles from the border did not receive its lights out order until 3:05 a.m.
When daylight and the all-clear signal came, Long Beach took on the appearance of a huge easter egg-hunt. Kiddies and even grown-ups scrambled through the streets and vacant lots, picking up and proudly comparing chunks of shrapnel fragments as if they were the most prized possession they owned.
Witness Scott Littleton: I was an eye-witness to the events of that unforgettable February morning in February of 1942. I was eight-years-old at the time, and my parents lived at 2500 Strand in Hermosa Beach, right on the beach. We thus had a grandstand seat. While my father went about his air-raid warden duties, my late mother and I watched the glowing object, which was caught in the glare of searchlights from both Palos Verdes and Malibu/Pacific/Palisades and surrounded by the puffs of ineffectual anti-aircraft fire, as it slowly flew across the ocean from northwest to southeast. It headed inland over Redondo Beach, a couple of miles to the south of our vantage point, and eventually disappeared over the eastern end of the Palos Verdes hills, what's today called Rancho Palos Verdes. The whole incident last, at least from our perspective, lasted about half an hour, though we didn't time it. Like other kids in the neighborhood, I spend the next morning picking up of pieces of shrapnel on the beach; indeed, it's a wonder more people weren't injured by the stuff, as we were far from the only folks standing outside watching the action.
In any case, I don't recall seeing any truly discernable configuration, just a small, glowing, slight lozenge-shaped blob light-a single, blob, BTW. We only saw one object, not several as some witnesses later reported. At the time, we were convinced that it was a "Jap" reconnaissance plane, and that L.A. might be due for a major air-raid in the near future. Remember, this was less than three months after Pearl Harbor. But that of course never happened. Later on, we all expected "them," that is, the Military, to tell us what was really up there after the war. But that never happened, either.
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THE ARMY AIR FORCES IN WORLD WAR II; DEFENSE OF THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE
“The Battle of Los Angeles”
During the night of 24/25 February 1942, unidentified objects caused a succession of alerts in southern California. On the 24th, a warning issued by naval intelligence indicated that an attack could be expected within the next ten hours. That evening a large number of flares and blinking lights were reported from the vicinity of defense plants. An alert called at 1918 [7:18 p.m., Pacific time] was lifted at 2223, and the tension temporarily relaxed. But early in the morning of the 25th renewed activity began. Radars picked up an unidentified target 120 miles west of Los Angeles. Antiaircraft batteries were alerted at 0215 and were put on Green Alert—ready to fire—a few minutes later. The AAF kept its pursuit planes on the ground, preferring to await indications of the scale and direction of any attack before committing its limited fighter force. Radars tracked the approaching target to within a few miles of the coast, and at 0221 the regional controller ordered a blackout. Thereafter the information center was flooded with reports of “enemy planes, ” even though the mysterious object tracked in from sea seems to have vanished. At 0243, planes were reported near Long Beach, and a few minutes later a coast artillery colonel spotted “about 25 planes at 12,000 feet” over Los Angeles. At 0306 a balloon carrying a red flare was seen over Santa Monica and four batteries of anti-aircraft artillery opened fire, whereupon “the air over Los Angeles erupted like a volcano.” From this point on reports were hopelessly at variance.
Probably much of the confusion came from the fact that anti-aircraft shell bursts, caught by the searchlights, were themselves mistaken for enemy planes. In any case, the next three hours produced some of the most imaginative reporting of the war: “swarms” of planes (or, sometimes, balloons) of all possible sizes, numbering from one to several hundred, traveling at altitudes which ranged from a few thousand feet to more than 20,000 and flying at speeds which were said to have varied from “very slow” to over 200 miles per hour, were observed to parade across the skies. These mysterious forces dropped no bombs and, despite the fact that 1,440 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition were directed against them, suffered no losses. There were reports, to be sure, that four enemy planes had been shot down, and one was supposed to have landed in flames at a Hollywood intersection. Residents in a forty-mile arc along the coast watched from hills or rooftops as the play of guns and searchlights provided the first real drama of the war for citizens of the mainland. The dawn, which ended the shooting and the fantasy, also proved that the only damage which resulted to the city was such as had been caused by the excitement (there was at least one death from heart failure), by traffic accidents in the blacked-out streets, or by shell fragments from the artillery barrage.
Attempts to arrive at an explanation of the incident quickly became as involved and mysterious as the “battle” itself. The Navy immediately insisted that there was no evidence of the presence of enemy planes, and Secretary [of the Navy, Frank] Knox announced at a press conference on 25 February that the raid was just a false alarm. At the same conference he admitted that attacks were always possible and indicated that vital industries located along the coast ought to be moved inland. The Army had a hard time making up its mind on the cause of the alert. A report to Washington, made by the Western Defense Command shortly after the raid had ended, indicated that the credibility of reports of an attack had begun to be shaken before the blackout was lifted. This message predicted that developments would prove “that most previous reports had been greatly exaggerated.” The Fourth Air Force had indicated its belief that there were no planes over Los Angeles. But the Army did not publish these initial conclusions. Instead, it waited a day, until after a thorough examination of witnesses had been finished. On the basis of these hearings, local commanders altered their verdict and indicated a belief that from one to five unidentified airplanes had been over Los Angeles. Secretary Stimson announced this conclusion as the War Department version of the incident, and he advanced two theories to account for the mysterious craft: either they were commercial planes operated by an enemy from secret fields in California or Mexico, or they were light planes launched from Japanese submarines. In either case, the enemy’s purpose must have been to locate anti-aircraft defenses in the area or to deliver a blow at civilian morale.
The divergence of views between the War and Navy departments, and the unsatisfying conjectures advanced by the Army to explain the affair, touched off a vigorous public discussion. The Los Angeles Times, in a first-page editorial on 26 February, announced that “the considerable public excitement and confusion” caused by the alert, as well as its “spectacular official accompaniments, ” demanded a careful explanation. Fears were expressed lest a few phony raids undermine the confidence of civilian volunteers in the aircraft warning service. In Congress, Representative Leland Ford wanted to know whether the incident was “a practice raid, or a raid to throw a scare into 2,000,000 people, or a mistaken identity raid, or a raid to take away Southern California’s war industries.” Wendell Willkie, speaking in Los Angeles on 26 February, assured Californians on the basis of his experiences in England that when a real air raid began “you won’t have to argue about it—you’ll just know.” He conceded that military authorities had been correct in calling a precautionary alert but deplored the lack of agreement between the Army and Navy. A strong editorial in the Washington Post on 27 February called the handling of the Los Angeles episode a “recipe for jitters,” and censured the military authorities for what it called “stubborn silence” in the face of widespread uncertainty. The editorial suggested that the Army’s theory that commercial planes might have caused the alert “explains everything except where the planes came from, whither they were going, and why no American planes were sent in pursuit of them.” The New York Times on 28 February expressed a belief that the more the incident was studied, the more incredible it became: “If the batteries were firing on nothing at all, as Secretary Knox implies, it is a sign of expensive incompetence and jitters. If the batteries were firing on real planes, some of them as low as 9,000 feet, as Secretary Stimson declares, why were they completely ineffective? Why did no American planes go up to engage them, or even to identify them?... What would have happened if this had been a real air raid?” These questions were appropriate, but for the War Department to have answered them in full frankness would have involved an even more complete revelation of the weakness of our air defenses.
At the end of the war, the Japanese stated that they did not send planes over the area at the time of this alert, although submarine-launched aircraft were subsequently used over Seattle. A careful study of the evidence suggests that meteorological balloons—known to have been released over Los Angeles —may well have caused the initial alarm. This theory is supported by the fact that anti-aircraft artillery units were officially criticized for having wasted ammunition on targets which moved too slowly to have been airplanes. After the firing started, careful observation was difficult because of drifting smoke from shell bursts. The acting commander of the anti-aircraft artillery brigade in the area testified that he had first been convinced that he had seen fifteen planes in the air, but had quickly decided that he was seeing smoke. Competent correspondents like Ernie Pyle and Bill Henry witnessed the shooting and wrote that they were never able to make out an airplane. It is hard to see, in any event, what enemy purpose would have been served by an attack in which no bombs were dropped, unless perhaps, as Mr. Stimson suggested, the purpose had been reconnaissance.
NOTE: there is a lot of evidence that this was not a weather balloon though it's almost impossible to make an actual determination...even with the original footage. I have been told be residents of Southern California and the West Coast during this period that there was a heightened sense of wariness after this incident occurred adding to the terror already present after the Pearl Harbor attack as well as constant fears of an invasion. I'd be interested in your comments...Lon
The Los Angeles Times - Archives
WORLD WAR II UFO SCARE - Paul T. Collins - Fate Magazine - July, 1987
Glendale News Press
United Press International - Archives
"The Army Air Forces in World War II" - prepared under the editorship of Wesley Frank Craven, James Lea Cate. v.1, pp. 277-286, Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History