The city raged against an ambiguous foe in the first hours of February 25, 1942
As the sun set over the Pacific on the evening of Tuesday, February 24, 1942, Los Angeles was on edge. Ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor, people in every city along the West Coast had feared they were next, but that night nerves were especially frayed. Only 24 hours had passed since a Japanese submarine had surfaced off the California coast and had proceeded to lob more than a dozen 140mm shells into Ellwood oil refinery, just eight miles from Santa Barbara and fewer than 100 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Since December, Japanese submarines had rampaged up and down the coast, attacking nearly a dozen merchant ships and sinking two within sight of shore, but these were the first cannon shells of an enemy from across the seas to fall in anger upon the continental United States since the War of 1812.
There was something in the air. People feared the worst when the radio stations carried an official “yellow alert” at 7:18 p.m., warning that attacking aircraft were only 100 miles—or 20 minutes—from the City of Angels. Beginning with yellow, the color-coded alert nomenclature progressed to blue, which triggered a public warning such as a siren; red, which signified that the enemy was between 25 and 40 miles away; and green, which meant that the antiaircraft batteries should be ready to open fire.
They had heard it before. The air raid warnings seemed to come several times each week. So far, the alerts had always been false alarms, but it was hard to get used to reports of enemy aircraft in California skies. And it was hard to grow accustomed to the mandatory blackout orders that came with each of these warnings. The blackouts—which extended to streetlights, headlights, shop windows, and even cigarettes—were never as complete as the civil defense authorities would have liked, but grew more comprehensive over time as compliance expanded, cloaking the landscape in an evermore-gloomy mood of trepidation. Back in December, the Los Angeles Times had coined the term “City of Shadows,” and the city would once again be in darkness that night.
At 10:33 p.m., an “all clear” sounded and people turned on their lights just in time to turn them back off to go to bed. It was not until the wary and weary of Los Angeles had finally drifted off to sleep that the real fireworks began.
AS HISTORIAN WILLIAM GOSS would later write in the official wartime history of the U.S. Army Air Forces, in the wee hours of the following morning, radar “picked up an unidentified target 120 miles west of Los Angeles” and tracked the object as it approached to within a few miles of the coast. At 2:15 a.m., the antiaircraft batteries of the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade—located at camouflaged sites near strategic locations such as port facilities and the region’s numerous aircraft plants—were placed on green alert. The regional controller of the IV Antiaircraft Command, the antiaircraft artillery organization charged with the defense of all of California, transmitted an-other blackout order to local authorities at 2:21 a.m. Within four minutes, sirens were wailing across Los Angeles and environs.
The Battle of Los Angeles was on. Antiaircraft guns began thundering all across the city. Gunners opened fire at the first hint of an enemy airplane—real or imagined. After the first shots, the shooting became pandemic. All of the determination that had been pent up since Pearl Harbor poured forth into the skies. As the Los Angeles Times later reported, the “air over Los Angeles erupted like a volcano.”
The Times told of Long Beach Police Chief Joseph Henry McClelland, atop city hall, watching the passing of what he described as a “flight of nine silvery-looking planes from the Redondo Beach area across the land side of Fort MacArthur, and toward Santa Ana and Huntington Beach.”
A great many people reported seeing aircraft in the sky—and if aircraft were there, they were not friendlies. Brigadier General William Ord Ryan of the IV Interceptor Command ordered his aircraft to stay on the ground. According to the Fourth Air Force Historical Study III–2, the IV Interceptor Command remained out of action throughout the barrage, “preferring to await indications of the scale and direction of any attack before committing its limited fighter force.”
Goss wrote that, at 3:06 a.m., a “balloon carrying a red flare was seen over Santa Monica and four batteries of antiaircraft artillery opened fire.” Searchlights washed the sky with their stark white light. The USAAF “information center was flooded with reports of ‘enemy planes,’ even though the mysterious object tracked in from sea seemed to have vanished.”
Byron Palmer of CBS Radio reported that the “unidentified object, which some sources thought might be a blimp, moved slowly down the Pacific coast from Santa Monica and disappeared south of Long Beach [30 miles away]. Searchlights closely followed the object down the coast and kept it centered in their glare.”
He went on to say the “ship returned and headed westward from Long Beach to Santa Monica. The guns went into action again, hurling round after round at the object.”
Whatever it was, this “ship” was not hit.
Some witnesses thought that the object, or objects, might have been escaped barrage balloons, a common site in the Los Angeles area, while others insisted the objects were much larger than that.
Times reporter Ray Zeman and his wife were at her father’s home in Inglewood, about 10 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles and immediately adjacent to the Los Angeles Airport. As the shooting continued and they headed for shelter in the basement, he realized “this might be the biggest story in years” and that the presumed Japanese air attack might be centered on the North American Aviation aircraft factory in Inglewood. He convinced his wife they ought to walk over to Inglewood city hall to try to find out what was going on. In the darkness, punctuated by searchlights and exploding antiaircraft shells, they came across two policemen watching the searchlight beams above.
“Have you seen any planes?” Zeman asked.
“Plenty. They must be 25,000 or 30,000 feet high, out of range of the ack-ack guns.”
“How many planes?”
“Oh, 150 or 200, I guess,” one cop estimated, as antiaircraft guns continued to thunder in the distance. “They came in great dark clouds. We haven’t heard any bombs dropped, though.”
Zeman and his wife continued on their way, finally reaching the Inglewood police station, next door to city hall. There they ran into a group of people, including several police officers who had known Mrs. Zeman when she was a reporter with the Times. As the Zemans reported what they had just heard, they were met with incredulity.
“Two hundred planes?” one officer scoffed as cannon fire sounded from several directions. “Why, those men had hallucinations. There were seven planes, maybe nine.”
“Seven,” the jail matron interjected confidently. “I counted them.”
Suddenly there was a roar from an antiaircraft gun located close by.
The policemen told the Zemans where the nearby guns were hidden, but hastened to add that their location was a “military secret,” admonishing Zeman: “Don’t print that.”
Next came a sudden bright flash, which one officer interpreted as a flare dropped by a submarine-hunting airplane. Another insisted it was just an especially bright antiaircraft shell.
Just as unexpectedly, there was a moment of silence in the immediate area. Several of the people gathered there on the dark sidewalk—who had been smoking in breach of the strict blackout rules—nervously stubbed out their cigarettes. Talk turned to the policemen having witnessed some air-to-air combat between American and hostile aircraft. Others present, however, insisted there had been no such event.
After a few moments, distant searchlights began stabbing the sky off to the south in the vicinity of the harbor at the Port of Los Angeles, and there was another round of antiaircraft fire from that direction.
ACROSS LOS ANGELES, another Times reporter, Marvin Miles, was watching as “objects in the sky slowly moved on, caught in the center of the [search]lights like the hub of a bicycle wheel surrounded by gleaming spokes.”
He went out onto the street to join his neighbors and took notes of their comments:
“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. 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’re from a secret air base down south [in Mexico] somewhere.”
“Maybe it’s a test.”
“Test, hell! You don’t throw that much metal into the air unless you’re fixing on knocking something down!”
Bill Henry of the Times and Scripps-Howard columnist Ernie Pyle—later to become a legendary war reporter—both wrote emphatically that they had seen no aircraft at all.
Gene Sherman of the Times reported on the public’s reaction, writing that the “people you met weren’t rattled or scared or particularly nervous. But their eyes were turned unbelievingly southward toward those [searchlights] and bursting shells. They looked up. And they were awake—wide, wide awake.”
A Los Angeles Police Department motorcycle officer told Sherman, “Well, this might do the folks around here some good. This ain’t no picnic and now they know it.”
Later, during a ride-along in a squad car, Sherman and his hosts passed a brightly illuminated store on Wilshire Boulevard. Some bystanders asked what they should do about the blackout violation, and the police gave them the go-ahead to “do what it took,” so they went looking for rocks to break out the lights. (Elsewhere in Los Angeles, a man was picked up for breaking out the window of Mandel Jewelry store. He claimed he was enforcing the blackout, but the arresting officers suspected he had “another motive.”)
As the Battle of Los Angeles raged, it was not without casualties. There were five fatalities that evening, three directly due to the blackout. In Arcadia, a milk truck collided with a car driven by Harry Klein, whose wife, Zeulah, was fatally injured. Police Sergeant Engebert Larson died in a head-on collision in Long Beach while he was on his way to report for duty. And Jesus Alferez was walking west of the USC campus when he was struck and killed by a car in the darkness. The driver was not cited.
And, as the antiaircraft shells were bursting above, two volunteer first-responders died of heart attacks. Henry Ayers, age 60, was driving through Hollywood, his station wagon brimming with ammunition for his State Guard unit, when he slumped over his steering wheel and died. George P. Weil, age 36, was on duty as an Air Warning Service warden when he was stricken.
The gunfire finally tapered off, with the last of 1,440 artillery rounds being fired at around 4:15 a.m. As daylight at last replaced the searchlights, all-clear signals sounded between 7:21 and 8:34 a.m.
IN THE CLEAR LIGHT OF DAY, people across Los Angeles took stock of the results of the previous night’s pandemonium. During the barrage, Blanche Sedgwick and her 14-year-old niece had gotten out of bed to look at the fireworks. While they watched, an enormous shell fragment plummeted out of the sky and crashed into the bedroom they had just vacated. In Long Beach, the kitchen and home office of Dr. Franklin Stewart were demolished by falling debris from exploded shells. Numerous similar reports would come in to police and the media in the ensuing days. The spent artillery rounds crashing to earth had caused significant damage.
What there wasn’t evidence of, however, was damage from enemy bombs. Were there really airplanes in the sky that night?
For most people who had experienced the Battle of Los Angeles, there was no doubt there were—but where had these planes come from and where had they gone?
The official word from Western Defense Command was that the “aircraft which caused the blackout in the Los Angeles area for several hours this a.m. have not been identified….Although reports were 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.”
From his headquarters at the Presidio of San Francisco, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt of the U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command told Major General Fulton Q. C. Gardner, commander of the IV Antiaircraft Command, of his “gratification at the readiness of the officers and men to meet possible enemy action, as demonstrated by their alertness and ability to promptly open fire when called upon to do so.”
DeWitt, the man charged with the defense of the whole West Coast, had issued strangely high praise for a command that had fired thousands of rounds in a wartime situation without hitting anything but homes and property on the ground with spent shells.
The second phase of the battle, the recriminations, began in Washington the following morning. Secretary of War Henry Stimson told the Associated Press that there were “probably” unidentified aircraft over Los Angeles. Referring to information that came to him from DeWitt’s headquarters by way of U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall, he said, “as many as 15 planes may have been involved, flying at various speeds from what is officially reported as being ‘very slow’ to as much as 200 miles an hour, and at an elevation of from 9,000 to 18,000 feet.” Concerning the antiaircraft barrage, he added that “perhaps it is better to be too alert than not alert enough. In any case, they were very alert [in Los Angeles].”
Navy Secretary Frank Knox, however, announced it had been a “false alarm.”
“There were no planes over Los Angeles last night,” Knox told a press conference. “None have been found and a very wide reconnaissance has been carried out.” Knox wrote the Battle of Los Angeles off to “jittery nerves.”
Three thousand miles west, the dismissive comments from the secretary of the navy were met with indignation. Many people—indeed perhaps most people—across the region were certain that the enemy had indeed violated California airspace, and they were confident the Western Defense Command had responded appropriately to this genuine threat.
“Whose nerves, Mr. Knox? The public’s or the army’s?” the Los Angeles Times shot back in a front-page editorial. “And just where, and the question is a fair one, did Secretary Knox get the information leading him to believe that the air raid was a phony? The official and only official source of such information in this case is the army. What the army’s information was has been made very clear, both by its own statement and by its vigorous action.”
Stimson, meanwhile, also repeated the widely circulated theory (never discounted by DeWitt’s command) that the aircraft had been procured by enemy agents from commercial sources and were being flown from secret land bases, probably in Mexico. When asked whether his information had originated with DeWitt, Stimson replied that it had come to him directly from Chief of Staff Marshall, and “it is evidently a report from out there.”
Southern California congressman Leland Ford was furious when he heard about this theory. He said, “If it was thought that these were commercial planes operated by enemy agents, why [did not] our own planes…go after them, bring them down to a landing, or upon refusal to land, shoot them down, or at least find out where they came from and where they went?”
But, of course, the IV Interceptor Command had no aircraft operating during the early morning of February 25.
The Pacific coast congressional delegation demanded an investigation and, on March 2, Knox went to Capitol Hill. Grilled about the “false alarm” comment, he backed off his previous statement, telling Congress he had been “misquoted” or at least misunderstood. He added that since air defense was the army’s job, they should have the last word.
However, that last word was muddled and unclear as both the army and navy tempered their initial statements. Indeed, in the absence of facts, speculation became rampant.
“Attempts to arrive at an explanation of the event quickly became as involved and mysterious as the ‘battle’ itself,” wrote historian Goss after the war. “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.” But, he added, “after a thorough examination of witnesses had been finished…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, noting that the enemy’s purpose must have been to locate antiaircraft defenses in the area or to deliver a blow at civilian morale.”
Goss observed that “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.”
When the dust settled, most people who had been in Los Angeles continued to believe that there had indeed been aircraft in the sky, though there was never any hard evidence to confirm this. Goss mentions that “at the end of the war, the Japanese stated that they did not send planes over the area at the time of this alert.” Though he cites only the debriefing of Commander Masatake Okumiya of the Imperial Japanese Navy, no evidence that Japanese air assets were near the West Coast at the time has ever come to light. The Japanese submarines then operating on the Pacific coast were capable of carrying a single observation plane in watertight hangars on their decks. The sub that had shelled the coast the night before was still in the area, but on this cruise, it was carrying extra fuel, not an airplane. And there were no other Japanese planes within range. Nevertheless, thousands of people insisted—and would continue to insist for the rest of their lives—that they had seen airplanes in the sky that night. If they belonged neither to the enemy nor the IV Interceptor Command, from where had they come? Neither Stimson, Knox, nor anyone in their respective chains of command seemed to have a definitive answer.
What then of the large floating object so many had seen, and which CBS Radio’s Byron Palmer called a “ship?” The explanation that was later advanced in the official history of the IV Antiaircraft Command was that the antiaircraft batteries were reacting to a “weather balloon,” an answer that would be used for numerous other incidents of unexplained aerial phenomena in the coming decades.
Other wartime news soon crowded the Battle of Los Angeles from the front pages, but many questions remained unanswered. The conflicting assessments by the army and navy could not help but invite speculation of deliberate obfuscation. The Battle of Los Angeles was over in one evening, but the stories and rumors live on. Knox’s initial pronouncement that it was a false alarm is almost certainly the final answer, but to this day the battle and its alleged “coverup” still rate their own small cadre of aficionados whenever conspiracy theorists congregate.✯