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The Battle of Los Angeles is the name given by contemporary news agencies to a sighting of one or more unidentified flying objects which took place from late February 24 to early February 25 1942 in which eyewitness reports of an unknown object or objects over Los Angelesmarker, Californiamarker, triggered a massive anti-aircraft artillery barrage. The Los Angeles incident occurred less than three months after America's entry into World War II as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbormarker.

Initially the target of the aerial barrage was thought to be an attacking force from Japanmarker, but it was later suggested to be imaginary and a case of "war nerves", a lost weather balloon, a blimp, a Japanese fire balloon or psychological warfare technique, staged for the benefit of coastal industrial sites, or even an extraterrestrial craft. The true nature of the object or objects remains unknown.

Alarms raised

Prior to the incident in Los Angeles, the Ellwood shelling, in which the Japanesemarker submarine I-17 surfaced and fired on an oil production facility near Santa Barbaramarker, had occurred on February 23, 1942. Reports indicated that afterwards the submarine was heading south, in the general direction of Los Angeles.

Unidentified objects were reported over Los Angeles during the night of February 24 and the early morning hours of February 25, 1942. Air raid sirens were sounded throughout Los Angeles County at 2:25 a.m. and a total blackout was ordered. Thousands of air raid wardens were summoned to their positions.

At 3:16 a.m. on February 25, the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade began firing 12.8-pound anti-aircraft shells into the air at the object(s); over 1,400 shells would eventually be fired. Pilots of the 4th Interceptor Command were alerted but their aircraft remained grounded. The artillery fire continued sporadically until 4:14 a.m. The objects were said to have taken about 20 minutes to have moved from over Santa Monicamarker to above Long Beachmarker. The "all clear" was sounded and the blackout order lifted at 7:21 a.m.

In addition to several buildings damaged by friendly fire, three civilians were killed by the anti-aircraft fire, and another three died of heart attacks attributed to the stress of the hour-long bombardment.

The incident was front-page news along the U.S. Pacific coast, and earned some mass media coverage throughout the nation. One Los Angeles Herald Express writer who observed some of the incident insisted that several anti-aircraft shells had struck one of the objects, and he was stunned that the object had not been downed. Reporter Bill Henry of the Los Angeles Times wrote , "I was far enough away to see an object without being able to identify it ... I would be willing to bet what shekels I have that there were a number of direct hits scored on the object."

Editor Peter Jenkins of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner reported, "I could clearly see the V formation of about 25 silvery planes overhead moving slowly across the sky toward Long Beach." Long Beach Police Chief J.H. McClelland said "I watched what was described as the second wave of planes from atop the seven-story Long Beach City Hall. I did not see any planes but the younger men with me said they could. An experienced Navy observer with powerful Carl Zeiss binoculars said he counted nine planes in the cone of the searchlight. He said they were silver in color. The group passed along from one battery of searchlights to another, and under fire from the anti-aircraft guns, flew from the direction of Redondo Beachmarker and Inglewoodmarker on the land side of Fort MacArthur, and continued toward Santa Anamarker and Huntington Beach. Anti-aircraft fire was so heavy we could not hear the motors of the planes."

Identification elusive

Aside from unidentified airplanes, proposed explanations of the event have included misidentification of weather balloons, sky lanterns, and Japanese fire balloons or blimps.

However, in the case of Japanese fire balloons (a proposal from later decades), they did not even exist in 1942. Some witnesses said the object caught in the searchlights was moving too slowly to have been a plane and there was common speculation in the newspapers that it was some type of balloon, such as a weather balloon or a Japanese blimp. Various problems noted with such explanations included the fact that many witnesses reported sighting multiple objects, not a single weather balloon or blimp, some moving at much faster aircraft speed, and the extreme unlikelihood that any balloon-like object could have survived such a massive bombardment. American balloon experts also opined it unlikely that the Japanese would use blimps since they had no fireproof helium to fill them and a blimp filled with explosive hydrogen gas would be even more unlikely to survive. In any case, no debris from the purported object or objects was ever reported on the ground following the bombardment.

Since some high government officials such as Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall and Secretary of War Henry Stimson (see below) declared real aircraft to be involved, yet no satisfactory explanation was ever forthcoming, some Ufologists in the present day feel the incident should be treated as an early and true UFO sighting, much like the so-called foo fighters later reported during the war by Allied and Axis flight crews.

Official response

Within hours of the end of the air raid (February 25), Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox held a press conference and opined that the entire incident was a "false alarm" due to anxiety and "war nerves". Many in the press doubted this explanation, some suspecting a cover up. 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."

Knox's comments quickly brought a defensive response from the Army that there definitely were flying aircraft and the battle was for real. The following day (February 26) Secretary of War Stimson backed them up. Citing a report from the Army Chief of Staff (Gen. Marshall--see next section), Stimson said there may have been as many as 15 aircraft involved, some flying very slowly and others up to 200 miles an hour.

Stimson then commented that, "It seems reasonable to conclude that if unidentified airplanes were involved, they may be some from commercial sources, operated by enemy agents for the purpose of spreading alarm, disclosing location of anti-aircraft positions, or the effectiveness of blackouts."

Speculation was then rampant as to where airplanes could have been based. Theories ran from a secret base in northern Mexicomarker to 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. In fact, Secretary Knox, after declaring it was a false alarm, added that vital defense industries in southern California might have to be moved inland because of enemy activity along the coast. This provoked an acidic front page editorial from the Los Angeles Times: "The reasoning is at least extraordinary. If there were no planes and no danger, wherein does this particular incident in any way support the theory that our great aircraft industry should be moved inland. Is it supposed to be damaged by false alarms and jittery nerves on the part of others? ...Least comprehensible of all is what the Navy head sees in the case to abet the desire of some government officials and some inland communities to transfer Coastal industries to the latter."

The sharply conflicting statements from government and military officials as to what actually happened, plus lack of adequate explanation, brought other harsh criticism in newspaper editorials. In particular, if there truly was nothing to the incident, the possibility that Army personnel had fired heavy artillery shells for nearly an hour at nothing at all — killing three civilians in the process — led some critics to suggest that the U.S. Army officers in charge were dangerously incompetent.

Some Congressmen also demanded answers. For example, Representative Leland Ford of Santa Monicamarker wanted a Congressional investigation. He was quoted stating, "...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."

In the end, however, there was no Congressional investigation; it was never clearly established whether there were objects in the sky, or what their origin may have been if they did exist.

Related documents

1942: Gen. Marshall's memo to Pres. Roosevelt

In 1974, due to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, a memorandum regarding the incident was released. Written by General George C. Marshall for President Franklin Roosevelt, and dated February 26, 1942, Marshall wrote that the "Air Raid" incident was due to "unidentified airplanes, other than American Army or Navy planes [which] were probably sighted over Los Angeles [and moved from] 'very slow' to as much as 200 mph and from elevations of 9000 to 18,000 feet." Because the objects did not seem to be part of any attack, Marshall speculated that the craft might have been commercial airplanes used as a sort of psychological warfare campaign to generate panic. This very likely was the Chief of Staff report cited by Secretary of War Stimson in his press statement the same day.

1942: Questionable Marshall/Roosevelt memo of incident as UFO event

A top secret document of questioned authenticity (see Majestic 12), dated March 5, 1942, from Gen. Marshall to President Roosevelt, says that the Army had supposedly recovered an unconventional craft east of Los Angeles and Rear Admiral Walter S. Anderson, chief of Naval intelligence, had also informed the War Department that the Navy had "...recovered an unidentified airplane off the coast of California... with no bearing on conventional explanation... This Headquarters has come to the determination that the mystery airplanes are in fact not earthly and according to secret intelligence sources they are in all probability of interplanetary origin." Marshall then ordered the formation of a special intelligence unit to investigate the phenomenon. This supposedly was the Interplanetary Phenomenon Unit (IPU). While the IPU seemingly did exist and investigated UFO reports in some capacity, according to the Air Force Directorate of Counterintelligence, it is unknown if it had any connection to the Los Angeles incident or even whether it existed in 1942.

1945: Army history of event

An Army history from 1942-1945 of West Coast defenses went into great detail on the raid without drawing any conclusions as to whether the raid was real or not. It noted that the Army had expected attacks on West Coast cities from early February and had been on high alert at the time the incident happened. Naval intelligence specifically expected an attack on Los Angeles sometime on February 24 or February 25. The history goes into the evidence that unidentified aircraft, sometimes traveling in V-formations, were both seen and heard by many Army personnel and also tracked by radar. The first radar contact of an unidentified aircraft occurred at 1:44 a.m. on February 25 and was confirmed by two other radar. An object 120 miles off the coast was picked up at 2:00 a.m. and was "well-tracked" by radar to within three miles of Los Angeles. The history also mentions that in some instances an object spotted may have been a weather balloon recently released. Lt. General John L. DeWitt, commanding general of the Fourth Army and the Western Defense Command, wrote a month later: "It has been definitely ascertained that the blackout and antiaircraft firing... were caused by the presence of from one to five unidentified airplanes. While it is possible that these airplanes were launched from Japanese submarines, it is more likely that they were civilian or commercial planes, operated [by] unauthorized pilots."

1983: Office of Air Force History

In popular culture

See also


  1. THE BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES, Photo analysis by Bruce Maccabee URL accessed February 2, 2007
  2. Timothy Good; Above Top Secret 1988, Quill/William Morrow; ISBN 0-688-09202-0
  3. Newspaper quotes at THE BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES, Photo analysis by Bruce Maccabee, 1942 'Battle Of Los Angeles' Biggest Mass Sighting In History? New Photo Analysis!
  4. The Battle of Los Angeles - 1942
  5. Los Angeles Times headline story, February 26, 1942, "ARMY SAYS ALARM REAL: Roaring Guns Mark Blackout: Identity of Aircraft Veiled in Mystery; No Bombs Dropped and No Enemy Craft Hit; Civilians Report Seeing Planes and a Balloon"
  6. Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1942
  7. Los Angeles Times, "Information, Please", Feb. 26, 1942, pg. 1
  8. Los Angeles Times, "Knox Assailed on 'False Alarm': West Coast legislators Stirred by Conflicting Air-Raid Statements" Feb. 27, 1942, pg. 1
  9. California in World War II: The Battle of Los Angeles
  10. Top Secret Army UFO Document On 1942 'Battle Of LA'
  11. Documents Dated Prior to 1948 The Majestic Documents
  13. Carl Nolte Infamy, War -- And a Sea Change San Francisco Chronicle URL accessed August 9, 2007 In Los Angeles, one winter night, anti-aircraft batteries opened fire on reports of unidentified planes flying over the city. There was pandemonium -- and several casualties from falling shrapnel. Later, when tensions eased, this was called "The Battle of Los Angeles". The movie 1941 starring John Belushi, was about this incident.
  14. Amazon page on the novel
  15. Details on the novel from the authors homepage

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