MysteriYES

A comedy mystery podcast in which two friends discuss a weekly mystery.

Battle of Los Angeles

For today’s story, Willy, you’ll be very happy to know that we’ll need to t-- t-- t-- TAKE IT BACK IN TIME! That’s right, this week we’ve got a myHISTORY! And please, we would just like to implore our listeners to go support our sponsors and our Patreon page at patreon.com/mysteriyes because Lin Manuel Miranda is charging us $1000 each time a listener listens to the myHISTORY theme song and the royalty fees are really starting to add up.

Today, we’re going to go all the way back to the days of the greatest generation, back when men were men and white people inexplicably got their own drinking fountains. You know, back when America was truly great, so grab your fidget spinners and let’s jump in. The year was 1942, and World War II was in full swing. For those of our listeners who don’t know much about American history, when World War II began in 1939, the United States was determined to stay out of the conflict. However, their hand was forced on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese Empire launched a surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in the then-island territory of  Hawaii. Three-hundred-fifty-three Imperial fighters and bombers led the attack, which resulted in the deaths of over 2400 Americans and a horrendous amount of damage to the US naval fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor. The following day, the US officially declared war on Japan and thus became embroiled in the deadliest conflict in human history.

The attack on Pearl Harbor is a very important preface to today’s myHISTORY, but there’s another event that we need to talk about as well before we can really jump into our story. This event is called the Bombardment of Ellwood (and don’t worry, Willy, we’re not talking about Ellwood City, the hometown of everyone’s favorite aardvark, Arthur Reid). On February 23, 1942, just a few days after US Secretary of War Henry Stimson warned that American cities should prepare to receive occasional blows from Japanese forces, a Japanese submarine surfaced near Santa Barbara, California and began to fire upon the Ellwood Oil Field along the coast. The attack lasted for 20 minutes, and the physical damage was minimal. However, the bombardment caused great damage to the psyche of the American people, as an understandable paranoia regarding a Japanese invasion of the American mainland proliferated across the west coast. This event was also a key influence in the decision to send Japanese-Americans to internment camps, which was something that was not so great about the greatest generation.

Today’s myHISTORY began on the evening of February 24, 1942, the day after the Bombardment of Ellwood, when tensions and fears were astronomically high, particularly in coastal cities. That evening, with many Americans believing that attacks on the continental US were imminent, naval intelligence warned its units all along the California coastline to prepare for a possible Japanese attack occurring within the next ten hours. Then, at 2 am on what would have technically been the 25th, a military radar picked up some sort of unidentified target about 120 miles west of Los Angeles, which is a city right on the west coast. The radar team continued to track the potential enemy contact until it was within a few miles of the coast before it eventually vanished.

At 2:15 am, the order was given for antiaircraft guns to be manned and put on green alert, which means they were ready to fire whenever it was deemed appropriate. Searchlights began to scour the night sky for enemy targets. At 2:21 am, air raid sirens sounded throughout Los Angeles and a citywide blackout was implemented. In the time before real sophisticated target-seeking technology, cities implemented blackouts so as to hide themselves from attacking airplanes. At 2:43, planes were reported flying over Long Beach, and a few minutes later, a report came in that 25 planes had been spotted flying 12,000 feet above Los Angeles.

At 3:06 am, an unidentified object was seen in the skies, and troops in Santa Monica began to fire antiaircraft and .50 caliber machine guns at the object. Immediately thereafter, the rest of the city’s antiaircraft weapons began firing into the air as well. Chaos ensued as it appeared that the city of Los Angeles and the United States mainland were under attack. Some people claimed to see Japanese planes flying in formation, bombs falling on the city, and paratroopers being launched from the planes. Others claimed that they could only see a great deal of smoke and the light of antiaircraft fire, because antiaircraft artillery are launched into the sky where they explode after a certain period of sky, thereby shootings shrapnel at whatever may be within range. The pilots of the 4th Interceptor Command were alerted of the attack, but their planes remained grounded. Meanwhile, 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 barrage of defensive fire raged on for about an hour, and the final all-clear order was given and the blackout lifted at 7:21 am. When the Battle of Los Angeles was all said and done, over 1400 rounds of antiaircraft ammunition had been fired into the Los Angeles sky.

Now, Willy, you might be wondering why you never learned about a Battle of Los Angeles in school. After all, if the Japanese did in fact attack the US mainland, you’d think we’d know a little bit more about it, even if it did take place over 75 years ago.

Well, when daylight broke the next morning, the people of Los Angeles were more than a little surprised to find that there was absolutely no evidence of any bombs being dropped on the city or any Japanese planes being shot down. The only damage to the city had been caused by the US military’s antiaircraft ammunition. Shrapnel shattered windows and tore through buildings, even partially destroying some families’ homes. There were no serious injuries as a direct result of the antiaircraft fire, but at least five people died as a result of stress-induced heart attacks or car accidents in the confusion of the blackout. However, for all intents and purposes, there had been no attack on Los Angeles by the Japanese military. That, of course, didn’t stop local authorities from arresting 20 Japanese-Americans for allegedly signalling to the attacking Japanese airplanes.

In the days following the incredibly mysterious event, the reports coming out from the media and the government alike were contradictory and unclear. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox dismissed the firefight as a mere false alarm caused by understandably jittery nerves. However, Secretary of War Henry Stimson publicly confirmed that at least 15 Japanese airplanes had been seen flying through the city of Los Angeles. The Army, meanwhile, was unable to even provide an explanation as to what happened. The media reported that some eyewitnesses claimed to have seen anywhere between one and several dozen planes, whereas others claimed to have seen a big floating object in the sky. The Los Angeles Times printed an ominous photo in which several searchlights zeroed in on some sort of glittering object hovering in the sky, which seemed to support the report of a big floating object in the sky. An editorial in The New York Times a few days after the event said, "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?"

It’s still uncertain what actually happened that night in Los Angeles, which is of course why we’re even talking about it here on MysteriYES. But, Willy, it’s been 75 years, so I think it’s high time we solved this thing, right?

Let’s first talk about the possibility that this was actually a real Japanese attack. Now, of course, we already noted that there were absolutely no bombs dropped on Los Angeles that night, so what in the heck would the Japanese planes have been doing? Well, Secretary of War Stimson had two theories: either to conduct reconnaissance to locate antiaircraft defenses, or to further terrorize the American people. Stimson also suggested that the planes were either commercial planes being operated by an enemy from Californian or Mexican airfields or light airplanes launched from Japanese submarines. However, after the war, the Japanese military reported that it never once flew over Los Angeles, although we do know that light planes launched off of submarines were flown over Seattle during the war. The three questions that really throw a wrench into this theory are: where did the planes come from, where did they go, and why did no American planes pursue? Plus, if the Japanese were conducting reconnaissance on Los Angeles’s antiaircraft defense system, how come they never attacked Los Angeles at any other point during the war?  

Another theory that was put forth by the Secretary of the Navy was that the event was merely the result of understandably nervous and paranoid US troops. Remember, Pearl Harbor had proven that the American sleeping giant was vulnerable, and American citizens truly believed that the Japanese might invade at any time. Combine this nervousness with some rudimentary radar instruments, and it’s understandable why something like this could have happened. As for the many reports of Japanese planes being spotted in the skies over Los Angeles, it’s possible that, when caught by the beams of an abundance of searchlights, the antiaircraft shells could have been mistaken for Japanese planes. My only question about this theory is this: was our military so incompetent that it would just start firing into the air at...absolutely nothing? I mean, it makes sense for the average citizen to jump to irrational conclusions, but you’d hope that the people who are in charge of all the super powerful weapons would be a little more calculating in their conclusions.

A new theory was put forth in 1983 when the Office of  Air Force History noted that meteorological balloons had been released that night prior to the barrage, in order to determine wind conditions. Apparently, due to their lights and silver color, it was apparently conceivable that they could have been mistaken for Japanese planes. If indeed the troops in Santa Monica had actually seen one of these meteorological balloons, mistook it for an entire squadron of Japanese planes, and began firing, the sheer chaos of the whole thing would have likely been enough to keep people shooting into the air, even though there was nothing to shoot at. Plus, while the photo printed by the Los Angeles Times doesn’t show a lot of detail of the object in the sky, the object does look way more like a meteorological balloon than a Japanese plane. My first question for this theory is this: what in the world were people doing launching meteorological balloons during such a tense time in history? And why in the world did no one tell the military that this would be happening so they didn’t start shooting at nothing? My other question is this: if meteorological balloons had indeed been launched, how could they have been mistaken for airplanes when they moved significantly slower and looked nothing like a Japanese airplane?

But, Willy, if you’re not a fan of any of these theories, you’re in luck because there’s the old tried and true UFO theory is available for this one. I’d like to thank my wife for super helpfully pointing out that, no matter what the object was, it was indeed an unidentified flying object. So, for clarity’s sake, let’s say we are talking about the theory that the unidentified flying object was an alien spaceship. Now, it should be noted that this event happened a good five years before the Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting in Mt. Rainier, Washington, which is considered the first modern UFO sighting, so there wasn’t much precedence or vocabulary for talking about UFOs at the time of the Battle of Los Angeles. If you look at that picture from the Los Angeles Times, it does look like the searchlights could be zeroing in on some sort of flying saucer, and as much as I hate to say it, I can definitely see it, although I did read that the photo was doctored to increase the contrast so that it could be visible when printed in the newspaper. One eyewitness described seeing an object like an enormous flying lozenge. Another eyewitness stated,  "It was just hovering there in the sky and hardly moving at all. It was a lovely pale orange and about the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. I could see it perfectly because it was very close. It was big!" Still other eyewitnesses described the sight as “a surreal, hanging, magic lantern.” The alleged story with the UFO is that it was indeed the object that was picked up on the military radar 120 miles west of Los Angeles, and that the radar tracked it all the way to the city. The troops in Santa Monica then sighted the UFO and opened fire. The UFO was caught on camera by the Los Angeles Times before then retreating from the scene in order to avoid further damage. Of course, you can read way, way more about the UFO theory on the internet, but that is the gist of it based upon the cursory reading I did of the theory.

So, Willy, what do you think happened during the Battle of Los Angeles?

My thoughts:

  • No UFO; probably just a meteorological balloon after all, especially in the Los Angeles Times photo.

  • No Japanese planes; the idea that they were conducting reconnaissance just doesn’t make sense; the sightings of them were probably confirmation bias based upon glimpses of antiaircraft shells caught in the searchlights.

  • Nerves and fear must have definitely played a role in the initial shooting, and confusion must have definitely played a role in the continuation of the barrage.

  • I don’t know about what the radar picked up; perhaps it was just an error of the instrument, or something else innocuous.