On the eve of Battle: Los Angeles, it seemed appropriate to take a look back at the original Battle of Los Angeles, which was waged on the night of February 24 and 25, 1942, when the United States Army mistook a weather balloon for a Japanese bomber and attacked.
If the Army was twitchy that night, it had some reason. The United States was still reeling from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The West Coast was particularly afraid of another Japanese assault. Housing prices had dropped dramatically as people moved away from “invasion beaches.” It wasn’t just paranoia, either – on the 23rd, a Japanese sub had shelled an oil field in Southern California. On the 24th, Naval intelligence issued an alert, stating that an attack was imminent.
In the early hours of February 25, an unidentified radar signature was discovered 120 miles off the coast of LA. Antiaircraft batteries went to Green Alert: “Ready to fire.” The target drifted in toward the coast. As it approached, the regional controller ordered a blackout. Reports of “enemy planes” began pouring in. Finally, a balloon carrying a red flare was spotted over Santa Monica. Four antiaircraft batteries opened fire, and the sky above Los Angeles “erupted like a volcano.”
For the next three hours, madness reigned. “Swarms” of planes and balloons were reported, flying at every elevation and speed. Over 1,400 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition were fired from the ground, but the mysterious enemy suffered no losses, despite reports that four planes had been shot down and one had crashed in flames in Hollywood. American fighter planes circled the city, but quickly returned to their home base. With a limited number of fighters available, the Army preferred to keep them in check until the size and direction of the attack could be ascertained.
People all over Southern California watched the display as searchlights and antiaircraft rounds lit up the night sky. As the rounds burst, the smoke reflected the lights and added to the confusion. Sanity returned at dawn. Streets had been damaged not by Japanese bombs, but by American artillery. Three civilians had been trampled, three more died in car wrecks as they sped through the darkened streets, and there was at least one death from heart failure. Three Japanese Americans were arrested near Venice, “on suspicion of signaling with flashlights near the pier,” but the Army refused to provide any further information.
Afterwards, the Navy denied that there had been any enemy planes over LA. The Army initially agreed that it had been a false alarm, but then interviewed witnesses and stated that there had been up to five planes, which were supposed to be either commercial planes sent from enemy bases in Mexico, or light planes launched from Japanese subs. Either way, the Army said, their obvious purpose had been to spy out the locations of American antiaircraft batteries.
The press reacted strongly to the lack of agreement between the Armed Forces. The New York Times said that if the batteries had fired upon “nothing at all, as [the Navy] implies, it [was] a sign of expensive incompetence and jitters. If the batteries were firing on real planes, . . . as [the Army] declares, why were they completely ineffective? Why did no American planes go up to engage them, or even to identify them?”
At the end of the war, the Japanese denied that they had launched any sort of an attack against the US on the night in question, although Japanese planes launched from subs flew over Seattle at a later date, and Japanese balloon bombs have been discovered much farther inland. However, weather balloons had been released near Los Angeles, and eyewitness reports have suggested that the targets were moving much too slowly to have been airplanes. The battle has also provided much fodder for UFO speculations. Whatever really happened that night, it provided further impetus for the internment of Japanese-Americans, 120,000 of whom would be moved to prison camps before war’s end, in one of the bleakest chapters in America’s human-rights history.
The Japanese Fired on California, from the Tulsa World Newspaper
USAF Museum: Japanese Balloon Bombs in WWII (Archived)