Photo of barrage balloon from America from the Great Depression to World War II, at the Library of Congress.
Today in Odd History
US Army Defends West Coast from Weather Balloon (February 24, 1942)
Today in Odd History, the United States Army mistook a weather balloon off the coast of Southern California for a Japanese bomber and attacked. Thus began "The Battle of Los Angeles."
In February 1942, the country 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." And they did have some cause for concern. 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. When an unidentified radar signature was discovered 120 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, California, in the early hours of February 25, 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 that one had crashed in flames in Hollywood. American fighter planes did circle 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 were discovered to have been damaged, not by Japanese bombs, but by American artillery. Three civilians had been trampled, three others died in car accidents as they sped through the darkened streets, and there was at least one death from heart failure.
The Navy denied that there had been any enemy planes over LA. The Army, on the other hand, after initially agreeing that there had been a false alarm, interviewed witnesses and then stated that there had been up to 5 planes, and that they were either commercial planes sent from enemy bases in Mexico, or light planes launched from Japanese subs, and that either way, their obvious purpose had been to spy out the locations of American anti-aircraft 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 had flown over Seattle at a later date, and Japanese balloon bombs have been discovered much farther inland. Weather balloons, however, 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 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 LA Times cover page, and the photo of an exploding shell over Los Angeles, were taken from Sightings: The Battle of Los Angeles
The Daily Bleed: "A Calendar Better than Boiled Coffee!"
The Museum of the City of San Francisco: The Battle of Los Angeles
The Museum of the City of San Francisco: 1942 World War II Chronology
Los Angeles Almanac: The Battle of Los Angeles
Sightings: The Battle of Los Angeles
The Topeka Capital-Journal: Man Recalls "Battle of L.A."
The Japanese Fired on California, from the Tulsa World Newspaper
USAF Museum: Japanese Balloon Bombs in WWII
More little-known tales of WWII::
Anecdotal, irreverent, and heavily influenced by Dunnigan's favorite book, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everyone, Dirty Little Secrets reveals the dark and ridiculous side of a near-mythical war.
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