The Great L.A. Air Raid Mystery
By Stephanie Walton
The Daily Breeze
Questions still abound over the Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942
What was it that showed up on military radar screens the night of Feb. 24, 1942, prompting authorities to order a blackout and unleash an hourlong anti-aircraft barrage?
Could it have been enemy aircraft like those that attacked Pearl Harbor less than three months earlier? Was it just a weather balloon? Might it have been a UFO?
"What have we learned? Not much," said Steve Nelson, curator of the Fort MacArthur Museum in San Pedro, which housed some of the artillaryartillery used to protect the West Coast during World War II.
Decades later, it's difficult to imagine the tension gripping residents of Los Angeles and the rest of California. They were still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor and worried about a similar assault on the U.S. mainland.
Their fears were realized on Feb. 23, 1942, when a Japanese submarine surfaced and fired on an oil production facility near Santa Barbara. Reports circulated that the sub then headed south, in the direction of Los Angeles.
According to historical accounts by the California State Military Museum, U.S. naval intelligence issued a warning on Feb. 24 that an attack was expected in 10 hours, but the advisory was later lifted.
Then, early on Feb. 25, radar picked up an unidentified target 120 miles away from Los Angeles.
At 2:15 a.m., anti-aircraft gun batteries were alerted and were ready to fire minutes later.
At 2:21 a.m., the regional controller ordered a blackout. Information centers were flooded with reports of enemy planes "even though the mysterious object tracked in from the sea seems to have vanished," the museum's Web site said.
At 2:43 a.m., planes were reported near Long Beach and one coastal artillery colonel spotted "about 25 planes at 12,000" feet over Los Angeles.
At 3:06 a.m., a balloon carrying a red flare was seen over Santa Monica and four batteries of anti-aircraft artillery opened fire.
Reports of what happened afterward vary.
"Probably much of the confusion came from the fact that anti-aircraft shell bursts, caught by the searchlights, were themselves mistaken for enemy planes," the museum's Web site states.
Among those anti-aircraft batteries responding were the crews at Fort MacArthur who, according to veterans' reports, fired about seven rounds of 3-inch shells from guns mounted on the upper reservation, near where the Korean Friendship Bell stands today, Nelson said.
The number and type of aircraft reportedly seen over various parts of the Los Angeles area widely varied from one to 220 and from airplanes to balloons to a blimp.
Some eyewitnesses said that there were no planes.
And some people, in later years, have claimed that the objects were UFOs.
"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," the Western Defense Command said in a Feb. 25, 1942, Associated Press story.
Those conflicting reports included the military.
Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson announced that as many as 15 aircraft, "possibly piloted by enemy agents," had flown over Los Angeles the morning of Feb. 25, according to an Associated Press report.
Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox said that "reports reaching him indicated the incident was a false alarm and that extensive reconnaissance had disclosed no evidence of planes," the same story said.
Whether an enemy aircraft flew over American soil, there were several casualties due to blackout conditions.
One occurred in Long Beach, where a police sergeant driving to headquarters was killed in a head-on collision with another driver, who had just come off duty at a shipyard.
Another death was attributed to a heart attack. A third man died of injuries suffered when he walked into an automobile while trying to catch a Pacific Electric train in heavier than normal morning traffic after the all-clear was sounded.
Despite the uncertainty over the cause of the events, public officials praised the efficiency of civil defense officials, air raid wardens and anti-aircraft batteries in response to the perceived threat.
Daily activities resumed after the all-clear was signaled at 7:21 a.m. although not without some glitches.
Newspaper reports noted pupils absent from school and employees late to work that day while others went hunting for souvenirs - anti-aircraft shrapnel.
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