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Monday, April 09, 2012

The Battle of Los Angeles, February 25, 1942

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In the predawn hours of February 25, 1942, anti-aircraft artillery and giant spotlights lit up the night sky over Southern California. The soldiers manning those anti-aircraft batteries were shooting at an object none of them could identify; so began the Battle of Los Angeles. To this day, no solid evidence has been found to explain what so many people claimed they saw that night.

Early 1942 was a dark time for the United States and the allies. The three months between the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941 and the end of February, 1942 brought the reality of the Second World War home to the American people, and that reality showed the United States was losing ground. In the Philippines, American and Filipino troops were barely holding on at Bataan and Corregidor; the Pacific Fleet was not strong enough to affect a rescue or even a re-supply mission. Less than two weeks before the events of February 25th, the British had surrendered Singapore to the Japanese after six days of fighting; it was arguably the Empire’s greatest military defeat. And as if to add insult to injury, on February 23rd a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast of California near Santa Barbara and shelled an oil refinery. Even though the damage was superficial, it made many Californians believe that an invasion of the mainland was only a matter of time.

Local police and Army units began receiving reports of unidentified objects over Los Angeles late in the evening of February 24th. At 2:25AM on the 25th, air raid sirens sounded all over the city and surrounding communities as a blackout was ordered. Air raid wardens moved through the streets, making sure lights were either turned off or covered. At 3:16AM, the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade began firing at an object or objects moving over Santa Monica towards Long Beach. The unit kept up firing until the all-clear was sounded at 7:20AM. They used over 1,400 shells in their attempt to bring down whatever was flying over the metro Los Angeles area.

What people observed that morning depends on the witness. Some reported seeing silver planes flying in a “V” formation; the number of aircraft seen ranged from nine to more than twenty-five. Others saw a single, large object in the searchlights, with several people claiming that the anti-aircraft fire hit the unidentified craft several times. By morning, the object was gone and three civilians were dead from friendly fire. 

As the story of the strange incident spread on February 25th, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox released a statement during a press conference in which he said that the entire episode was a “false alarm” brought on by a nervous populace and trigger-happy gunners. The Office of Air Force History added these details to the story during a 1983 summary of the day:

At the same conference he admitted that attacks were always possible and indicated that vital industries located along the coast ought to be moved inland. The Army had a hard time making up its mind on the cause of the alert. A report to Washington, made by the Western Defense Command shortly after the raid had ended, indicated that the credibility of reports of an attack had begun to be shaken before the blackout was lifted. This message predicted that developments would prove “that most previous reports had been greatly exaggerated.” The Fourth Air Force had indicated its belief that there were no planes over Los Angeles. But the Army did not publish these initial conclusions. Instead, it waited a day, until after a thorough examination of witnesses had been finished. On the basis of these hearings, local commanders altered their verdict and indicated a belief that from one to five unidentified airplanes had been over Los Angeles. Secretary Stimson announced this conclusion as the War Department version of the incident, and he advanced two theories to account for the mysterious craft: either they were commercial planes operated by an enemy from secret fields in California or Mexico, or they were light planes launched from Japanese submarines. In either case, the enemy’s purpose must have been to locate anti-aircraft defenses in the area or to deliver a blow at civilian morale.”

Interestingly enough, the Japanese had the ability to launch scout planes from some of their submarines and did fly at least one over Seattle later in the year. But post-war searches of Japanese records show that no such flights were made over Los Angeles during the time in question. 

Modern theories point to that favorite standby of UFO debunkers, the weather balloon. There were meteorological balloons in use over Southern California at that time, but one has to wonder how a thin-skinned balloon could have survived an anti-aircraft barrage like the one launched that night.

As memories fade and those who witnessed the mysterious craft become fewer in number, it becomes more and more likely that we will never know what exactly triggered the events of that February.

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