Photo of the Day

As if to confirm public fears of extraterrestrial attack, one famous L.A. Times photograph (see above) emerged from the incident showing an ominous, saucer-like object hovering over the city. This much-debated photograph inspired America’s first major UFO controversy — a full five years before Roswell. To this day, no one knows for sure what flew over Los Angeles that night and evaded the city’s air defenses.

The Battle of Los Angeles

On one winter night during war time, 75 years ago, wrath descended from the skies in the form of a UFO, it was witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people in Los Angeles  – and there was nothing they could do to stop it.

Between the late evening of February 24th, and the early morning hours of February 25th, the City of Angels flew into a panic as what were initially believed to be Japanese enemy aircraft were spotted over the city. This suspected Japanese raid — coming soon after the Pearl Harbour bombing, and just one day after a confirmed Japanese submarine attack off the Santa Barbara coast — touched off a massive barrage of anti-aircraft fire, with some 1400 shells shot into the skies over Los Angeles during the frantic evening.

Strangely, however, the anti-aircraft shells hit nothing. Despite the intense barrage, no aircraft wreckage was ever recovered.

Indeed, once the smoke had cleared and people calmed down, no one really knew what had been seen in the sky or on radar. Were they weather balloons? German Zeppelins? Trick kites designed by Orson Welles?

Many people believed the aircraft they’d seen was extraterrestrial – one eyewitness even described an object he’d seen as looking like an enormous flying “lozenge” – and some accused the government of a cover-up. Conflicting accounts of the incident from the Navy and War Departments didn’t help clarify matters.

The panic in Los Angeles was caused when a number of witnesses reportedly sighted a large, round object in the skies over Culver City and Santa Monica, both neighborhoods on the west side of town and closer to the Pacific Ocean. The object was barraged with more than 1,400 shells from anti-aircraft guns, with no visible effect, until it eventually drifted leisurely south toward Long Beach and vanished from view. Most reports described it as pale orange in color and glowing.

On Wednesday, February 25, at precisely 2 a.m., diners at the trendy Trocadero Club in Hollywood were startled when the lights winked out and air raid sirens began to sound throughout greater Los Angeles.

“Searchlights scanned the skies and anti-aircraft guns protecting the vital aircraft and ship-building factories went into action. In the next few hours they would fire thousands of shells at an unidentified, slow- moving object in the sky over Los Angeles that looked like a blimp, or a balloon.”

Author Ralph Blum, who was a nine-year-old boy at the time, wrote that he thought “the Japanese were bombing Beverly Hills.”

“There were sirens, searchlights, even antiaircraft guns blamming away into the skies over Los Angeles. My father had been a balloon observation man (in the AEF) in World War One, and he knew big guns when he heard them. He ordered my mother to take my baby sisters to the underground projection room—our house was heavily supplied with Hollywood paraphernalia—while he and I went out onto the upstairs balcony.”

“What a scene! It was after three in the morning. Searchlights probed the western sky. Tracers streamed upward. The racket was terrific.”

Shooting at the aerial intruders were gunners of the 65th Coast Artillery (Anti-Aircraft) Regiment in Inglewood and the 205th Anti-Aircraft Regiment based in Santa Monica. The “white cigar-shaped object” took several direct hits but continued on its eastward flight.

Up to 25 silvery UFOs were also seen by observers on the ground.

Editor Peter Jenkins of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner reported:

“I could clearly see the V formation of about 25 silvery planes overhead moving slowly across the sky toward Long Beach.”

Long Beach Police Chief J.H. McClelland said:

“I watched what was described as the second wave of planes from atop the seven-story Long Beach City Hall. I did not see any planes but the younger men with me said they could. An experienced Navy observer with powerful Carl Zeiss binoculars said he counted nine planes in the cone of the searchlight. He said they were silver in color. The (UFO) group passed along from one battery of searchlights to another, and under fire from the anti-aircraft guns, flew from the direction of Redondo Beach and Inglewood on the land side of Fort MacArthur, and continued toward Santa Ana and Huntington Beach. Anti-aircraft fire was so heavy we could not hear the motors of the planes.”

Reporter Bill Henry of the Los Angeles Times wrote:

“I was far enough away to see an object without being able to identify it…I would be willing to bet what shekels I have that there were a number of direct hits scored on the object.”

At 2:21 a.m., Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt issued the cease-fire order, and the twenty-minute “battle of Los Angeles” was over.

Amid all the tragedy and heroism of World War II, there also were some bizarre occurrences, such as German scientists’ efforts to build flying saucers and create tiny bombs concealed in chocolate bars. But perhaps the weirdest, most inexplicable event in the war was a supposed Japanese air raid on Los Angeles in the early morning hours of February 25, 1942. Or at least that’s what people thought it was. Radar operators saw an unidentified intruder on their screens, terrified civilians reported seeing formations of enemy planes, and the personnel manning anti-aircraft batteries lit up the night sky with a horrific barrage of fire—all of them thought they were under attack. When the smoke and the confusion cleared, however, there was no evidence that the enemy had ever been there.

Adding to the mystery, a bizarre photo appeared on an inside page of the Los Angeles Times the next day, showing searchlights converging on what the caption described as an “object” in the sky over Culver City, a suburb of LA. It’s an image that has been studied ever since by UFOologists. For what it’s worth, one such analysis suggests that the object in the photo was 100 feet in width and about 8,000 feet in altitude. Was it an alien spacecraft? A weather balloon? A wayward civilian aircraft? Or was the entire incident, as military officials later suspected, some sort of clever hysteria-inducing psychological warfare trick? Six decades later, we’ve yet to figure it out.

The strange story began a week before on February 17, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt shocked reporters at a White House press conference by acknowledging that Japan was capable of attacking the U.S. mainland. Six days later, Roosevelt was proven right when a Japanese submarine surfaced at night off Goleta, California, eight miles north of Santa Barbara, and fired fifteen shells from a deck gun at an oil facility. The submariners didn’t hit much of anything, but on the other side of the Pacific, propagandists turned the attack into gigantic victory. “Our Submarines Destroy Large U.S. City,” one Tokyo newspaper headline proclaimed.

As an account from the official military history of the Army Air Force during World War II details, the submarine attack put everyone’s nerves on edge on the West Coast. The following day, U.S. Naval Intelligence issued a warning that another attack was expected within 10 hours. Early in the evening, there were reports of flares and blinking lights in the vicinity of Los Angeles’ defense plants, and air defense officials put the city on alert from 7:18 to 10:23 p.m, before calling it off.

Then, early on the morning of February 25, Californians’ worst fears suddenly seemed to materialize, when radar picked up an unidentified object 120 miles away from Los Angeles. Anti-aircraft batteries were put again on ready-to-fire status. The Army Air Force, fearing that its small fighter force might be outnumbered, kept its planes on the ground until it could determine the scale and direction of the attack. Meanwhile, radar operators watched their screens anxiously, as the object flew to within a few miles of the coast. At 2:21 a.m., the regional controller ordered a blackout. It seemed as if Los Angeles would be under assault within moments.

The Battle of Los Angeles did in fact claim six lives. Three civilians were killed directly by friendly fire, while three others suffered heart attacks during the hourlong siege. A number of buildings were also damaged by our own anti-aircraft guns.

The Battle of Los Angeles, also known as The Great Los Angeles Air Raid, is the name given by contemporary sources to the rumored enemy attack and subsequent anti-aircraft artillery barrage which took place from late February 24 to early February 25, 1942 over Los Angeles, California. The incident occurred less than three months after America’s entry into World War II as a result of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbour.

Initially, the target of the aerial barrage was thought to be an attacking force from Japan, but speaking at a press conference shortly afterward Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox called the incident a “false alarm.” Newspapers of the time published a number of sensational reports and speculations of a cover-up. A small number of modern-day UFO logists have suggested the targets were extraterrestrial spacecraft. When documenting the incident in 1983, the U.S. Office of Air Force History attributed the event to a case of “war nerves” likely triggered by a lost weather balloon and exacerbated by stray flares and shell bursts from adjoining batteries.

Air raid sirens were sounded throughout Los Angeles County on the night of 24–25 February 1942. A total blackout was ordered and thousands of air raid wardens were summoned to their positions. At 3:16 a.m. the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade began firing 12.8-pound anti-aircraft shells into the air at reported aircraft; over 1,400 shells would eventually be fired. Pilots of the 4th Interceptor Command were alerted but their aircraft remained grounded. The artillery fire continued sporadically until 4:14 a.m. The “all clear” was sounded and the blackout order lifted at 7:21 a.m.

In addition to several buildings damaged by friendly fire, three civilians were killed by the anti-aircraft fire, and another three died of heart attacks attributed to the stress of the hour-long bombardment. The incident was front-page news along the U.S. Pacific coast, and earned some mass media coverage throughout the nation.

From the point that the first  shell was fired, the Battle of Los Angeles plunged into confusion and hysteria. For three hours, Los Angeles’ air space was full of phantom planes and exploding shells. Anti-aircraft crews reported swarms of enemy planes and balloons ranging in altitude from a few thousand feet to upwards of 20,000 feet. They were said to move at speeds upwards of 200 miles per hour in tight formations. Despite the vast numbers, and despite more than 1400 shells being fired in those early morning hours, no wreckage from Japanese planes were discovered once morning broke. Certainly there were reports–one of the phantom planes supposedly landed in flames at an intersection in Hollywood–but no actual evidence was found by investigators. The aggressors never dropped any bombs–the only damage to the city came from shell fragments raining down from the anti-aircraft barrage.

If this wasn’t enough of a UFO display in the greater Los Angeles area, a short while later the same UFO decidedly returned, flying northeast back over Long Beach, California and northward over Santa Monica, California yet again where it decidedly flew northwest out over the Pacific Ocean disappearing from ground observation points.

Never fully explained, these events remain shrouded in mystery and the subject of intense speculation.

The obvious thought was that these were Japanese bombers come to attack the United States, But it wasn’t.  They were flying too high.  And the astounding thing was, not one artillery shell could hit the craft – out of all the hundreds of shells that were fired.  People outside that night swore that it was neither a plane nor a balloon – it was a UFO.  It floated, it glided.  And to this day, nobody can explain what that craft was and why the anti-aircraft guns couldn’t hit it – it’s a mystery that’s never been resolved.”

Descriptions of the UFOs varied widely.  General George C. Marshall, in his initial memo to President Roosevelt regarding the event, wrote that the “unidentified airplanes… [Travelled at speeds ranging from] ‘very slow’ to as much as 200 mph and from elevations of 9000 to 18,000 feet.” (The memo may be viewed at http://www.militarymuseum.org/BattleofLA.html.)

The number of craft reported by observers ranged from 9 to 15 to 25.

UFO Battle Of Los Angeles Original Footage & Broadcast February 26, 1942

Within hours of the end of the air raid, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox held a press conference, saying the entire incident was a false alarm due to anxiety and “war nerves”. Knox’s comments were followed by statements from the Army the next day that reflected General George C. Marshall’s belief that the incident might have been caused by commercial airplanes used as a psychological warfare campaign to generate panic.

Some contemporary press outlets suspected a cover up. An editorial in the Long Beach Independent wrote, “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.” Speculation was rampant as to invading airplanes and their bases. Theories included a secret base in northern Mexico as well as Japanese submarines stationed offshore with the capability of carrying planes. Others speculated that the incident was either staged or exaggerated to give coastal defense industries an excuse to move further inland.

Representative Leland Ford of Santa Monica called for a Congressional investigation, saying, “…none of the explanations so far offered removed the episode from the category of ‘complete mystification’ … this was either a practice raid, or a raid to throw a scare into 2,000,000 people, or a mistaken identity raid, or a raid to lay a political foundation to take away Southern California’s war industries.”

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. At a conference Navy Secretary, Frank Knox 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 “Los Angeles Times–Extra” of February 24, 1942 has one of the more dramatic, screaming headlines to be found in any newspaper: “L.A. AREA RAIDED ! ” with a smaller head noting: “Jap Planes Peril Santa Monica, Seal Beach, El Segundo, Redondo, Long Beach, Hermosa, Signal Hill”. The report begins: “Roaring out of a brilliant moonlit western sky, foreign aircraft flying both in large formation and single, few 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…”

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.

Los Angeles Times February 26th, 1942. Shortly after the alarm, speculation ran rampant as to its cause. Some people suggested that the Japanese were launching planes from a secret base in Mexico, while others theorized that they had developed a submarine capable of carrying aircraft. It was even suggested that the event had been staged in order to convince defense companies located near the coast to move their operations further inland.

While the Army’s Western Defense Command in San Francisco initially attributed the incident to “unidentified planes” over Southern California, the secretary of the Navy said the event was the result of “war nerves” and a false alarm. It wasn’t until 1983, more than 40 years later, that the military concluded that the incident was possibly caused by a drifting weather balloon.

Every February the Fort MacArthur Museum located at the entrance to Los Angeles Harbor hosts an entertainment event called “The Great LA Air Raid of 1942”.

The excitement and confusion of that night made finding an explanation for the incident even more difficult. Likely many of the reported aircraft simply resulted from a combination of excitement, shellbursts illuminated by spotlights, and imagination. The Navy quickly issued a statement claiming that there was no evidence of enemy planes. The Army remained unsure, but cautiously admitted that the credibility of the reports were shaky at best. The Army Air Force claimed that the planes never existed.

Erring on the side of caution, the Army waited until witnesses were interviewed before releasing a statement. From the various witness testimony, the War Department announced that from one to five unidentified aircraft had been seen over Los Angeles. These craft were either commercial planes operated by enemy agents flying from secret fields in Mexico and California, or light planes launched from Japanese submarines. Their speculated objective was to perform reconnaissance on anti-aircraft defenses.

The disagreement between the Army and Navy, and the Army’s tepid explanation for such a dramatic incident, sparked a debate among the public not only about the battle itself but the effectiveness of anti-aircraft defenses. After all, the argument went, if there were planes in the sky, why were none of them shot down in massive barrage? Why didn’t any Army Air Force planes take off to engage the enemy?

Adding to the mystery of the incident, Japan stated after the war that it did not send planes over Los Angeles at the time of the alert (they did, however, use light submarine-launched aircraft for reconnaissance of Seattle.) The odds are that the most reasonable explanation for the incident is that the initial alarm came when people sighted meteorological balloons, which were known to have been released over Los Angeles. In the climate of post Pearl Harbor America, it was easy to believe that the enemy might attack the mainland. In such a climate, it makes mass panic more likely to spread. Odds are, the Battle of Los Angeles was more of a result of misconception and a tense climate than any enemy action.

The mystery has never been officially resolved, and in the decades that followed, UFO enthusiasts advanced the notion that the mysterious object may have been an alien spacecraft. Take this with a whole box of Morton’s salt, but one ET-oriented web site offers a suspiciously blurry copy of what is purported to be a memorandum from Army chief of staff George C. Marshall to FDR, in which Marshall supposedly concludes that:

…the mystery airplanes are in fact not earthly, and according to secret intelligence sources they are in all probability of interplanetary origin…

The round object itself was never recovered or seen again. Despite the official explanation, no real answer to what or who started the Battle of Los Angeles has ever been found.

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