The Battle of Los Angeles 1942

Page B of the February 26, 1942, Los Angeles Times, showing the coverage of the so-called Battle of Los Angeles and its aftermath (lots of articles on people finding dud shells, unexploded ordnance, etc.

The Battle of Los Angeles, also known as The Great Los Angeles Air Raid, is the name given by contemporary sources to the rumored attack by Japan 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 the United States entered World War II in response to the Imperial Japanese Navy's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and one day after the bombardment of Ellwood on February 23. 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 reports and speculations of a cover-up.

When documenting the incident in 1949, the United States Coast Artillery Association identified a meteorological balloon sent up at 1:00 a.m. that "started all the shooting" and concluded that "once the firing started, imagination created all kinds of targets in the sky and everyone joined in". In 1983, the U.S. Office of Air Force History attributed the event to a case of "war nerves" triggered by a lost weather balloon and exacerbated by stray flares and shell bursts from adjoining batteries.

Background

Anger and paranoia over the Imperial Japanese Navy's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and the United States entry into World War II the next day intensified across the West Coast of the United States over the next few months. In Juneau, residents were told to cover their windows for the nightly blackout after rumors of Japanese submarines lurking by the southeast Alaskan coast.

Searchlights converge on an unidentified object over Los Angeles in the early morning hours of Feb. 25, 1942. This is the unretouched version of this photo; a retouched photo ran in the Los Angeles Times the next day. (Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA)

Mrs. Bess Landis holding a handful of anti-aircraft shell fragments that she gathered from around the hole made in her yard.

Motorcycle Officers B. H. McLean, left, and Bobby Clark guard roped off zone Maple street Santa Monica while a dud shall is dug up. This photo appeared in the Feb. 26. 1942, Los Angeles Times.

Officer Bobby Clark reaches into a hole caused by a dud anti-aircraft shall in a driveway in Santa Monica Feb. 25. 1942. The shell was recovered

W. M. Breslin, from left, Dan Games and David Parker hold a hat full of anti-aircraft shell remains that fell onto the California shipyard in Los Angeles Harbor. This photo appeared in the Feb. 26. 1942.

Ships off the coast were attacked: SS Agwiworld (escaped), SS Emidio (sank), SS Samoa (escaped), SS Larry Doheny (sank), SS Dorothy Phillips (damaged), SS H.M. Storey (escaped, sank later), SS Camden (sank), SS Absaroka (damaged), SS Montebello (sank), SS Barbara Olson (escaped), SS Connecticut (damaged) and SS Idaho [tanker] (minor damage).

Rumors spread of a Japanese aircraft carrier cruising off the coast of the San Francisco Bay Area, resulting in the city of Oakland to close their schools and to issue a blackout; civil defense sirens provided from Oakland Police Department (OPD) cars blared through the area, and radio silence was ordered. In Seattle, the city also imposed a blackout of all buildings and vehicles, and the owners who left the lights on in their buildings had their businesses smashed by a mob of 2,000 residents. Rumors were bad enough that 500 United States Army troops moved into the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank, California to defend the famed Hollywood facility and nearby factories against enemy sabotage or air attacks.

As the United States began mobilizing for total war, anti-aircraft guns were set up, bunkers were built, and air raid precautions were drilled into the populace all over the country. Several merchant ships were attacked by Japanese submarines in the U.S. coastal waters of the West Coast especially during the last half of the month of December 1941 through February 1942. As paranoia continued to mount, on February 23, 1942, at 7:15 pm during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats, Japanese submarine I-17 surfaced near Santa Barbara and shelled Ellwood Oil field in Goleta. Although damage was minimal, only $500 in property damage and no injuries, the attack had lasting consequences as the West Coast residents believed that the Japanese were going to storm their beaches at any minute (eventually less than four months later, Japan bombed Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, Alaska and landed troops in the Aleutian Islands of Kiska and Attu).

Alarms Raised

On February 24, 1942, Naval Intelligence issued a warning that an attack could be expected within the next ten hours. That evening, a large number of flares and blinking lights were reported from the vicinity of defense plants. An alert was called at 7:18 pm, and was lifted at 10:23 pm. Renewed activity began early in the morning of the 25th. Air raid sirens sounded at 2:25 am throughout Los Angeles County. A total blackout was ordered and thousands of Air Raid Wardens were summoned to their positions. At 3:16 am the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade began firing .50 caliber machine guns and 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 am. The "all clear" was sounded and the blackout order lifted at 7:21 am.

Several buildings and vehicles were damaged by shell fragments, and five civilians died as an indirect result of the anti-aircraft fire: three killed in car accidents in the ensuing chaos and two of heart attacks attributed to the stress of the hour-long action. The incident was front-page news along the U.S. Pacific coast and across the nation.

Press response

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 supposition that the incident might have been caused by enemy agents using commercial airplanes in 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."

Page B of the February 26, 1942, Los Angeles Times, showing the coverage of the so-called Battle of Los Angeles and its aftermath (lots of articles on people finding dud shells, unexploded ordnance, etc.

The Battle of Los Angeles, also known as The Great Los Angeles Air Raid, is the name given by contemporary sources to the rumored attack by Japan 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 the United States entered World War II in response to the Imperial Japanese Navy's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and one day after the bombardment of Ellwood on February 23. 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 reports and speculations of a cover-up.

When documenting the incident in 1949, the United States Coast Artillery Association identified a meteorological balloon sent up at 1:00 a.m. that "started all the shooting" and concluded that "once the firing started, imagination created all kinds of targets in the sky and everyone joined in". In 1983, the U.S. Office of Air Force History attributed the event to a case of "war nerves" triggered by a lost weather balloon and exacerbated by stray flares and shell bursts from adjoining batteries.

Searchlights converge on an unidentified object over Los Angeles in the early morning hours of Feb. 25, 1942. This is the unretouched version of this photo; a retouched photo ran in the Los Angeles Times the next day. (Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA)

Background

Anger and paranoia over the Imperial Japanese Navy's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and the United States entry into World War II the next day intensified across the West Coast of the United States over the next few months. In Juneau, residents were told to cover their windows for the nightly blackout after rumors of Japanese submarines lurking by the southeast Alaskan coast.

Mrs. Bess Landis holding a handful of anti-aircraft shell fragments that she gathered from around the hole made in her yard.

Ships off the coast were attacked: SS Agwiworld (escaped), SS Emidio (sank), SS Samoa (escaped), SS Larry Doheny (sank), SS Dorothy Phillips (damaged), SS H.M. Storey (escaped, sank later), SS Camden (sank), SS Absaroka (damaged), SS Montebello (sank), SS Barbara Olson (escaped), SS Connecticut (damaged) and SS Idaho [tanker] (minor damage).

Officer Bobby Clark reaches into a hole caused by a dud anti-aircraft shall in a driveway in Santa Monica Feb. 25. 1942. The shell was recovered

Motorcycle Officers B. H. McLean, left, and Bobby Clark guard roped off zone Maple street Santa Monica while a dud shall is dug up. This photo appeared in the Feb. 26. 1942, Los Angeles Times.

W. M. Breslin, from left, Dan Games and David Parker hold a hat full of anti-aircraft shell remains that fell onto the California shipyard in Los Angeles Harbor. This photo appeared in the Feb. 26. 1942.

Rumors spread of a Japanese aircraft carrier cruising off the coast of the San Francisco Bay Area, resulting in the city of Oakland to close their schools and to issue a blackout; civil defense sirens provided from Oakland Police Department (OPD) cars blared through the area, and radio silence was ordered. In Seattle, the city also imposed a blackout of all buildings and vehicles, and the owners who left the lights on in their buildings had their businesses smashed by a mob of 2,000 residents. Rumors were bad enough that 500 United States Army troops moved into the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank, California to defend the famed Hollywood facility and nearby factories against enemy sabotage or air attacks.

As the United States began mobilizing for total war, anti-aircraft guns were set up, bunkers were built, and air raid precautions were drilled into the populace all over the country. Several merchant ships were attacked by Japanese submarines in the U.S. coastal waters of the West Coast especially during the last half of the month of December 1941 through February 1942. As paranoia continued to mount, on February 23, 1942, at 7:15 pm during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats, Japanese submarine I-17 surfaced near Santa Barbara and shelled Ellwood Oil field in Goleta. Although damage was minimal, only $500 in property damage and no injuries, the attack had lasting consequences as the West Coast residents believed that the Japanese were going to storm their beaches at any minute (eventually less than four months later, Japan bombed Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, Alaska and landed troops in the Aleutian Islands of Kiska and Attu).

Alarms Raised

On February 24, 1942, Naval Intelligence issued a warning that an attack could be expected within the next ten hours. That evening, a large number of flares and blinking lights were reported from the vicinity of defense plants. An alert was called at 7:18 pm, and was lifted at 10:23 pm. Renewed activity began early in the morning of the 25th. Air raid sirens sounded at 2:25 am throughout Los Angeles County. A total blackout was ordered and thousands of Air Raid Wardens were summoned to their positions. At 3:16 am the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade began firing .50 caliber machine guns and 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 am. The "all clear" was sounded and the blackout order lifted at 7:21 am.

Several buildings and vehicles were damaged by shell fragments, and five civilians died as an indirect result of the anti-aircraft fire: three killed in car accidents in the ensuing chaos and two of heart attacks attributed to the stress of the hour-long action. The incident was front-page news along the U.S. Pacific coast and across the nation.

Press response

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 supposition that the incident might have been caused by enemy agents using commercial airplanes in 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."