antiaircraft gun firing

Seventy-two years ago tonight, on February 24, 1942, air raid sirens began to wail across southern California. Air raid wardens quickly rushed to their posts and the San Fernando Valley, usually a vast carpet of lights, went dark as streetlights went out and people drew their blackout curtains according to wartime regulations. Radar tracking stations began picking up strange unidentified blips headed toward the city. At 3:16 AM, the operators of an anti-aircraft battery thought they saw something and began shooting. Convinced that the Japanese were conducting an air raid on Los Angeles, various batteries started up, filling the skies above L.A. with over 1400 exploding shells. Almost everybody was convinced that World War II had finally come to the U.S. mainland.

This was not so far-fetched a scenario. Pearl Harbor had been attacked a little more than two months before, and the major Japanese military offensive across the Pacific–of which that attack was the start–was still going in full swing. Singapore, the main British base in Southeast Asia, had fallen to the Japanese less than ten days earlier. The previous night, February 23, FDR gave one of his fireside chats warning of possible Japanese attacks. Before he had even finished speaking a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast of Santa Barbara and began shelling an oil installation. Little damage was done, but the attack, undeniably real, made nearly everybody on the West Coast think a major Japanese invasion was imminent. Thus, the actions in Los Angeles on the night of February 24-25 seemed entirely reasonable.

There was just one problem, though: there was no Japanese invasion. Not a single Japanese aircraft flew over the U.S. mainland that night. Despite the ferocity of the anti-aircraft fire, curiously no “enemy planes” were shot down (although there was a rumor that one had been, and crashed at a Hollywood intersection). Also, the phantom air raid force didn’t drop a single bomb. When military commanders began to realize that the attack was a phantom, they started–cautiously–to stand down. At 7:21 AM, without any evidence of a real Japanese attack, the all clear signal sounded.

japanese sub launched plane

The Japanese did actually mount an air raid–of sorts–on the U.S. mainland in World War II. In August 1942 a plane launched from the submarine I-25 dropped two incendiary bombs on an Oregon forest trying to ignite a forest fire. They failed.

What really happened? It’s not 100% certain, but the initial panic and the radar sightings seem to have been caused by weather balloons. After the first AA shots were fired, exploding shells and falling shrapnel compounded the impression that there was something up there–the lights of enemy aircraft or flares they were firing. After the war Japanese military records were extensively studied and they conclusively proved that there were no enemy planes over California that night. On extremely rare occasions the Japanese did launch light planes from submarines over the U.S. mainland, but there was no full-scale air raid such as the Los Angelenos were expecting. What began as probably an honest mistake by a gun sighter or radar operator quickly morphed into a collective delusion that had the whole city believing it was under attack.

This fascinating incident, an example of crowd psychology similar to the strange “windshield pitting” epidemic of Seattle in 1954, was just a symptom of the wartime fear and paranoia that gripped the U.S. in the months after Pearl Harbor. One of the most regrettable manifestations of this fear was the internment of Japanese-Americans, the vast majority of them U.S. citizens, in camps along the West Coast. In fact the “Battle of Los Angeles” gave people who favored internment a powerful argument to advance this terrible and unjust policy. The “Battle of Los Angeles” was forgotten quickly enough and the U.S. government apologized to Japanese-Americans and began compensating the survivors in 1988, but this strange incident goes to illustrate how war and fear can sometimes warp the senses and impair the reason of almost anybody.

The 1979 Steven Spielberg film 1941, starring John Belushi, is loosely based on the “Battle of Los Angeles” incident. Bizarrely, some UFO buffs argue that what the Army was shooting at that night were actually flying saucers from outer space–a ridiculous claim that stems from deliberate misinterpretation of a heavily retouched news photo. You would think intelligent aliens from space would pick a different time and place to land than Los Angeles in the early months of 1942.

The photo of the antiaircraft gun firing is by Carl Gunnar Rosborn.