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The Battle Of Los Angeles: 75 Years Ago, L.A. Mistakenly Thought It Was Under Attack

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In the early morning hours of February 25, 1942, the sound of air raid sirens blanketed Los Angeles. The city had grown used to drills and enforced blackouts since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which had happened just three months earlier. However, on this night, the sirens were not a drill.

"It was a night when everyone’s fears apparently were realized—Japan had brought the war to mainland America, and Los Angeles was the target.…," columnist Jack Smith recounted for the Los Angeles Times in 1992. "The Great Air Raid began at 2:25 a.m. on that clear moonlit night when the U.S. Army announced the approach of hostile aircraft, and the city’s air raid warning system went into action for the first time in the war."

The city was on edge. Two nights earlier, on February 23, a Japanese submarine had surfaced on the California coast just north of Santa Barbara and shelled an oil rig at Ellwood. And not a week prior, on February 19, President Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for Japanese-American internment. Now, reports of unidentified objects on radar screens had tipped the U.S. Army that Japanese warplanes were closing in on Los Angeles.

Then, around 3:06 a.m., a balloon carrying a red flare was floated above Santa Monica, and the firing began. Over 1,400 anti-aircraft shells and countless rounds of machine gun fire were shot into the sky. According to the San Francisco Museum, “the air over Los Angeles erupted like a volcano.” But, when the smoke had finally settled, the Battle of Los Angeles (as the Associated Press was already calling it by November) was little more than a false alarm.

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"Probably much of the confusion came from the fact that anti-aircraft shell bursts, caught by the searchlights, were themselves mistaken for enemy planes," the museum adds.

"Although no bombs were dropped, the city did not escape its baptism of fire without casualties, including five fatalities," Smith continued for the Times. "Three residents were killed in automobile accidents as cars dashed wildly about in the blackout. Two others died of heart attacks. ...There was scattered structural damage caused by anti-aircraft shells that failed to explode in air but did so when they struck the ground, demolishing a garage here, a patio there, and blowing out a tire on a parked automobile."

So, what the hell happened?

On February 26, The Los Angeles Times demanded an explanation for "the considerable public excitement and confusion" and the "spectacular official accompaniments" that occurred the previous morning.

The Secretary of the Navy chalked up the episode to "a case of the jitters", something the New York Times repeated on February 28: "If the batteries were firing on nothing at all, as Secretary Knox implies, it is a sign of expensive incompetence and jitters."

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According to the L.A. Times:

The Secretary of War tried to save face by saying that while there were no enemy aircraft in the air, it was believed that 15 commercial planes flown by “enemy agents” had crossed the city. Though no one believed this gross canard, most agreed with the secretary that “it is better to be too alert than not alert enough. At war’s end, an Army document explained what had happened: (1) numerous weather balloons had been released over the area that night. They carried lights for tracking purposes, and these “lighted balloons” were mistaken for enemy aircraft; (2) shell bursts illuminated by searchlights were mistaken by ground crews for enemy aircraft.

While the Battle of Los Angeles may be relegated, today, to the footnotes of history, the "false alarm" was recast in a humorous light for Steven Spielberg's 1979 film 1941, and conspiracy theorists continue to cite the unidentified objects detected by radar as evidence of UFO visitation.

In an interview with MSNBC, UFO researcher Jose Escamilla said:

"What happened at two in the morning, some objects entered into our airspace," Escamilla began. "One of them hovered right over Santa Monica and Culver City. Some described it as a round, dome-shaped object that was about a hundred feet in diameter. Some of them said it was a little smaller. But, the unique thing about it is, the military - the army started firing at this thing for about an hour, hour and a half, but they could not bring the object down."

The UFO website Saturday Night Uforia said that, "In the end, the only thing that can be safely stated is that if there was something up there then what was then called in war parlance an 'unidentified aerial target' was the first modern, well-reported incident of what is now known as an 'unidentified flying object', or 'UFO.'"

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The website added, "And that it (or 'them' if the reports of planes are to be believed) showed remarkable resilience in the face of an onslaught of more than 1400 anti-aircraft shells lobbed with deadly intent into the sky."