Date of Occurrence(s): February 25th, 1942
Incident Location: Airspace over Los Angeles, California, United States of America
Important Details to Consider: In 1942 the United States was thrust into the theater of World War II, having declared war against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany two months prior in December 1941. The paranoia of Japan attacking or invading was strong across the Pacific United States. On February 23rd 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast of Ellwood CA and launched a salvo of ordnance into tidal refineries. While this was a symbolic attack with minimal damage caused, this attack put US coast defenses on edge and could have affected the clarity and reasoning of servicemembers for days after.
Event Description: During the night of February 24th, 1942, multiple sentries and naval vessels reported witnessing flares and lights within the vicinity of their coastal defense positions. Naval Intelligence declared an alert warning that an attack could be expected within the next ten hours. The alert was called at 7:18PM, and lifted at 10:23PM, with no further signs of activity reported from the south Californian coast. The night remained calm until the early morning of February 25th, when at 2:15AM defense radar stations detected an unidentified target 120 miles west of Los Angeles. Minutes later anti-aircraft batteries were alerted and thousands of Air Raid Wardens rushed to their gunnery positions; they were given the instructions of “Green Alert, ready to fire.” During this time the American Airforce elected to keep its pursuit aircraft grounded, reluctant to send a scouting squadron against an enemy force of undetermined size. Radar continued to track the singular target as it reached mere miles from the coast, before disappearing from radar altogether. At 2:21AM a blackout was ordered, and the defense information center was flooded with reports of “enemy planes” spotted by numerous anti aircraft stations and outposts. Planes were reported near Long Beach at 2:43AM, and an unnamed Coastal Artillery Colonel reported “about 25 planes at 12,000 feet” over Los Angeles. Fighter Operations Command received a possible sighting of a balloon over Santa Monica at 3:06AM, and the Air Force controller in charge at the time immediately ordered firing upon the balloon, adamant that it was a German or Japanese Zeppelin. Attempts were made to dissuade the young officer, however, under the threat of discipline and an attack on American soil, the order was sent out. At 3:16AM the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade opened fire on the object spotted in the skies above Santa Monica. Reports after this time were vastly different and conflicting, with some stations reporting “swarms” of hostile aircraft dancing between their sights, numbering between one and several hundred, at altitudes of 1,000 feet to 20,000. Size and speed were also of great variance, with witnesses describing aircraft traveling at extremely slow speeds, to planes streaking across the Golden State’s sky in excess of 200MPH. The reported enemy raiders dropped no bombs, and 1,440 rounds of anti-aircraft munitions were expended with no incapacitated targets. The frantic defense eventually subsided, with guns firing sporadically until 4:14AM, when Naval Intelligence issued the “all clear” to defense stations, and the blackout was lifted at 7:21AM. Once order was restored, no downed enemy aircraft were found, however, multiple building and vehicles were damaged by shell fragments, and five civilians died indirectly during the one-hour defense, two perishing from heart attacks from the intense assault, and three dying in automotive accidents caused by the frantic confusion.
Aftermath: Hours later, acting Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox held a press conference where he stated that the incident was a false arm due to anxiety and “war nerves.” A report given to Washington D.C. from the Western Defense Command explained the credibility of the attack was questioned by field officers before the blackout was even lifted, and predicted: “that most previous reports had been greatly exaggerated.” However, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, head of the War Department, announced the belief that one to five unidentified aircraft had been active over Los Angeles. He offered the theory that the mysterious craft were either commercial planes fielded from enemy locations in Mexico or hidden in the Californian countryside, or launched from Japanese submarines. He concluded that regardless of the method, the air raid was meant to locate coastal defense positions, as well as spread hysteria through the civilian population. This extreme conflict in reporting from the War Department and Navy threw the United States press and people into the vigorous discussion, with the Washington Post calling the handling of the incident “a recipe for jitters.” They berated military authorities for their “stubborn silence” in the face of widespread uncertainty. Furthermore, they stated that the War Department’s theory of commercial planes “explains everything except where the planes came from, whether they were going, and why no American planes were sent in pursuit of them.” On February 28th the New York Times expressed concern that the more the event was studied, the more incredulous it became, explaining “If the batteries were firing on nothing at all, as Secretary Knox implies, it is a sign of expensive incompetence and jitters. If the batteries were firing on real planes, some of them as low as 9,000 feet, as Secretary Stimson declares, why were they completely ineffective? Why did no American planes go up to engage them, or even to identify them?… What would have happened if this had been a real air raid?” These questions were never answered by the War Department, presumably out of fear of exposing the weakness in American air defenses. Eventually, the event faded from the public eye, with no reasonable explanation put forward by the War Department or the Navy. However, after the end of the war, Japanese military officials did state they did not send any planes over the area at the time of the alert, however, they did admit that submarine-launched aircraft were used over Seattle. In 1983, the US Office of Air Force History advised that all evidence points to meteorological balloons and high strung nerves being the culprit behind the “attack.” Ellwood CA has seen an attack a day earlier from a Japanese submarine, and the coastal defenses employed the use of meteorological balloons to gather information of wind speed, which would be vital for the use of their guns.
What was the origin of the lights and flares that were spotted off the Californian coast the night before the incident occurred?
What was the object reported on radar 120 miles off the coast of Los Angeles the night of February 24th, 1942?
Why did the object on radar disappear, and why was a blackout ordered afterward?
Why were no aircraft scrambled to investigate the airspace, when the threat of an attack to a major American city would highly outweigh the cost of losing reconnaissance aircraft to a large enemy force?
If the attack was caused by commercial aircraft, Japanese submarine based scouting planes, or weather balloons, why was no debris or crash site located for any of these proposed objects?
Why would the Navy and War Department issue conflicting reports?