Image: Saturday Night Uforia Logo

the battle
of los angeles

Image: WWII Alertmen Poster
TEN WEEKS FOLLOWING the devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the anti-aircraft defenses on the west coast of the U.S. mainland were on continuous alert.

The Japanese had struck blow after blow across the Pacific. On December 8th they had destroyed most of the US Army Air Corps in the Philippines. And in the coming weeks they seemed to be everywhere and unstoppable, attacking not only the Philippines but Hong Kong, Wake Island, Guam, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Bali, Timor, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, and Burma with overwhelming strength.

American casualties -- at a time when the U.S. population was 130 million -- had already been extraordinarily high: more than 2,400 on that terrible day at Pearl Harbor, and hundreds more in the ten weeks after, along with over 1,000 American merchant marines lost to torpedo attacks on shipping.

All that time rumors were rife in the Japanese-American community of coming attacks on the U.S. mainland, and from those rumors came tips pouring into the War Department, which ordered a series of high alerts in coastal defenses from February 7 to March 15, 1942, stretching from Seattle to San Diego.

Day after day and night after night, the anti-aircraft personnel -- numbering over 8,000 in the Los Angeles area alone -- waited in tense anticipation, even as they ran their daily scenarios for best use of the searchlights and 3" artillery, conducted drills on repelling attacks with their 37 mm canons, and sharpened their defense skills with their .50 caliber machine guns, all to be at the ready should the feared Japanese strike come.

But the west coast remained peaceful through the first three weeks of February.

THERE WAS SOME suspicion about the rumors. The thinking went that a disinformation campaign might have been coordinated by the Japanese to tie down American troops on the mainland even as the Japanese attacked (according to other rumors) Alaska and the Panama Canal zone.

But still the rumors grew and the reports poured in. On February 13th, for instance, a report to Headquarters 39th Brigade, Seattle stated that a strong rumor in the Japanese-American neighborhoods predicted the west coast would be bombed on February 18th. But that day passed peacefully, as had the days before.

Then came February 19th. February 20th. February 21st. February 22nd. More rumors, but still no actual attack on the mainland. Even more telling, there had been none of the sabotage that War Department officials were sure would accompany any strike.

But such were the times that the plans were well under way for the removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast. On February 19th President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, empowering the Secretary of War or any military commander authorized by him to designate 'military areas' and exclude 'any and all persons' from them. The same day, the Santa Cruz, California Morning Sentinel published the following editorial...

This is no time for expansive discourses on protection of civil liberties for Japanese residents of the Pacific coast, whether they be American citizens or aliens.

Efficient prosecution of this war demands that we recognize certain facts which make every Japanese in our midst a potential threat to our security, regardless of how admirable he might have been in time of peace. It is a mistake to think that we can clear up the dangers by process of elimination; that is, by depending entirely upon the FBI to ferret out all the treacherous acts and incriminating documents among the 100,000 Japanese living in areas where they could be of greatest service to an invading horde.

An attempted invasion of the Pacific coast is a possibility. Imbued with the doctrine of "The Rising Sun," Japanese on the Pacific coast must be regarded as a potential army already planted behind the American lines.

But the first forced removal was still a month away, and the rumors within the Japanese-American community of an attack on the West Coast -- perhaps in hushed tones and stoked by worry of the consequences they would suffer -- continued unabated.

ON FEBRUARY 23RD, another tip came in from another rumor. It contained the usual vagueness of many such reports: somewhere along the twelve hundred miles of Pacific seaboard there would be a Japanese attack. But it had one specific that was unique: the bombing would come that very night.

The tip had come in at approximately 6 p.m., a half-hour before sunset. It had barely had time to be considered when, at 7:05 p.m., a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast near Santa Barbara, California, and over the course of the next thirty minutes lobbed 13 rounds of 5-1/2" shells at an oil installation.

Four of the 13 shells were duds. Two more landed on nearby ranches, causing only craters in the fields. The rest had caused little damage to the facility, having been errantly aimed.

From a military report:

Lack of knowledge or more probably, confusion or loss of direction, was responsible for the failure to strike at the Gasoline Plant which would have crippled production at this company for some months. This target was prominently situated on the water's edge and directly opposite the point where the submarine first opened fire. It was less than 1000 yards from the center of impact of the grouped shots.

But successful or not, the event had special significance.

For just at the moment that the enemy sub began it's errant shelling, President Roosevelt was addressing the nation on radio. From a national wire story...

President Roosevelt put Americans on warning today that the United Nations must win the war in the southwest Pacific or the United States must expect to fight Japanese invaders on California, Oregon and Washington beaches...

And though such a dire warning might have been taken by some as hyperbole had it been left to stand on its own, there was no denying this fact...

The thirteen shells lobbed by an enemy submarine were the first foreign attack on the United States mainland since the War of 1812.

Image: Headline - U.S. Hunts Coast Attacker
THE NEXT DAY, February 24, 1942, headlines across the country blared the news. But the attack had come and gone with little damage, and there was nothing to do but wait, and watch.

Such a wait, however, comes with tense contemplation... could the Japanese shelling have been merely preliminary, a prelude to some other surprise as deadly and as devastating as Pearl Harbor -- or worse? And how long the wait before there would be an answer? Only time would tell, and in such situations time only intensifies the anxiety of uncertain anticipation.

But the day after the shelling passed uneventfully, if anxiously -- that is until, at 7 p.m., Naval Intelligence warned that another attack could be expected in the next ten hours. Soon 37th Brigade headquarters was receiving "a very large number of reports of flares and blinking lights near the defense plants and oil fields".

The reports of 'flares and blinking lights' were cause for much alarm, especially on such a scale, because they could be used as signals to offshore Japanese forces, allowing them to target -- or even land -- with devastating accuracy.

But there was no accompanying attack, and the night passed into early morning without further incident -- that is, until 1:44 a.m. on February 25th, when an SCR 268 radar station picked up an unidentified aerial target over the Pacific Ocean and heading in, confirmed by 2 separate SCR 270 radar installations.

By 2 a.m. the Information Center's Operation Board showed an unidentified "target 120 miles west of Los Angeles . . . well tracked by radar". A few minutes later, all anti-aircraft operations were put on green (for 'go') alert. At 2:21 a.m. a blackout was ordered across the region. And by 2:26 a.m. the target was tracked to within 3 miles of Los Angeles.

Soon all hell broke loose.

"THE AIR OVER LOS ANGELES ERUPTED LIKE A VOLCANO," was how Major Milton Durham later recalled that night. It was to be the only statement of clarity in a night of confusion and numerous conflicting accounts.

From the next day's report by the Los Angeles Times...

Chilly Throng Watches Shells Bursting In Sky

By Marvin Miles

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!"


"Air Raid! Come here quick! Look over there, those searchlights. They've got something. They're blasting it with anti-aircraft!"

Father, mother, children all gathered on the front porch, congregated in small clusters in the blackout streets -- against orders. Babies cried, dogs barked, doors slammed.

But the objects in the sky slowly moved on, caught in the center of the lights like the hub of a bicycle wheel surrounded by gleaming spokes.


Speculations 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're from a secret air based down south somewhere."

Still the firing continued.

Like lethal firecrackers, the anti-aircraft rounds blasted above, below, seemingly right on the target 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 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 en route to and from blackout accidents.

There came lulls in the firing. The search lights went out.

Angelenos 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 target inched along high, flanked by the cherry red bursts.

And the householders shivered in their robes, their faces set, watching the awesome scene.

The next day, the paper published the only known picture of the incident:

Image: Headline: Only Known Picture of the Battle of Los Angeles
The caption below it read:

SEEKING OUT OBJECT - Scores of searchlights built a wigwam of light beams over Los Angeles early yesterday morning during the alarm. This picture was taken during blackout; shows nine beams converging on an object in sky in Culver City area. The blobs of light which show at apex of beam angles were made by anti-aircraft shells.

THE COURSE of the thing in the sky after its initial appearance is not known for sure. A government-published account says it 'seems to have vanished' and labeled it all a fantasy (The Army Air Forces in World War II, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983). But eyewitness accounts and news reports suggest a series of sightings south along the coast at least from Culver City to Redondo Beach (a distance of about 16 miles) and then into the San Pedro-Long Beach area (a distance of about 26 miles) before heading out of sight towards the southeast 30-45 minutes later -- a course which would have maneuvered above the highly-sensitive defense aircraft plants of Douglas, Lockheed and North American.

Image: Map of Possible Course

Note: Above course only a 'best guess', based on various news reports and eyewitness accounts.

BUT THERE WAS MUCH MORE CONFUSION about the event than a singular mystery object slowly making its way, and seemingly invulnerable to hundreds of shells bursting about it, a confusion immediately reflected in the earliest news reports.

The lead paragraphs from one national wire service report...

Anti-aircraft guns thundered over the metropolitan area early Wednesday 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.

Some observers claimed to have seen two planes over Long Beach.

Army Intelligence, although uncommunicative, scoffed at reports of civilian observers that as many as 200 planes were over the area.

The lead paragraphs from a different national wire service report...

Anti-aircraft guns fired round after round of ammunition and tracer bullets at an unidentified object which moved slowly down the coast from Santa Monica and disappeared south of the rich Signal Hill oil fields early today.

Army officials declined to comment, but speculation quickly arose that an enemy blimp might have passed over the area. This was based on the fact the object required nearly 30 minutes to travel some 20 or 25 miles -- far slower than an airplane.

And the lead paragraphs from yet a third national wire service report...

Unidentified aircraft were reported over the Los Angeles area early today, causing heavy anti-aircraft firing from widely separated batteries and a five-hour blackout here and in other Southern California coastal cities.

Police in Long Beach, Huntington Park, and Inglewood, all war production centers, reported planes were overhead. No bombs were dropped and no planes were shot down, the army announced.

Finally, excerpts from a fourth national wire service report...

Unidentified aircraft swept over the Los Angeles county coast in two waves early this morning and were greeted by blasts of gunfire that continued for nearly two hours.

Police were investigating a report that an unidentified plane was shot down near 180th street and Vermont avenue, about 15 miles from the center of the city, in the vicinity of Palos Verdes Hills.

A desk sergeant at the 77th Street station informed headquarters he had seen two planes fall from the cone of the searchlight beams after strenuous anti-aircraft activity.

During the height of the barrage and while the entire coastline from Santa Monica to San Diego was blacked out, a number of Japanese were arrested on the Venice pier for signaling with flashlights.

Searchlights swept the skies and on at least one occasion caught a group of planes directly in their cone over Long Beach. Police who witnessed the episode said they could not determine whether any planes was hit [sic] by shells which burst all around them.

The first flight came in over the coast at a point over Redondo beach and apparently penetrated about five miles in the direction of the municipal airport and North American Aviation's plant before cutting to the south and disappearing in the direction of Long Beach.

The second wave came in over the Palos Verdes hills and also swung south and out to sea near Seal Beach...

Watchers on the rooftop of the United Press bureau saw at least 30 searchlights sweeping the skies in a wide arc from Manhattan beach on the west to the Santa Monica mountains on the north.

Anti-aircraft searchlight batteries from all directions played on a single area. Long Beach police said planes were seen in the air. Residents of Palos Verdes, on the hill between Long Beach and Manhattan, said they heard motors of planes, but their sound disappeared after the guns went into action...

The second anti-aircraft barrage followed the course of the first. It appeared to be an effort to locate and blast the unidentified planes. It started over the sea and followed a southeasterly course. The number of searchlights played varied upwards of 15.

The second barrage appeared closer to downtown Los Angeles since watchers could hear the concussion of the guns more clearly and the flash of bursting shells was brighter...

From the activity, it appeared the "unidentified aircraft" did not fly inland more than a few miles.

And reports of Los Angeles-area papers did little to clear up the confusion. From the Long Beach, California Independent...


As Long Beach Citizens shivered in the pre-dawn hours of this momentous morning war with all its terrors and beauty burst over the city in full display. Two waves of unidentified enemy planes flying high and slow crossed over the entire perimeter of the Long Beach-Los Angeles war zone.

All anti-aircraft batteries in the entire area opened fire as scores of brilliant searchlights caught the mystery planes in their glare. Official reports state no planes were downed and no bombs were dropped.

The first wave of planes came over at 3:15 a.m. This was exactly 49 minutes after the city was blacked out at 2:25 a.m. Again at 4:16 a second wave came over and again all guns in the area blazed into action.

Watching from a roof top vantage point it appeared as though heat lightning was flickering on the ground as the flare of the anti-aircraft batteries reflected into the moon-light, star bright sky.

No less then a minute after the guns started firing, the whispering, swishing sound of shrapnel could be heard as it dropped over the city in a deadly rain. Sparks could be noticed as the shrapnel struck on paved street surfaces.

It was a spectacle of tremendous beauty with ominous overtones of sudden death.

As the anti-aircraft shells burst in the air virtually all of them appeared to be short of their objectives. What some people thought were enemy signals and flares were found to be on investigation tracer shells fired by army batteries. These were apparently in strings of six, eight and twelve red balls of fire at a time.

And in an 'extra' edition published at 9 a.m. on the same day:

Jap Planes Peril Santa Monica, Seal Beach, El Segundo, Redondo, Long Beach, Hermosa, Signal Hill

Roaring out of a brilliant moonlit western sky, foreign aircraft flying both in large formation and singly, flew over Southern California early today and drew heavy barrages of antiaircraft fire - -- the first ever to sound over United States continental soil against an enemy invader...

The article went on to say that the planes flew in formations of 8 to 20 each.

THE CONFUSION also went far beyond the various stories of the national wire services -- into the very midst of the military itself.

The next day a 7-hour investigation at 37th Brigade headquarters revealed many conflicting reports. The acting commander of the 37th had thought he spotted 10-15 planes over Inglewood, but decided that it was instead drifting smoke. A lieutenant reported that he had spotted 20-30 planes from the roof of a hotel in downtown Los Angeles, flying at an estimated height of 20,000 feet and at 150 m.p.h. Three guards with him also saw them in their searchlights, and said they could hear their motors, but couldn't pick them up with their field glasses. Another lieutenant in southeast Los Angeles saw three planes in V formation at 9,000 feet. A sergeant from the 214th CA saw five planes with his naked eye flying at an estimated 30,000 feet, appearing to him to be bombers, first flying in a wedge and then changing to a T-formation. A lieutenant of the 122nd Gun Bn reported that he spotted three planes in a V formation at an estimated 9,000 feet, but his 268 radar picked up nothing. Another lieutenant of the 122nd said his men counted 14 planes 'flying high and slow'. A private of the 122nd Gun Bn reported that he spotted five planes in a V formation, and the battery fired at them. A lieutenant at the Douglas plant saw first a single plane through his elevation scope and also through his binoculars, with his elevation finder showing it at 20,175 feet, followed a few minutes later by 3 more flying in V formation at the same elevation. Finally, at 4:15 a.m., a captain of the 3rd CA (Harbor Defenses) saw two flights of 6 planes each, while a colonel of the 265th CA (Harbor Defenses) saw a wedge of three. Several officers testified they saw a meteorological balloon. Several civilians testified they saw 7 to 8 planes flying very high caught in the searchlights, looking like birds.

Nor did the confusion in the military end there. Appearing in various contemporaneous reports, primarily the Journal of the Searchlight Commander as well as the Journal of the Gun Commander were these accounts, recounted from The History of the 4th AA (Anti-Aircraft) Command, Western Defense Command, Jan 9 1942 to July 1 1945...

At 0243 the Gun Officer reported unidentified planes between Seal Beach and Long Beach; at 306 a balloon carrying a red flare was reported over Santa Monica and firing on it by batteries B, C and D of the 6th CA and B of the 205th CA began at 0307 on orders of the Controller to destroy it.

A total of 482 rounds of 3" were expended at the planes and "dirigible" without visible result except Gun 3E3 reported setting one plane on fire. At 0328 Btry G of the 78th CA reported 25 to 30 heavy bombers over the Douglas Plant. At 0333 fifteen (15) planes were seen flying over Artesia and 581 rounds of 3" and 38 rounds of 37mm were expended on them by batteries B, C, D, G and H of the 78th and B, C and D of the 122d Gun Bns before they passed out to sea over Long Beach. At 0355 batteries C and D of the 6th fired 100 rounds of 3" at another balloon over Santa Monica. Ten minutes later batteries B, C and D of the 78th opened up again on another target over Long Beach and fired 246 rounds of 3" before the target passed out to sea. At 0403 Battery G of the 78th reported fifteen (15) planes over the Douglas Plant and six minutes later fifteen (15) more, or perhaps the same flight, approaching the plant again. At 0413 this battery reported fifteen planes right over the plant but too high for the 37mm guns. At 0455 the CARW reported the Douglas Plant at Long Beach had been bombed but suffered no hits.

At 0612 the Navy reported that PRO had reported several planes shot down at 180th and Vermonth [sic] Streets and the Antiaircraft Officer passed the news on to the Gun Commander.

At 0645 the Gun Commander put the AA on Red Alert #1 as friendly flights were scheduled to leave the area. By 0715 it was too light for the searchlights and at 0720 the Blackout was lifted...

The only thing that it seemed everyone agreed on, as stated in a military report, the night 'was clear and black with just a trace of high base'.

BUT OF COURSE military personnel weren't the only witnesses to the event. Civilians, including police and reporters, also had their own tales to tell. From a national wire service story the next day...

Mrs. Margaret Scott of West Los Angeles and Santa Monica, said she and her husband, an aircraft plant supervisor, watched the display and that searchlight beams seemed to have caught one or more planes at their intersection.

"It looked just the same as in the practice conducted in this area almost every night," she said. She added that red and white lights seen blinking at intervals, and which have been reported as "flares", looked to her like the signaling done by U.S. planes when they are maneuvering in this district. Army authorities have declared however, that no U.S. planes went aloft during the night.

Others said they thought at first they saw planes, then decided they were mistaken.

"My wife and I," said Minard Fawcett of Redondo Beach, "were certain we observed about 15 planes trapped in the cone of light from the searchlight batteries. Later we decided the smoke clouds had confused us and that what we saw were merely puffs of smoke from the shells."

From the same wire service story...

Chief of Police J. H. McClelland of Long Beach said:

"I watched what was described as the second wave of planes from atop the seven-story Long Beach City Hall.

"Personally, I did not see any planes but the younger men with me said they could.

"An experienced Navy observer with me, using powerful Carl Zeiss binoculars, said he counted nine planes in the cone of the searchlight. He said they were silvery in color. This 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. As far as we know, none of our own planes took off."

McClelland said he and his men thought the planes were headed for the Long Beach plant of Douglas Aircraft but that they continued without pausing in the area.

His observations were similar to those of other police officers and volunteer watchers in the area.

And excerpts from a lengthier eyewitness interview in another national wire service story...

We were awakened by the blackout sirens at about 2:30 this morning and had just settled back into bed when we were awakened again by the anti-aircraft guns.

At first they were distant and we thought it was somebody knocking at our door or our dog thumping on the floor. As the booming continued and came closer we finally realized that this possibly was a raid and that the bombing attacks on cities of which we had read so much in the past year, finally had come to our own city.

From our windows we saw the beams of searchlights. Running outside in our nightclothes we saw the searchlights converging on a single point and moving slowly across the sky, from the direction of Santa Monica and Malibu beach to Inglewood, San Pedro, Wilmington and Long Beach on the southeast.

The plane was apparently very high. Most of the anti-aircraft shells burst well below the convergence of the searchlights beams. A few apparently from a single gun flashed right in the center of the focal point of the lights in rapid succession.

There must have been at least 20 searchlights trained on the plane. A neighbor told me she counted 22. All the neighbors were on their porches or in the street. They huddled together shivering in their night clothes...

We were on a porch of the second floor of our house on a hill which gave us a good view of the anti-aircraft barrage. The shells looked like Fourth of July skyrockets. They had an orange color and the light disappeared just like the light of rockets. Tracer bullets also were used.

Red flares were sent up at one time. They looked as though they were on a string and they climbed slowly in groups of eight or ten. It looked like something like a lighted kite. The anti-aircraft guns shot out flashes of light which spread over the horizon.

We saw the flashes minutes before we heard the report, indicating the distance of the guns...

And Los Angeles being a major metropolitan area, there were experienced reporters able to give their own first-hand accounts. The next day, Los Angeles Times columnist and reporter Bill Henry gave his own take on the events of the night in his daily By The Way column...

No, dear sir or madam. I do not have any inside dope on those 3 a.m. fireworks and can only report to you what I saw and what I think about it -- knowing that it won't give away military information and hoping that it answers the questions you've asked me.

AIR RAID! -- To begin with -- I heard the air-raid siren and identified it as such, although there is none within considerable distance of my house. I'm accustomed to ambulance, fire engine and politicians' sirens which swell in sound as they approach and die away as the vehicle travels on. This was a constant sound. No -- I didn't phone anybody. I got up and turned the radio to an all-night local station and found that it was off the air. Within a few minutes the street lights just outside the window went out. That all added up to the real thing -- so I went back to bed.

GUNFIRE -- Pretty soon the old ears picked up something that couldn't be anything but gunfire -- and it was. The show was being staged with rare thoughtfulness as far as the Henry manse was concerned -- close enough to be easy to see, far enough away to be quite safe. The best pattern of searchlights that I have ever seen -- and I've seen a few -- was concentrated on what the news services cautiously refer to as "an object," and followed same down the coast line while the ack-ack boys banged away and had no end of fun.

ACCURACY -- I was far enough away to see "an object" without being able to accurately identify it. Furthermore, I was at such a distance and such an angle as to be able to see that, as has been the case with all the ack-ack fire I've ever seen, a good deal of it was bad but some of it was extraordinarily good. In fact I should be willing to bet what shekels I have that there were a good number of direct hits scored on "the object." The shooting was better than any night ack-ack shooting that I saw overseas.

QUERIES -- Did I see any airplanes? No, dear sir or madam, I did not see any airplanes, native or furrin'. Could I say that there were 200 enemy planes? No -- but if there were the searchlights only caught one of them. Do I think that the object the searchlight caught was an airplane? I do not -- airplanes don't move that slowly or steadily when under fire. Would I care to say what it looked like to me? Well it looked to me like a batch of balloons just floating along on the strong night wind -- an ideal target.

SO WHAT? -- Now don't get me wrong. The mere fact that I didn't see or hear any airplanes doesn't mean that there weren't any. It is perfectly obvious that any number of planes might have been about and been out of my sight and hearing. It is also perfectly obvious that during an alert the ack-ack gunners bang away at anything they see which might by any chance be an enemy plane or other object of ominous portent. The searchlight spotting was excellent, the shooting good, the blackout first-class, the wardens alert. That's all!

And finally, in his March 5th national column, famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle gave his own experience...

Los Angeles Air Raid
By Ernie Pyle

Since like the turtle I am slow but fairly sure, I will now report on that big "air raid" we had in Los Angeles. You know, the night we did all that shooting at we don't know what.

I happened to be in Los Angeles that night. I was in a high room in a downtown hotel, with no buildings obstructing the view, and it made a perfect grandstand seat.

At first I assumed it to be just another blackout in which nothing would happen. So after watching the lights go slowly out, I went back to bed. I was just going to sleep when there began those far-off rumbles, like Midwest thunder.

"My God!" I said to myself, and jumped out of bed again. For I knew that sound by heart. "Can this be happening in Los Angeles?"

It was happening. On the horizon -- to the south, the east, the north -- there were constant flashes of light, like sheet lightning low in the sky. The anti-aircraft guns were going. They seemed to fire much more rapidly than the ones I had known before.

But it was the searchlight display that fascinated me most, for that was something I had never seen before. The British had almost abandoned the use of searchlights when I got to England. They said it just outlined the city's position.

But our Army-- whatever they were following that night -- certainly did a magnificently rhythmic job of it. There must have been at least two dozen searchlights pointed into the sky, all of them miles apart, covering a vast area in the southern suburbs of Los Angeles.

They all converged into a big blue spot in the heavens. And that spot moved very slowly but very definitely across the sky, with never a falter. Of all the many straight blue lines shooting upward to that one point, not one ever wavered, or got lost, or had to "fish" or "feel" around for the target. They held it, and moved with it across the sky, like a leech that would not let go.

I could not see anything in that spot, for it was some 20 miles away. But I could see the anti-aircraft shells bursting around it. Now and then one seemed to burst right in the spot.

In London, the ack-ack bursts with a very white flash. Ours seemed to me much redder. In London, gunfire may be all around you during a raid, for they have guns in parks and on roofs, and portable guns on trucks that they run around. Sometimes they'll come and shoot right under your window and shake the building and scare the pajamas off you.

But there was none of that here. There was no shooting from downtown Los Angeles at all. It was all from a great circle, surrounding the city. It was like distant lightning and thunder, and it gave you a feeling of horrible ominousness, rather than the more satisfying one of being excited to death in the midst of a din...

EVEN AT THE TIME there was debate over whether the event was a false alarm, driven by overexcited imaginations.

From the Los Angeles, California Times,, February 26, 1942:

Roaring Guns Mark Blackout
Identity of Aircraft Veiled in Mystery; No Bombs Dropped and No Enemy Craft Hit; Civilians Report 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...

SO WHAT WAS the mystery object in the sky that morning -- if it was there at all? And what's to be made of all those other reports, of dozens of planes in the sky?

Were the planes that were seen -- if they were there at all -- ours? Not according to General John DeWitt, in charge of the defenses of the area, who made the following transcribed telephone report to Washington on March 7, 1942 (the U.S. Air Force was not formed until 1947):

"We know that there were no Army planes . . . No Navy planes, no Coast Guard, and civilian planes -- CAA planes . . . We are still checking through Nevada and Arizona. The Governors of the states, as well as our own troops. But I am certain nothing will be found...

The question has been asked several times why the pursuits were not sent up. The reason was that we didn't have much pursuit -- we had 15 planes in three different places -- a total of 45; if that was a reconnaissance preceding a carrier . . . we did not want to have our pursuit in the air, half out of gas when the attack came in. We didn't want to take the chance.

The pursuit was alerted, the pilots were in their planes, their engines were warm and their propellors turning, already [sic] to take off to intercept any attack that would possibly follow the reconnaissance... The bombers were alerted, warmed up, crews in planes, ready to go in search of the carrier if the attack should materialize. That's why no planes were sent up. It was a fine tactical decision.

Nor was it likely that the dozens of planes -- if they were there -- were Japanese. Though some Japanese submarines had the capability of launching one light reconnaissance plane armed with two bombs, the dozens reported would have required either a carrier force or a nearby base (a theory which was pursued in the coming days by the military all the way into Mexico, but subsequently dropped). True, Japanese propaganda radio quickly crowed that there had been a force of Japanese planes over the city, but Tokyo broadcasters were notoriously hyperbolic in their daily reports, claiming multiple astounding accomplishments and victories where in reality there were none to be found.

And though General DeWitt eventually came to the conclusion, included in the above report, that, "One to five but most probably three planes appeared over Beverly Hills at an elevation of about 18,000 feet, flying very slowly. They were picked up by the searchlights and followed through to Long Beach and then to sea." -- according to the post-war Japanese military, they weren't theirs either, as a November 2, 1945 national wire story reported:

Battle of Los Angeles Myth Japs Admit

TOKYO. Nov 2 --The battle of Los Angeles was a myth. The Japanese did not send planes over that city the night of February 24-25, 1942, a Japanese Navy spokesmen told the Associated Press today.

The question was put to the spokesman because air force authorities at San Francisco said last Sunday that planes, possibly Japanese, were overhead that night in 1942.

Captain Omae of the Japanese navy said, however, that a plane was launched from a submarine and sent over the Southern Oregon Coast on February 9, 1942, to attack military installations, but the lone plane was unable to discover any.

THE TRUTH OF WHAT HAPPENED on that clear, black night nearly seven decades ago will likely never be known. It now exists only in faded memory and vivid imagination, and as a historical curiosity -- with ample room to support a variety of conclusions and beliefs.

In the end, the only thing that can be safely stated is that if there was something up there then what was then called in war parlance an 'unidentified aerial target' was the first modern, well-reported incident of what is now known as an 'unidentified flying object', or 'UFO'.

And that it (or 'them' if the reports of planes are to be believed) showed remarkable resilience in the face of an onslaught of more than 1400 anti-aircraft shells lobbed with deadly intent into the sky.

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1. The timeline of events comes from the declassified The History of the 4th AA (Anti-Aircraft) Command, Western Defense Command, Jan 9 1942 to July 1 1945. The same includes the quoted large number of reports of flares and blinking lights, citing the 37th Brigade, Report of Operations during the early morning, 25 Feb 1942 as well as the witness summaries from the 7-hour investigation held the next day, citing 37th Brigade, Testimony of Officers, Enlisted Men and Civilians.

2. The History of the 4th AA (Anti-Aircraft) Command, Western Defense Command, Jan 9 1942 to July 1 1945 is also the source for the quote "target 120 miles west of Los Angeles...well-tracked by radar", citing History of Los Angeles Fighter Wing which itself takes from an account of the night's activities by Major Milton E. Durham. But the same citation has Major Durham saying that the alerts after 2 a.m. were ordered "as the target approached from the Santa Maria area, still well tracked." This would place the target as approaching from the northwest rather than due west. In addition it is a rather odd reference, as Santa Maria is approximately 160 miles northwest of Los Angeles, whereas the much-better known Santa Barbara is also northwest and just 90 miles away. It may have been a typo in either the citation or the History of Los Angeles Fighter Wing or in Major Durham's original account, or even a slip of the tongue on Major Durham's part, as Santa Monica is due west of Los Angeles. However, there is no way at the present time to resolve the issue.

3. The text for the Long Beach Independent article headlined "Mystery Raid" is widely available on the Internet but was not able to be independently verified for verbatim accuracy.

4. Reporter Peter Jenkins of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner is widely reputed to have said, "I could clearly see the V formation of about 25 silvery planes overhead moving slowly across the sky toward Long Beach." This quote appeared in UFO Roundup, which itself attributed it to The Battle of Los Angeles, 1942 by Terrenz Sword, which appeared in Unsolved UFO Sightings, Spring 1996 issue. The same source also carries highly-abbreviated versions of the quotes of Long Beach Police Chief J.H. McClelland and L.A. Times columnist Bill Henry given above. But the quotes given by UFO Roundup not only are highly abbreviated, but in both instances contain minor errors, and the source document for the reputed Peter Jenkins quote not being readily available, it was not included herein.

5. In a column in 1952 concerning the wave of UFO reports, Bill Henry wrote, "It is no different from the days of 1941 except for the fact that, up to the moment, we have not yet had a repetition of the great 'Battle of Los Angeles' of 1942 in which something resembling a flying saucer -- it was really an errant weather balloon -- touched off the gosh-durndest artillery barrage that our community has witnessed before or since." The idea of "weather balloons" being responsible for sightings was an idea greatly encouraged by the Air Force in the early 1950s. In this particular instance it is particularly untenable in that weather balloons of the time were four to six feet in diameter, and when released ascended in a matter of minutes to above 40,000 feet where atmospheric pressures caused them to burst. In addition, because of their small size and rapid ascent weather balloons disappeared from sight quickly. Lastly, a weather balloon would not explain the radar tracking of a target 120 miles distant.

6. For the same reason given in 4, above, the accounts of seeing weather or meteorological balloons given in various accounts noted above are confounding, with the addition that any one person's decision to launch such a balloon in the midst of an air raid alert is counterintuitive, to say the least. For different reasons suggestions of an escaped barrage balloon are highly suspect. Barrage balloons, which were shaped like blimps, were tethered to the ground by steel cables, and were operated and maintained by special squadrons. The loss and free-flight of such a balloon would have been immediately reported and known to military authorities. In addition, as in the situation of weather balloons, an escaped barrage balloon would not account for the radar reading of a target 120 miles distant.

7. In March, 2011, the Los Angeles Times' blog The Daily Mirror published a series of posts on the picture of searchlights converging in the air. The posts, running under the title Another Good Story Ruined -- Saucers Over L.A.!, were written by a Los Angeles Times copy editor whose specialty is the Black Dahlia murder of 1947, and were highly cynical examinations not only of the photo, but of the events themselves, calling them "a rather ridiculous episode of wartime hysteria." Using that as a start, the writer examined a print from the files to show that the picture had been heavily retouched, finally concluding "the object in the center -- which some have speculated is a flying saucer -- is nothing but paint." However, the writer was not working from the original negative, and a member of the photo department came up with negatives from the UCLA-L.A. Times archive, and posted his own blog entry explaining the need for retouching of photos in the time period of 1942 due to the poor reproduction capabilities of newspapers of the day, concluding, "...the retouching was needed to reproduce the image. But man, I wish the retouching had been more faithful to the original." The entry also included the unretouched image and the retouched version. As a result, the original series of posts under the title Another Good Story Ruined -- Saucers Over L.A.! culminated in the original writer stating, "As I said at the beginning, the searchlight photo has been heavily retouched, but it is authentic to some extent." Still, he attributed various aspects of the photo to "perhaps lens flares or some type of reflection in the lens." And finally concluded, "As far as I'm concerned, it's nothing but a convergence of light beams with some randomly clustered dots of light. Another good story ruined." This ignores the many published accounts of the searchlight beams from miles apart continuing to track across the sky in unison, and the sequential nature of the anti-aircraft fire from the Culver City area to the Long Beach area over a period of more than one-half hour. Finally, here, for comparison's sake, are much smaller side by side versions of the unretouched (left) and retouched (right) versions of the negatives as shown at the site linked above:

Image: Comparison of Negatives


Anti-Aircraft Fire

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Lockheed Plant

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Shortest Draftee

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Infantry North Africa

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First Black Troops At Pub

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Soldiers Of 8th Army In Italy

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D-Day Chaplain Saying Mass

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Tank In Paris

Eiffel Tower

Infantrymen Under Fire

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Tanks During The Battle Of The Bulge

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GIs In Berchtesgarten, 1956

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Martha Raye USO Show

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Kissing On Leave


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Guadacanal Christmas


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Soldier Scout New Guinea


Marines Sprawled

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Pacific War Trophies

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Marines With Wounded Child

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Taking Cover

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Saipan Soldier Comforting Wounded Comrade

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GI At Shrine Saipan

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Guam Wounded


Leyte Convoy

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Marines Peleliu

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Marines Advancing At Iwo

Flag Raised At Iwo Jima

Coast Guardsmen Iwo Jima

Iwo Jima


Severed Head


Seabees Catepillar

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Baseball Pacific

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Kamikaze Attack On USS Bunker Hill


Torpedo Tube

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USS Pennsylvania Lingayen Gulf

Manila Devastation

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Gas Masks For Parisians

Belgian Refugees

Invading Denmark

Russian Invasion

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Wartime Coventry

Clearing Up

Coventry Blitz

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Wartime Coventry

London Night Raid

London Night Raid 1944

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Bomb Damage

Mail As Usual

Ruined Suburb

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Clearing Up

London Fire Fighters

Bomb Damage

St. Paul's

Blitz Damage

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Narvik Destruction


Horses In Ruins

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Hohenzollern Bridge

Dresden 1945

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Berlin In Ruins

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Amputee Boy In Ruins

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Severed Hand

Boys With Cigarettes

Liberated Nordhausen Prisoner

Bergen Belsen

Nordhausen Prisoner

Buchemwald Gate

Burned Corpses Erla

Burned Corpses Of Prisoners


Concentration Camp

Americans Freed

Liberated From Japanese Camp

Tokyo Troops




Japanese Surrender

Japanese Surrender

Japanese Surrender

Times Square On V-J Day

V-J Day Kiss

Mother And Child, Hiroshima

Airmen Unnamed Graves

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