The Battle of Los Angeles, also known as the Great Los Angeles Air Raid, is the name given by contemporary sources to a rumored attack on the continental United States by Imperial Japan and the subsequent anti-aircraft artillery barrage which took place from late February 24 to early February 25, 1942, over Los Angeles, California. The incident occurred less than three months after the US entered World War II in response to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and one day after the bombardment of Ellwood near Santa Barbara on February 23. Initially, the target of the aerial barrage was thought to be an attacking force from Japan, but speaking at a press conference shortly afterward, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox called the purported attack a “false alarm.” Newspapers of the time published a number of reports and speculations of a cover-up to conceal an actual invasion by enemy airplanes.
When documenting the incident in 1949, the United States Coast Artillery Association identified a meteorological balloon sent aloft at 1:00 am as having “started all the shooting” and concluded that “once the firing started, imagination created all kinds of targets in the sky and everyone joined in.” In 1983, the US Office of Air Force History attributed the event to a case of “war nerves” triggered by a lost weather balloon and exacerbated by stray flares and shell bursts from adjoining batteries.
In the months following the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and the United States’ entry into World War II the next day, public outrage and paranoia intensified across the country and especially on the West Coast, where fears of a Japanese attack on or invasion of the US continent were acknowledged as realistic possibilities. In Juneau, Alaska, residents were told to cover their windows for a nightly blackout after rumors spread that Japanese submarines were lurking along the southeast Alaskan coast. Rumors that a Japanese aircraft carrier was cruising off the coast of the San Francisco Bay Area resulted in the city of Oakland closing its schools and issuing a blackout; civil defense sirens mounted on patrol cars from the Oakland Police Department blared through the city, and radio silence was ordered. The city of Seattle also imposed a blackout of all buildings and vehicles, and owners who left the lights on in their buildings had their businesses smashed by a mob of 2,000 residents. The rumors were taken so seriously 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 US began mobilizing for the war, anti-aircraft guns were installed, bunkers were built, and air raid precautions were drilled into the populace all over the country. Contributing to the paranoia was the fact that many American merchant ships were indeed attacked by Japanese submarines in waters off the West Coast, especially from the last half of December 1941 through February 1942: SS Agwiworld (escaped), SS Emidio (damaged), SS Samoa (escaped), SS Larry Doheny (sank), SS Dorothy Phillips (damaged), SS H.M. Storey (escaped, sank later), SS Cynthia Olson (sank), SS Camden (sank), SS Absaroka (damaged), Coast Trader (sank), SS Montebello (sank), SS Barbara Olson (escaped), SS Connecticut (damaged), and SS Idaho (minor damage).
As the hysteria continued to mount, on February 23, 1942, at 7:15 pm, during one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats, Japanese submarine I-17 surfaced near Santa Barbara, California, and shelled Ellwood Oil field in Goleta. Although damage was minimal and no injuries, the attack had a profound effect on the public imagination, as West Coast residents came to believe that the Japanese could storm their beaches at any moment. Less than four months later, Japanese forces bombed Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, Alaska, and landed troops in the Aleutian Islands of Kiska and Attu.
On February 24, 1942, the Office of Naval Intelligence issued a warning that an attack on mainland California could be expected within the next ten hours. That evening, many 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 February 25. 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 (5.8 kg) anti-aircraft shells into the air at reported aircraft; over 1,400 shells were eventually 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 was 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 were 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 West 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 had been 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 mass panic.
Some contemporary press outlets suspected a cover-up of the truth. 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 M. 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.”
After the war ended in 1945, the Japanese government declared that they had flown no airplanes over Los Angeles during the war. In 1983, the US Office of Air Force History concluded that an analysis of the evidence points to meteorological balloons as the cause of the initial alarm.
During the course of a fireside report to the nation delivered by President Roosevelt on February 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine rose out of the sea off Ellwood, a hamlet on the California coast north of Santa Barbara, and pumped thirteen shells into tidewater refinery installations. The shots seemed designed to punctuate the President’s statement that “the broad oceans which have been heralded in the past as our protection from attack have become endless battlefields on which we are constantly being challenged by our enemies.” Yet the attack which was supposed to carry the enemy’s defiance, and which did succeed in stealing headlines from the President’s address, was a feeble gesture rather than a damaging blow. The raider surfaced at 7:05pm, just five minutes after the President started his speech. For about twenty minutes the submarine kept a position 2,500 yards (1.4 miles) offshore to deliver the shots from its 5½-inch guns. The shells did minor damage to piers and oil wells, but missed the gasoline plant, which appears to have been the aiming point; the military effects of the raid were therefore nil. The first news of the attack led to the dispatch of pursuit planes to the area, and subsequently three bombers joined the attempt to destroy the raider, but without success. The reluctance of AAF commanders to assign larger forces to the task resulted from their belief that such a raid as this would be employed by the enemy to divert attention from a major air task force which would hurl its planes against a really significant target. Loyal Japanese-Americans who had predicted that a demonstration would be made in connection with the President’s speech also prophesied that Los Angeles would be attacked the next night. The Army, too, was convinced that some new action impended, and took all possible precautions. Newspapers were permitted to announce that a strict state of readiness against renewed attacks had been imposed, and there followed the confused action known as “The Battle of Los Angeles.”