A big day in history: Japanese planes attack Los Angeles. Or do they?

Dominic Sandbrook explores the events of 25 February 1942

LA Times photo from newspaper report 1942

This article first appeared in the February 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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At the beginning of 1942, Los Angeles waited in a state of grim anticipation for the inevitable attack from the west. A few weeks earlier, the Japanese imperial navy had dealt a devastating blow to the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Now every day brought reports of Japanese advances in Asia, where their troops were smashing their way through Indochina and Malaya towards Burma and Singapore.
Up and down the coast of California, worried residents exchanged rumours that Tokyo was planning a massive attack on the American mainland, aided by Japanese sleeper agents embedded in the suburbs of the Golden State. “An attempted invasion of the Pacific coast is a possibility,” declared Santa Cruz’s Morning Sentinel on 19 February. “Imbued with the doctrine of the Rising Sun, Japanese on the Pacific coast must be regarded as a potential army already planted behind the American lines.”
Six days later, the invasion started. The first signs of an attack came at seven in the evening of 24 February, when naval intelligence reported rumours of an imminent Japanese raid on the west coast. Then came reports of “flares and blinking lights near the defense plants and oil fields” – the handiwork, surely, of Japanese agents signalling to their allies offshore.
A few hours later, a radar station detected a mysterious target over the Pacific, heading towards Los Angeles. Shortly after two in the morning, anti-aircraft teams were put on maximum alert. At 2.26 the target was just three miles from Los Angeles. And then, as one officer put it, “the air over Los Angeles erupted like a volcano”.
For the next two hours, the people of Los Angeles watched with a thrill of horror as the battle raged in the velvet sky. With searchlights sweeping the horizon, the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade fired more than 1,400 shells, wave after wave of percussion shaking the desert landscape. “Tracers sparked upward like Roman candles,” reported the next day’s Los Angeles Times. “Father, mother, children all gathered on the front porch, congregated in small clusters in the blackout streets – against orders. Babies cried, dogs barked, doors slammed. But the objects in the sky slowly moved on, caught in the center of the lights like the hub of a bicycle wheel surrounded by gleaming spokes.”
It was not until seven that morning that the all-clear sounded and the blackout was lifted. Five civilians had been killed by anti-aircraft fire, while three more died of heart attacks brought on by panic.The next day, many papers carried excited reports of the battle in the skies, with the Long Beach Independent explaining that “two waves of enemy planes” had swept over the “Los Angeles war zone”.
There was only one flaw in this account: there had not actually been any Japanese planes at all. Within hours of the so-called battle, the secretary of the navy, Frank Knox, told reporters in Washington that it had all been a gigantic false alarm brought on by “war nerves”. Confusingly, however, local army units insisted that there had been “unidentified aircraft” over southern California, while many residents, in defiance of the government’s statement, were adamant that they had seen Japanese warplanes streaking over Los Angeles. And in the absence of official confirmation, the conspiracy theories began to take root. “There is a mysterious reticence about the whole affair,” declared the Independent, “and it appears that some form of censorship is trying to halt discussion on the matter.”
Some people said the Japanese must have a secret base across the Mexican border; others thought the planes had somehow been launched from specially equipped submarines lurking off the Californian coast. And some local politicians even thought it was a diabolical plot to drive business out of the area.
“None of the explanations so far offered remove the episode from the category of ‘complete mystification’,” insisted Santa Monica’s Republican congressman Leland Ford. “This was either a practice raid, or a raid to throw a scare into two million people, or a mistaken identity raid, or a raid to lay a political foundation to take away southern California’s war industries.”
Four decades later, an official report found that the most likely cause of the ‘raid’ was an over-excited reaction to meteorological balloons floating above Los Angeles, brought on by war hysteria. Even so, plenty of people prefer to believe that the mysterious planes were extraterrestrial spacecraft. And, in 2011, the incident even inspired a Hollywood blockbuster, Battle: Los Angeles. It was, said its star Aaron Eckhart, “a documentary-style war movie – with aliens in it”.
Dominic Sandbrook is a presenter and historian