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Battle of Los Angeles

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The Battle of Los Angeles was a peculiar occurrence of wartime hysteria experienced by the City of Angels in the early hours of February 25, 1942.

Two nights earlier, a Japanese submarine floating off the coast of Santa Barbara had fired up to 25 five-inch shells at the Ellwood petroleum refinery, and fear and paranoia subsequently swept through a Southern California population terrified of a land-based Japanese invasion. It was, after all, just two months following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the event which had brought the United States into World War II.

In the night in question all hell broke loose at 3:12 a.m. Thick blue beams of powerful searchlights swept across the starry sky while the calamitous sound of anti-aircraft fire began reverberating through the long city streets. Angelenos—there were close to 1.5 million of them—awoke to the nightmarish noise of battle as the early morning air was suddenly animated with orange-red artillery bursts. Defense gunners of the Army’s 37th Coast Artillery Brigade had commenced firing at a fixed point in the sky over Culver City, home of the Hughes Aircraft Company and MGM. Army anti-aircraft artillery located in Inglewood and Santa Monica fired thousands of rounds of 12 pound, high explosive shells at a target area that seemed to be moving south toward Long Beach. Lethal shell fragments whistled down upon the pitch-dark streets, damaging buildings. There would be five deaths due to traffic accidents and heart attacks during what became known as the Battle of Los Angeles, though no bombs were dropped nor planes shot down. The anti-aircraft guns were silenced at 4:14 a.m., and air raid sirens gave the all-clear three hours later.

The exact cause of the commotion was never determined. Plane? Blimp? Balloon? U.F.O.? In Washington, D.C, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox attributed the early morning commotion in Los Angeles to “jittery nerves.”[1]

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s satirical comedy 1941 (1979) was inspired by the so-called Battle of Los Angeles.

References

  1. See “Army Says Alarm Real”, Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1942, p. 1, available online at [1], and [2]; Memorandum from General George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, February 26, 1942, available online at [3]