Albert W. Metz (Witness, Battle of Los Angeles)
1.6 – The Return (5.25.10)
THE BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES:
Anger and paranoia over the Imperial Japanese Navy’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and the United States entry into World War II the next day intensified across the West Coast of the United States over the next few months. In Juneau, residents were told to cover their windows for the nightly blackout after rumors of Japanese submarines lurking by the southeast Alaskan coast. Rumors spread of a Japanese aircraft carrier cruising off the coast of the San Francisco Bay Area, resulting in the city of Oakland to close their schools and to issue a blackout; civil defense sirens provided from Oakland Police Department (OPD) cars blared through the area, and radio silence was ordered. In Seattle, the city also imposed a blackout of all buildings and vehicles, and the owners who left the lights on in their buildings had their businesses smashed by a mob of 2,000 residents. Rumors were bad enough that 500 United States Army troops moved into the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank, California to defend the famed Hollywood facility and nearby factories against enemy sabotage or air attacks.
As the United States began mobilizing for total war, anti-aircraft guns were set up, bunkers were built, and air raid precautions were drilled into the populace all over the country. Several merchant ships were attacked by Japanese submarines in the U.S. coastal waters of the West Coast especially during the last half of the month of December 1941 through February 1942. As paranoia continued to mount, on February 23, 1942, at 7:15 pm during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats, Japanese submarine I-17 surfaced near Santa Barbara and shelled Ellwood Oil field in Goleta. Although damage was minimal, only $500 in property damage and luckily no one was injured, the attack had lasting consequences as the West Coast residents believed that the Japanese were going to storm their beaches at any minute (eventually less than four months later, Japan bombed Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, Alaska and landed troops in the Aleutian Islands of Kiska and Attu).
On February 24, 1942, Naval Intelligence issued a warning that an attack could be expected within the next ten hours. That evening, a large number of flares and blinking lights were reported from the vicinity of defense plants. An alert was called at 7:18 pm, and was lifted at 10:23 pm. Renewed activity began early in the morning of the 25th.Air raid sirens sounded at 2:25 am throughout Los Angeles County. A total blackout was ordered and thousands of Air Raid Wardens were summoned to their positions. At 3:16 am the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade began firing .50 caliber machine guns and 12.8-pound anti-aircraft shells into the air at reported aircraft; over 1,400 shells would eventually be fired. Pilots of the 4th Interceptor Command were alerted but their aircraft remained grounded. The artillery fire continued sporadically until 4:14 am. The “all clear” was sounded and the blackout order lifted at 7:21 am.
Several buildings and vehicles were damaged by shell fragments, and five civilians died as an indirect result of the anti-aircraft fire: three killed in car accidents in the ensuing chaos and two of heart attacks attributed to the stress of the hour-long action. The incident was front-page news along the U.S. Pacific coast and across the nation.
Within hours of the end of the air raid, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox held a press conference, saying the entire incident was a false alarm due to anxiety and “war nerves.” Knox’s comments were followed by statements from the Army the next day that reflected General George C. Marshall’s supposition that the incident might have been caused by enemy agents using commercial airplanes in a psychological warfare campaign to generate panic.
Some contemporary press outlets suspected a cover-up. An editorial in the Long Beach Independent wrote, “There is a mysterious reticence about the whole affair and it appears that some form of censorship is trying to halt discussion on the matter.” Speculation was rampant as to invading airplanes and their bases. Theories included a secret base in northern Mexico as well as Japanese submarines stationed offshore with the capability of carrying planes. Others speculated that the incident was either staged or exaggerated to give coastal defense industries an excuse to move further inland.
Representative Leland Ford of Santa Monica called for a Congressional investigation, saying, “…none of the explanations so far offered removed the episode from the category of ‘complete mystification’ … this was either a practice raid, or a raid to throw a scare into 2,000,000 people, or a mistaken identity raid, or a raid to lay a political foundation to take away Southern California’s war industries.”
A photo published in the Los Angeles Times on February 26, 1942, has been cited by some ufologists and conspiracy theorists as part of evidence of an extraterrestrial visitation. They assert that the photo clearly shows searchlights focused on an alien spaceship; however, the photo was heavily modified by photo retouching prior to publication, a routine practice in graphic arts of the time intended to improve contrast in black and white photos. Los Angeles Times writer Larry Harnisch noted that the retouched photo along with faked newspaper headlines were presented as true historical material in trailers for the film Battle: Los Angeles. Harnisch commented, “if the publicity campaign wanted to establish UFO research as nothing but lies and fakery, it couldn’t have done a better job.”
Every February, the Fort MacArthur Museum, located at the entrance to Los Angeles Harbor, hosts an entertainment event called “The Great LA Air Raid of 1942.”