The World War II Battle of Los Angeles: My new favorite conspiracy theory

Less than three months after Pearl Harbor L.A. residents awoke in the middle of the night to air raid sirens and massive anti-aircraft fire — Official investigation blamed weather balloons and wartime paranoia, but some believe it was a close encounter

On February 26, 1942, the Los Angeles Times reported breathlessly about an alleged Japanese air attack on the Southland.

Just after two o’clock in the morning on February 25, 1942, klaxons began screaming into the night as the skies over Los Angeles lit up with aerial search lights. Within minutes, dozens of anti-aircraft batteries and hundreds of gunners from Point Mugu to Long Beach began pouring tens of thousands of rounds of flak and machine gun fire over the Pacific Ocean, all of them shooting at … something.

The Battle of Los Angeles had begun.

The guns fell silent after just a few hours. They would never again be fired in anger. Despite initial confirmations of airborne targets, official inquiries would attribute the “battle” to wartime paranoia and the itchy trigger fingers of inexperienced troops. After all, it was less than three months after Pearl Harbor. Yet eight decades later some people still wonder what really happened on that wild night early in America’s involvement in World War II. It remains one of the weirder episodes of the war — of any war. Depending on who (whom?) you ask, it’s also one that remains unsolved.

A (sort of, maybe) unsolved mystery

I admit it: I’m a sucker for a good conspiracy theory. I don’t mean Illuminati or One World Government stuff. And I certainly don’t mean anything like Q-anon. I mean that I love stories about Sasquatch and the Yeti, ghosts and haunted houses, theories about extra-terrestrial visitors and UFOs. I love learning different cultures’ legends and myths. I love that just this January no less than NPR reported that the Pentagon received some 700 reports about UFOs in 2022 alone, and that many of those reports remain under active investigation. I don’t care if none of them come to anything, I like even the suggestion of possibility.

If you tell me Stonehenge is a portal to another dimension and the pyramids were built with alien technology, I’ll crack a beer and give you a listen. These days everyone from Neil deGrasse Tyson to Elon Musk talks unabashedly about the possibility — even likelihood — that we’re all living in some kind of simulation, maybe an alien one. Musk in particular claims the possibility that we don’t live in a simulation is one in billions. Even if we aren’t in a simulation the power of synchronicity is difficult to deny. No matter what, I just think life’s more interesting with more possibilities.

The Pentagon released this image of an Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), later determined to be a drone. Image captured through night vision goggles during naval exercises off the East Coast in early 2022.

A few years ago I witnessed something in the sky I couldn’t and cannot fully explain. It also was observed by a good friend and a half dozen other people. It was a crisp, clear early spring evening. My buddy had just arrived from out of town and we decided to take a walk along the Santa Monica bluffs for a classic L.A. sunset. Maybe 45 minutes after the sun slipped behind the Pacific Ocean we noticed a collection of orange lights hovering just above the horizon. There appeared to be four or five of them, and we watched as they flew in formation in an erratic pattern back and forth, pausing every few passes and seeming to hover. We stopped a group of passers-by and asked if they saw what we thought we did. As we all stood there the lights made a final back-and-forth sweep across the horizon, then shot vertically into the sky at a seemingly impossible speed, disappearing in seconds. We all gasped.

Sure, they were probably military drones or other aircraft of entirely earthly origins. Maybe the air and light pollution from the city played with our eyes, lending the lights their strange orange glow and distorting their actual flight paths. I don’t care: I hold out a strong possibility that we saw something otherwordly. My only question is, when the little green men ask us to take them to our leader — these days, where do we take them?

I’ll bore you with my Sasquatch story some other time.

Military pilots around the world increasingly report strange objects and encounters, such as this one taken from the cockpit display of a Navy F/A-18D fighter. U.S. Navy file photo

All of which is why I was irrationally excited to learn about the 1942 “Battle of Los Angeles.” Recently I’ve been binging a YouTube show called The Why Files. The host, an actor and producer named Andrew “AJ” Gentile, covers a different conspiracy theory in each video. He is not, however, a true believer — after exploring each theory in detail he ends up debunking most. He’s my kind of conspiracist: A skeptic who deep down still wants to believe. He also has an animated sidekick, a smack talking, tinfoil hat wearing goldfish named Hecklefish (Trust me: You want to check out this series). Point is, while it would be cool to believe that the pyramids in Giza were built as a perpetual source of energy that powered a highly advanced ancient civilization They Why Files confirms, alas, they’re almost assuredly just big piles of rocks. Mind-boggling piles of rocks, but still just piles of rocks.

The Battle of Los Angeles is another story. To be sure, given the wartime fear that increasingly was spilling into all-out hysteria in the months after Pearl Harbor, it’s easy to understand even professional soldiers, sailors, and pilots panicking when a blip appeared on radar in the middle of the night, not three months after the December 7, 1941 attacks. In those early, uncertain months of the war Americans had every reason to believe rumors of an impending full-scale invasion by the Imperial Japanese Navy, even if in reality the logistics made it nearly impossible (and we think our generation invented fake news….)

Still, there remain unanswered questions about what exactly happened that night and who — or what — troops were shooting at.

Again, people’s fears were real. From December 1941 through February 1942 Japanese submarines off the West Coast attacked more than a dozen U.S. flagged vessels, sinking five, damaging five, and killing at least 50 American merchant sailors. Scuttlebutt abounded of sightings of Japanese warships, even entire task forces, up and down the West Coast. Every speck on the Pacific Ocean horizon, every unfamiliar airplane that crossed the sky, provoked new waves of rumors.

The war hysteria reached a crescendo on the evening of February 23, 1942. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt was delivering a fireside chat in which he sought to reassure a frightened nation. In the middle of his speech, just after 7pm the Japanese submarine I-17 surfaced in the dark, choppy waters off the coast of Santa Barbara. As the President spoke I-17 fired between one and two dozen shells from its main cannon at the Ellwood oil fields in the town of Goleta. The facility stored highly flammable aviation fuel among other distillates (thanks the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field American soldiers, sailors, and pilots were all too familiar with aviation fuel fires). Firing at night and in rough seas there was virtual no possibility of actual damage, which ultimately amounted to less than $500 (about $8,500 today). There were no casualties beyond a few spooked dogs.

It was a militarily inconsequential attack (though the local news reported that the sub “methodically hurl[ed] missiles,” and for its part Radio Tokyo reported that Santa Barbara had been “leveled”), but the psychological impact is impossible to overstate. The public felt the war almost literally banging on their front doors. It must have felt like the months after 9/11, when the anthrax scare and the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Queens sent the country into a panic. A Japanese submarine shelling the U.S. mainland, during a Presidential address less than three months after Pearl Harbor, shook the country to its core.

A city and country on edge and then some: Timeline of the “battle

While accounts and details vary widely, here is a general breakdown of events:

February 24, 10:00 a.m. Angelenos would not get any respite. The morning after the I-17 attack the Office of Naval Intelligence issued a warning that a general attack somewhere along the West Coast, likely California, was “imminent.” By imminent, the Office meant within the next ten hours. This came on top of a standing warning issued shortly after Pearl Harbor by Secretary of War Henry J. Stimson, that U.S. cities should prepare for “occasional blows” from enemy forces. Again, imagine the post-9/11 Terror Threat Level set to firetruck red and blinking furiously.

7:00 p.m. At around 7pm a radar station in Santa Monica picked up an unidentified contact to the west. Immediately, coastal air defense units were put on alert. As troops manned anti-aircraft batteries thousands of air raid wardens and volunteers raced to their stations as air raid sirens echoed and the Southland went into blackout.

10:23 p.m. It was a false alarm. According to one account it was common for “inexperienced pilots and radar men [to mistake] fishing boats, logs and even whales for Japanese warships and submarines.” These included mistaken identifications of aircraft carriers poised to unleash their squadrons. After nearly three and a half hours of sirens, searchlights, and suspense, the all clear was sounded. Angelenos, rattled, began turning in for the night.

February 25, approx. 2:00 a.m. Things didn’t remain quiet for long. Shortly after 2 a.m. on February 25 a coastal air defense radar station again picked up an unidentified contact between 150 and 200 miles west of L.A. Within a few minutes two more radar stations picked up the same “blip.” Shortly thereafter air raid sirens jolted Angelenos out of their fitful sleep. Again, a citywide blackout was put into effect and within minutes, troops once again had manned anti-aircraft guns and begun sweeping the skies with searchlights.

2:15 a.m. All hell was about to break loose. From a book called The Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. 1, by William Goss: “Radars picked up an unidentified target 120 miles west of Los Angeles. Antiaircraft batteries were alerted at 2:15 am and were put on Green Alert—ready to fire—a few minutes later. The Army Air Force kept its pursuit planes on the ground, preferring to await indications of the scale and direction of any attack before committing its limited fighter force. Radars tracked the approaching target to within a few miles of the coast, and….

2:21 a.m. “…at 2:21 am the regional controller ordered a blackout. Thereafter the information center was flooded with reports of ‘enemy planes,’ even though the mysterious object tracked in from sea seemed to have vanished.

2:43 a.m.Planes were reported near Long Beach, and a few minutes later a coast artillery colonel spotted ‘about 25 planes at 12,000 feet’ over Los Angeles.

3:06 a.m.A balloon carrying a red flare was seen over Santa Monica and four batteries of anti-aircraft artillery opened fire, whereupon ‘the air over Los Angeles erupted like a volcano.’ From this point on reports were hopelessly at variance.”

6:00 a.m. Firing continued for the next few hours, ebbing and flowing from deafening to sporadic. By the time dawn broke gunners had fired at least 1,440 rounds of flak and aerial artillery, and some 50,000 rounds of .50 caliber machine gun ammunition.

7:21 a.m. The all clear sounds.

Wartime paranoia … or visitors inspecting our defenses?

Angelenos didn’t wake to the wreckage of Japanese bombers or cratered neighborhoods, much less an invasion fleet sitting in Santa Monica Bay. In fact, they woke to — almost nothing. Onshore, several buildings were damaged by shrapnel, and the Los Angeles Times featured a picture of a man pointing at his car’s bullet-riddled fender. Some 250 individual guns and hundreds of individual troops had fired for hours on possibly non-existent targets.

Most accounts of the Battle of Los Angeles chalk it up to “paranoia and itchy trigger fingers.” Radar still was a new technology, often operated by young, inexperienced troops. As noted, they had shown a propensity for identifying driftwood as battleships. And the country was reeling from December 7, so even the mere mention of naval attacks off the West Coast seemed to auger something horrible, literally just over the horizon. During the “battle” itself, official reports later speculated, ironically, that gunners may even have mistaken fire from other batteries for incoming rounds. Finally, it has become generally accepted, though interestingly not officially concluded, that several weather balloons had been launched earlier on the evening of February 25. While no wreckage or debris was found it was speculated that the balloons were the “blips” that set off the whole affair.

Interestingly, the only contemporary source I found that leads with the UFO theory is … The Military Times. Doth they protest too much? After all, nothing says “UFO cover-up” like the old weather balloon excuse.

In any case, what if? What if The Why Files has a point? And what if my friend and I, and the other witnesses, really did see something unexplained that night on the bluffs?

Look at the picture in the L.A. Times article again. There are several distinct lights around the blazing searchlight beams. That picture was retouched — a common practice in the days of black-and-white print newspapers. The editors weren’t trying to create an image that wasn’t there, they were just making it easier to see in print. Still, it’s funny — no one mentions those lights. None of the sources I researched even alludes to them. But I have to say, they look a lot like what we saw that night off the coast just a few years ago.

Have the same lights been flying around L.A. for decades? Even longer? Wouldn’t it make sense that whoever or whatever controls those lights would have been interested in observing our defenses in the period immediately after our entry into the biggest conflagration in human history?

Like I said, probably not. But I’m holding onto the possibility. Human beings are famously terrible at identifying things and phenomena for which we do not have words (do an internet search for the history of the color blue and the history of color in general; it’ll blow your mind).

For 25 years the Air Force denied the existence of the stealth fighter — but that didn’t stop my dad and I from seeing one on a test flight out of Edwards Air Force Base way back in 1985. We were hiking in the hills near our house one day, and I happened to look up into the sky. We watched as a little black triangle, something that appeared to have no business maintaining stable, straight-and-level flight, soared overhead. It was at maybe 5,000 feet, directly over some of the busiest airspace on earth. Six years later the plane’s existence would be officially acknowledged in the run-up to the Gulf War.

I like to think there are lots of little black triangles up there. All we have to do is look.

This flying machine didn’t exist … until it did. DoD file photo

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