The Great LA Air Raid of 1942
On February 25, 1942, the city of Los Angeles awoke to a startling and terrifying scene: “powerful searchlights from countless stations stabbed the sky with brilliant probing fingers while anti-aircraft batteries dotted the heavens with beautiful, if sinister, orange bursts of shrapnel.” To Angelinos―already on edge from the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor just a few months earlier, and attacks off the coast of Santa Barbara the night before―it seemed as though the nightmare of an attack on the contiguous United States had arrived in their own backyard. Yet when the dust cleared the day after the “Battle of Los Angeles,” it left more questions than answers. Even today, now 77 years later, what really took place during “The Great LA Air Raid” in the early hours of the morning of February 25, 1942 remains a mystery.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. was forced off the sidelines and formally joined the Allies in World War II. So by late February 1942, there was already a great deal of fear that an attack on the West Coast would be next. And on February 23, 1942 it happened―the Ellwood Oil Field, just outside Santa Barbara, was shelled by a Japanese submarine off the coast of California. Though the physical damage was minimal and no one was hurt, the true aim of this attack, to stoke fear of a West Coast invasion, had already been achieved. As one 1979 retrospective Los Angeles Times article recalled, “[t]he fact that this occurred in the middle of a 7 p.m. fireside chat by President Franklin D. Roosevelt indicated that the attack was intended to heighten nervous reaction following a full week of dismal news for the Allies.”
Against this backdrop, the stage was set for the events that would unfold the following evening. On the morning of February 24, Los Angeles awoke to a “yellow” alert, which signified that there was unidentified aircraft or naval activity nearby. Although the yellow alert was called off later that night, the city was on a full blackout order shortly after 2:00am. It wasn’t long after that when the firing started. As one bystander described the events of that night:
I got up and turned on the radio station. No sound―it was off the air. A few minutes later the street lights outside of my house went off. It wasn’t long after that (I’d gone to bed again) when there was a familiar sound. It was gunfire―I’d heard enough of that over in Europe to recognize it. I went to a window looking out toward the beach and there was the best pattern of searchlights I’d ever seen concentrated on a spot in the sky and, around the spot, burst of anti-aircraft fire. Well, from then on for half an hour or so, there was quite a show―ack-ack and searchlights combining to provide the atmosphere to which Londoners had become accustomed.
In all, the anti-aircraft guns fired more than 1,400 rounds of ammunition while large searchlights criss-crossed the sky looking for planes flying overhead. The explosions left a slew of shattered windows and countless amounts of shrapnel damage across Southern California. Additionally, “[n]o bombs were dropped and no airplanes shot down and, miraculously in view of the tons of missiles hurles aloft, only two persons were reported wounded by falling shell fragments.”
Though unrelated to the artillery barrage, the events of that evening were not without casualties. Two men―George P. Weil, an air-raid warden, and Henry B. Ayers, a driver for the California State Guard―died of heart attacks during the blackout. Three other individuals unfortunately died of traffic accidents as the blackout was in effect. Zeulah Klein of Arcadia was killed when her husband was driving during the blackout with their headlights off and collided with a milk truck. In Long Beach, Police Sergeant Engebert Larson was killed in a head-on collision while reporting for emergency duty. Lastly, a pedestrian, Jesus Alferez, was struck by a vehicle and later died of his injuries.
Despite these tragedies, there was also joy as “blackout babies” were born during the LA Air Raid, including a “robust eight pounder,” William Dallas Nicholas. The Los Angeles Times wrote in awe of the new baby: “[y]oung Mr. Nicholas, it seems, was delivered in the glow of flashlights, it was disclosed yesterday … ‘Lights out, please,’ shouted an alert air-raid warden as he hurried down the street. Nothing daunted, Dr. Bray’s assistants located several flashlights in the Nicholas household and the delivery went on unimpeded.”
Naturally, such a chaotic scene unfolding in the sky above Los Angeles initially left its citizens fearful of any attack that was to come. Yet in the hours following the incident, the U.S. military issued conflicting reports of the night’s events. The Army’s Western Defense Command, which had ordered the blackout as well as the anti-aircraft barrage, made an official statement that “unidentified aircraft were reported in the area.” Yet, at the same time, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, issued statements during a press conference that “it was just a false alarm. There were no planes over Los Angeles last night; at least, that’s our understanding.” Knox went further to say that the “attack” was largely due to “jittery nerves.”
In light of these conflicting reports, as well as the realization that no bombs had been dropped on the city and no planes were shot down, the public’s fear was quickly accompanied by confusion, anger, and a search for answers. On the front page of the February 26, 1942 edition of Los Angeles Times, just below the headline “ARMY SAYS ALARM REAL” was a biting column from the Times’ Editorial Board reading “INFORMATION, PLEASE.” The column went on to read:
Reports of enemy air activity in the Pacific Coastal region might be due largely to ‘jittery nerves.’ Whose nerves, Mr. Knox? The public’s or the Army’s? … On this basis he apparently predicates expression of a belief that such things will make it necessary to remove Pacific Coast war industries inland. The reasoning is at least extraordinary. If there were no planes and no danger, wherein does this particular incident in anyway 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? And are false alarms confined to the Pacific Coast? And just where, if the question is a fair one, did Secretary Knox get the information leading him to believe that the air raid was a phony? … These are matters on which, in the view of this newspaper, the public is entitled to enlightenment. It does not appear that such information could in any way or degree prejudice any military effort or aid the enemy.
Despite the uncertainty over what had happened that night, the true damage to the public had been done. The combined effects of the bombardment of the Ellwood Oil Field and the Great LA Air Raid caused widespread fear among Southern Californians, leading to extreme, misguided, and racist reactions. Letters began pouring in to the California Governor’s office, demanding the removal of Japanese Americans. Even the Speaker of the California Assembly, Gordon Garland, stated that these two events “served to bring home to us the danger of the continued presence of all types of Japanese in the defense area.” By this time, President Roosevelt―who apparently had forgotten his own words, ”the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” from just a decade before―issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the military to broadly define the entire West Coast as a “military area,” and the ultimate internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans. Although this Order was issued a few days earlier on February 19, the forcible internment of Japanese Americans began in earnest in the Spring of 1942, no doubt accelerated by the public outrage over the Ellwood Attack and the LA Air Raid.
Despite the conflicting accounts from the Army and Navy on the events of that evening, the official report was revealed in 1962 from the Air Force archives, decades after the “Battle of Los Angeles.” These records stated that the alarm may have been set off because of meteorological balloons released in the Los Angeles area. Reports from the Army’s Western Defense Command speculated that the Air Raid was “caused by the presence of from one to five unidentified airplanes,” but according to the Air Force records, any unidentified planes flying that night were “probably piloted by civilians afterwards afraid to admit they had accidentally triggered the violence.” Between the conflicting Army and Navy reports, the vague Air Force official report, and even some strange alien conspiracy theories that have surfaced, The Battle of Los Angeles remains, as the LA Times stated in 1962, “a mystery that will probably never be solved to the Pentagon’s satisfaction―or to any Los Angeles ‘Survivors.’”
Nevertheless, this “battle that never was” is commemorated through the annual “Great LA Air Raid of 1942” event, a fundraiser for the Fort MacArthur Museum in San Pedro. Now in its 17th year, the event, billed as “an exciting recreation of a historic controversy,” takes over part of the former military installation to “recreate the atmosphere of a 1942 social evening out, interrupted by the reality of war.” From the moment we walked through the front gate at the event this past Saturday, we were immediately transformed to wartime Los Angeles. LAPD officers and military personnel, complete with period-appropriate attire and vehicles, welcomed guests as we arrived. Inside, several jeeps, military trucks, and tanks, as well as 1940s-era cars were on display. Early in the afternoon, two World War II fighter planes put on an aerial display above the fort, flying away just as the emcee struck up the band.
As the Air Raid event went on, we were welcome to tour the grounds, visit the museum, and grab a tray of food from the mess hall. All the while, people showed off their best swing dancing to the tune of wartime favorites like Bie Mir Bist Du Schoen and In the Mood played by the Fort MacArthur Officers Orchestra. Periodically, the music would be interrupted by the announcement of a “yellow alert” from aircraft identified off the coast. As the sun crept below the horizon and the giant searchlights probed the sky, it wasn’t long before the reenactors were manning their battlestations and the band’s music gave way to the wailing of the air raid siren. Reminiscent of the events that had taken place 77 years ago, guns and fireworks were fired from the top of the fort, exploding in the night sky until everyone was given the all-clear.
The Great LA Air Raid of 1942 event takes place at the Fort MacArthur Museum, which is located at 3601 S Gaffey St in San Pedro. Fort MacArthur is a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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