The Battle of Los Angeles: Real Bullets & Imaginary Targets

On February 25, 1942, the sky erupted with gunfire and anti-aircraft rounds. The ground-to-air assault went on for an hour, and the intended target was an invading Japanese air attack. But there was no enemy. The entire thing was a huge false alarm. It became known as the Battle of Los Angeles. In this episode, we tell the story about the air raid and then talk with Magicians Meadow Perry and Daniel Greenwolf!

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The Cobra Effect

In the height of the cold war in October of 1962, security cameras at the Duluth Air Defense Center of the Air Force picked up an intruder climbing a fence. It was midnight and no one should have been in that area. The guard on duty shot at the figure and activated the alarm. Bases in the entire region were put on high-alert that a soviet attack may be underway. There was an error with the alerting system and instead of the appropriate alarm for this type of event, a loud klaxon warning blared at every base. This was the sound that told them to scramble the fighter jets carrying nuclear warheads. The fighter pilots ran to their posts, and started their jet engines. But an officer appeared, racing his truck down the runway at the jets. He was flashing his lights and laying on the horn, keeping the jets from taking off. He had reviewed the security footage and investigated the area. The fence of the base DID have an intruder. It was a large black bear. 

There have been several close-calls and false alarms like this throughout history, where the military sprang to action later to find out that there was no enemy attack. This story is about one of these defensive actions that took place in a huge way during World War II. 

It happened on February 25th, 1942 in the city of Los Angeles. Just two days before, President Roosevelt had held his fireside chat with the nation about the progress of the war. In his address, he reassure the American people, but was blunt with them about the scope and seriousness of the war. Pearl Harbor had been attacked just two months prior. And while Americans gathered around their radios listening to their President, something else was happening in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. A Japanese Imperial Submarine, I-17, surfaced and began shooting 5.5” rounds into the Ellwood Oil Facility. Pearl Harbor had shocked the nation, but now the Japanese had began to attack the mainland United States. For 20 minutes, the submarine fired at the coast. Hardly anything was hit. No one was injured, and the damages totaled around $500. But the blow that was struck was a psychological one. The Japanese had seven submarines in the waters off the coast of California. And now the nation would know about it. Fear struck America. 

Cities on the West coast issued black-out orders to their citizens, mandating that all lights be extinguished at night time to prevent the Japanese from air attack. This was taken seriously by most, but not by all. In Seattle, for example, when a few businesses didn’t adhere to the blackout order, a mob of 2,000 citizens showed up to bust out their lights. People in California were scared for what they feared would be a land invasion by the Japanese. The state sent 500 United States Army troops to protect the film industry in Hollywood and nearby factories. 

It was 2:15 in the morning on February 25th when radar detected something in the air 25 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. Air raid sirens were triggered and a mandatory blackout was ordered from LA all the way South to the Mexican border. Panic set in when radar contact with the object was lost. 

The coastal defenses were already on high alert. For the entire day previous, the Office of Naval Intelligence had issued a warning that an attack was expected. Throughout the night, every flare, blinking light and sparkle was reported to the coastal defense. So when thousands of air raid sirens were now blaring, everyone thought – this was it. Mainland USA is under attack. 

Search lights scoured the sky looking for what had been seen on the radar. At 3:16am, the shelling began. The 37th Coast Artillery Brigade started shooting their 50 caliber machine guns into the night sky. This was followed by 12.8 lb anti-aircraft shells. Defensive stations in Inglewood, Santa Monica, and all throughout the Los Angeles area were firing into the sky. One report noted that the “air over Los Angeles erupted like a volcano.”

Finally, an hour later, the all-clear signal was given and shelling stopped. The American forces had fired 1,440 rounds of ammunition, but had hit nothing. No bombs were dropped. No planes were hit. None were even spotted. The entire thing was a false alarm.

That doesn’t mean the barrage, which came to be known as “The Battle of Los Angeles,” didn’t have tragic consequences. 5 civilians died in the attack. None of them died from the gunfire. 3 were killed in panicked car accidents on blacked out streets and 2 died of heart attacks. Property damage from the falling shell fragments was significant – perhaps worse than the damaged caused by the Japanese submarine the previous week.

There were many reports after the fact that attempted to justify the attack. Some said that there were enemy submarines with the capability to launch airplanes.  We didn’t know it for sure at the time, but this was a technology that Japan possessed and would used it later in the war to attempt an attack on Brookings Oregon. Some said it was a Japanese attack blimp. Others thought that Japan had secured secret air bases in the middle of a California Desert or perhaps in Mexico. Those who are inclined to believe in UFOs claimed that a huge flying saucer appeared in the sky that night. This was fueled by a famous photograph of the incident showing search lights illuminating a patch of sky. When it was retouched for the papers, the convergence of light appears to look like a floating blob being fired upon.

Paranoia was at an all-time high, and sadly, this is indicated by the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese American citizens in camps that followed shortly after. It’s understandable to imagine the fear that citizens were feeling at the time. But history is the judge of whether or not their ensuing actions were appropriate. And in the case of the Japanese internment camps, I think just about everyone agrees that it was a huge overstep and to put it simply, wrong. 

After the war, Japan came out and said unequivocally, that they did not launch an air attack on Los Angeles in February of 1942. And we know that because we now know the truth of what happened that night. 

In 1983 the Office of Air Force History released the official report of what occurred to set off the radar. It was never a Japanese airplane. The simple story is this. It was a weather balloon. The Internet Says the Government Says it’s True.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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