I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Three months after Pearl Harbor, the people of the United States were primed to expect a Japanese attack on their mainland. By February 1942, the level of hysteria was high, fed by rumours and actual events. Hadn’t U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson issued a warning that American cities might be hit with “occasional blows?”
Attack on Ellwood
Panicky people reported seeing all sorts of warships that turned out to be fishing boats or even whales. But, then the real thing arrived.
On February 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced near Santa Barbara. It lobbed a few shells at the Ellwood oil installation and then departed.
It caused only light damage and no injuries but it made a lot of people on the West Coast nervous; perhaps, the Japanese were preparing an invasion.
The attack put everyone on edge and set the scene for what happened the following night.
West Coast Anti-Aircraft Barrage
On the evening of February 24th, U.S. intelligence alerted West Coast defences to be extra vigilant against the possibility of an attack.
At about 2 a.m. on the morning of February 25, military radar got a signal from what looked like a warship west of Los Angeles. History.com notes that “Air raid sirens sounded and a citywide blackout was put into effect. Within minutes, troops had manned anti-aircraft guns and begun sweeping the skies with searchlights.”
An hour went by when somebody said they’d seen something―maybe―perhaps. That was enough. The anti-aircraft batteries and 50-calibre machine guns opened up, hurling metal into the sky at nobody knew what. Then, other coastal defences began blasting away and searchlight beams pierced the sky looking for Japanese warplanes.
People called in with reports of seeing Japanese bombers flying in formation over Los Angeles. Somebody even reported a Japanese plane crash-landing on a street in Hollywood. There were thousands of eyewitness accounts from people who claimed to have seen enemy aircraft over Los Angeles.
But, there were no Kawasaki bombers, no Mitsubishi bombers, or Zero fighters. There weren’t even any blimps or kites. There was nothing. After an hour of firing at a mirage the all-clear was sounded.
The idea behind an anti-aircraft shell was that you lobbed a projectile into the air that exploded at a specified height. In this way, a field of metal debris was created with the hope that some of it would hit enemy aircraft.
Then, gravity asserted itself. All the shrapnel blasted into the sky fell back to the ground smashing into roofs and windows. A few shells didn’t explode until they came back to Earth and a few houses were partially wrecked by them.
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There were human casualties. Reportedly three people found unexploded shells on the ground, when suddenly Kaboom! A couple more folk were said to have suffered fatal heart attacks brought on by the explosions. In addition, cars banged into each other during the blackout. There were a few other injuries among police and air-raid wardens as men blundered through the dark to rush to their posts and broke legs and arms in the process.
The news media made a mess of the whole affair by applying the don’t-let-the-facts-get-in-the-way-of-a-good-story principle. There was wild speculation about Japanese bombers being flown off submarines. Or, maybe the Japanese had set up secret bases in Mexico from which the attack was launched. Perhaps, it was a fake attack put on by the War Department to test defence readiness.
Even, the venerable Los Angeles Times lost its editorial senses and retouched a photo of an exploding shell that made it look like a flying saucer. This set off a new wave of conjecture that the attack had come from outer space. This extraterrestrial yarn is still peddled in some quarters.
The Enemy Within
After the event, a couple of dozen Japanese-Americans were arrested, accused of signalling to the non-existent aerial armada. This was a precursor of what was to follow a couple of weeks later.
The War Relocation Authority was set up on March 18, 1942. The order was issued to “take all people of Japanese descent into custody, surround them with troops, prevent them from buying land, and return them to their former homes at the close of the war.”
Those living on the West Coast were the first to be interned and, in all, about 120,000 Japanese-Americans were placed in camps under guard and behind barbed wire.
Most suffered enormous economic hardship as well as emotional scars. And, there was no evidence the people of Japanese descent were anything other loyal Americans.
- Forty years after the Battle of Los Angeles, the Office of Air Force History issued its conclusion about what had happened. Weather people had released some meteorological balloons to gauge wind conditions prior to the attack. It seems likely someone saw one of these and in a case of “war nerves” mistook it for an enemy warplane. One battery opened up and the rest started blasting away in merry confusion.
- Before the war, Kozo Nishino had captained a merchant navy vessel that had once called at the Ellwood oil installation to pick up cargo. When he was ashore he tripped and fell into a prickly pear cactus patch. Some workers nearby burst into laughter as the cactus needles were extracted from the embarrassed mariner’s bum. This seems to have caused enormous loss of face, so when Commander Nishino, now of the Imperial Japanese Navy, was ordered to attack the American West Coast he chose to fire his shells into the Ellwood Oil Field. A “That’ll teach you not to mock me" statement.
- Late in 1944, Japan did attack the United States from the air by sending as many as 10,000 hydrogen-filled balloons across the Pacific Ocean. They drifted with the prevailing winds and, through a complex triggering device, were supposed to crash with their explosive payload on North America. The balloons mostly crashed into the Pacific and a few landed in forested areas. Six people were killed when they found an unexploded payload that blew up in their faces. You can read more about that here.
- “World War II’s Bizarre ‘Battle of Los Angeles’.” Evan Andrews, History.com, February 23, 2017.
- “The Battle of Los Angeles.” Saturday Night Uforia, 2011.
- “The Battle of L.A. Turns 75: When a Panicked City Fought a Japanese Invasion that Never Happened.” Scott Harrison, Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2017.
- “The Battle of Los Angeles.” Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 24, 2018:
Hey, Rupert, a nice historical story. Loved it. Thanks for sharing.
Dean Traylor from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on September 24, 2018:
My father was a child during that time and remembers the night sky lighting up and shrapnel falling like rain. He lived about five miles from the coast, too. By the way, he kept a shrapnel from that night.