WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
In the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor, most people in the U.S., military personnel and civilians alike, thought that deadly raids in the states were imminent.
On December 9, 1941, there were false reports of an approaching enemy aircraft that left people terrified, stock prices tumbling. During this time, people were mistaking fishing boats and logs for Japanese war ships and submarines. And the terror and paranoia were not made better by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who warned the U.S. that they should be prepared for blows from enemy forces.
On February 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine appeared off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, hurling over a dozen artillery shells at an oil field. Damage was minor and casualties were none, but it was an event that proved everyone's worst fears: That the country was under attack.
As such, the stage was set for one of the "most unusual" home from incidents in World War II, beginning on February 24, 1942, when naval intelligence instructed units to prepare for a potential attack. Though it was called off the night of the 24th, early on February 25th, a radar picked up enemy contact 120 miles west of LA. Sirens sounded, a citywide blackout began, and the troops took their positions.
Just after 3am, troops unleashed gunfire with many other coastal defense teams joining in, after reports of an unidentified object in the sky, assumed to be a Japanese aircraft. It appeared that LA was under attack. (1)
Los Angeles residents were, for the most part, in their beds asleep when they woke up to a citywide blackout, skylights pointing into the sky, alarms going off and gunfire sounding every which way. They were terrified, their greatest fears realized. (2)
"I will never forget that night because I was in Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital having my first child," said Pasadena local Jean Ballantyne. All of the new mothers felt completely helpless and terrified, and nurses were handing babies off to anxious mothers. (3)
Reports came in that bombs were falling and that a Japanese plane had gone down in Hollywood. Some people recall seeing over 6 plans flying in the sky, the U.S. military shooting them down. (1)
The all clear was given at 7:21am (2) and a shocking discovery came next: There was no enemy attack. There was no record of any planes flying over that area, and certainly no bombs were dropped or enemy plans shot down. In fact, the only damage to the area was friendly fire. Anti-aircraft shrapnel had rained down, shattering windows and damaging buildings: Shrapnel that came from U.S. military personnel. Several LA residents had their homes destroyed. (1)
Though no serious injuries occurred from the shoot out, 5 people died during the blackout and likely because of it: 2 heart attacks and 3 deaths from car accidents. (1)
After a night where the country's defenders felt like they were protecting the country against enemy fire and a night where civilians thought they might die, it became clear that there had never been a threat that night.
Over the next couple of days, the incident, dubbed "The Battle of Los Angeles", received contradictory coverage from both the government and the media. While some dismissed it as a false alarm caused by nerves given the climate at the time, some believed that there truly was a threat. This was perpetuated by Stimson who said that the fighters may have been commercial aircrafts operated by the enemy, but eventually backpedaled his claims. (1)
20-some Japanese-Americans were arrested for allegedly trying to signal the aircraft that was not even there. (Foreshadowing of Japanese Internment, anyone?) (1)
Despite the most widely accepted (and most likely) theory being that rash decisions were made with little information due to a climate of fear post-Peral Harbor, there are still some questions - like how did thousands of military personnel and civilians see something flying over LA that night? (1)
Some saw a large, floating object resembling a balloon. Some saw one plane, and some saw several dozen. The conflicting reports make it difficult to discern what was really there that night, if anything. (1)
The Japanese military later claimed that it never flew an airplane over LA during World War II, leading many people to think that a government conspiracy took place that night, or even extraterrestrials in flying saucers. (1)
One soldier explained that there was a coverup after the incident: Military personnel were told that they must say that they saw several Japanese planes in the sky to justify their attack on what was most likely nothing. Had it just been a weather balloon or something, the government did not want people to know. Jail time was threatened to soldiers who were willing to say that they never really saw anything. (3)
Realistically, there was probably nothing of note up there that night: No enemy aircraft, no flying saucer. But UFO expert Bill Birnes believes that a UFO truly is the most likely scenario. (3)
"The obvious thought was that these were Japanese bombers come to attack the United States," he said in 2011, but went on to explain that it could not have been. They were too high up in the sky, and none of the thousands and thousands of artillery shot up hit anything. A UFO is the only explanation. (3)
But, regardless of what you believe, this is a marvelous example of how paranoia and fear can lead to mistakes being made. After Pearl Harbor, it made sense that everybody was on edge, fearing the worst. But though nobody died during the "battle", people very well could have, and even if fear and being trigger-happy may be warranted, this ultimately made the citizens of LA more at risk of being killed by friendly fire than the enemy.
Though nobody really knows what exactly happened that night, one would think the U.S. government's stance would be that it was an accident brought about by nerves and fear given that they were silencing people who thought differently, but an official statement about what happened the night of February 24, 1942 and the early morning on February 25 has never been made.
This night was an extremely bizarre part of World War II, and it happened 78 years ago today.