The Battle of Los Angeles

Battle_of_Los_Angeles_LATimesThe Second World War spawned its fair share of mysteries, strange incidents, and bizarre happenings. One enduring mystery from those dark years involves the mysterious disappearance of the so-called Amber Room. The priceless work of art, ironically given to Russia in the 18th century as a symbol of enduring peace between Prussia (now part of Germany) and the Russian Empire. The beautiful room, composed of panels worked with amber and precious stones in a way that took modern experts 20 years to replicate, disappeared in the chaos of war, first snatched by the Germans as they attacked St. Petersburg, then hidden in a castle in the city of Konigsberg. From there, it is anyone’s guess where the masterpiece went, and although many theories have been presented, none leave treasure hunters and mystery buffs satisfied.

Another enduring mystery from the war; one that, in many circles, continues to defy reasonable explanation, occurred thousands of miles from the bloody battlefields of Eastern Europe, in the city of Los Angeles. The night of February 24/25, 1942, the skies above the City of Angels lit up with anti-aircraft fire, as gun crews fired at strange objects in the sky. Now known as the Battle of Los Angeles, the incident invites speculation to this day.


Battle of Los Angeles–The Facts

Some facts about the Battle of Los Angeles are not disputed. During the night of the 24th into the 25th, unidentified objects sighted both visually and on radar. These reports included flares and blinking lights reported around defense plants. Tensions reached a new high when, at 7:18 p.m., authorities called an alert, which was subsequently lifted at 8:23pm.

Early the next morning, radar picked up a target 120 miles west of Los Angeles. At 2:15, antiaircraft batteries were put on alert, and a few minutes later they were given permission to open fire. Army Air Force units remained grounded, conserving their small fighter squadrons for when the size of the enemy force was known. Radar tracked the unknown target to a few miles off the cost. At 2:21am, the regional controller ordered a blackout. Jittery citizens and anti-aircraft crews flooded the information center with reports of enemy planes all over the skies above Los Angeles. Soon, anti-aircraft crews in Santa Monica spotted a balloon carrying red flares. They opened fire, and soon all hell broke loose in the skies above Los Angeles.


Confusion and hysteria

From the point that the firstĀ  shell was fired, the Battle of Los Angeles plunged into confusion and hysteria. For three hours, Los Angeles’ air space was full of phantom planes and exploding shells. Anti-aircraft crews reported swarms of enemy planes and balloons ranging in altitude from a few thousand feet to upwards of 20,000 feet. They were said to move at speeds upwards of 200 miles per hour in tight formations. Despite the vast numbers, and despite more than 1400 shells being fired in those early morning hours, no wreckage from Japanese planes were discovered once morning broke. Certainly there were reports–one of the phantom planes supposedly landed in flames at an intersection in Hollywood–but no actual evidence was found by investigators. The aggressors never dropped any bombs–the only damage to the city came from shell fragments raining down from the anti-aircraft barrage. The only death connected to the incident was an instance of heart failure from all the excitement.


An Enduring Mystery

The excitement and confusion of that night made finding an explanation for the incident even more difficult. Likely many of the reported aircraft simply resulted from a combination of excitement, shellbursts illuminated by spotlights, and imagination. The Navy quickly issued a statement claiming that there was no evidence of enemy planes. The Army remained unsure, but cautiously admitted that the credibility of the reports were shaky at best. The Army Air Force claimed that the planes never existed.

Erring on the side of caution, the Army waited until witnesses were interviewed before releasing a statement. From the various witness testimony, the War Department announced that from one to five unidentified aircraft had been seen over Los Angeles. These craft were either commercial planes operated by enemy agents flying from secret fields in Mexico and California, or light planes launched from Japanese submarines. Their speculated objective was to perform reconnaissance on anti-aircraft defenses.

The disagreement between the Army and Navy, and the Army’s tepid explanation for such a dramatic incident, sparked a debate among the public not only about the battle itself but the effectiveness of anti-aircraft defenses. After all, the argument went, if there were planes in the sky, why were none of them shot down in massive barrage? Why didn’t any Army Air Force planes take off to engage the enemy?

Adding to the mystery of the incident, Japan stated after the war that it did not send planes over Los Angeles at the time of the alert (they did, however, use light submarine-launched aircraft for reconnaissance of Seattle.) The odds are that the most reasonable explanation for the incident is that the initial alarm came when people sighted meteorological balloons, which were known to have been released over Los Angeles. In the climate of post Pearl Harbor America, it was easy to believe that the enemy might attack the mainland. In such a climate, it makes mass panic more likely to spread. Odds are, the Battle of Los Angeles was more of a result of misconception and a tense climate than any enemy action.