Great Los Angeles Air Raid: War Nerves Engulf the City Over "Weather Balloons"

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Great Los Angeles Air Raid: War Nerves Engulf the City Over "Weather Balloons"

Coverage of the Los Angeles Air Raid of February 24/25, 1942
Photo spread from Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1942
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: February 24/25, 1942

As many of you know, among my many interests – beside military history – is movies; war movies, adventure movies, sci-fi films. Today's dive into military history inspired a lesser-known Steven Spielberg movie entitled 1941, released in 1979.


In the months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. west coast was suddenly viewed as open and vulnerable to enemy attack. The wide, wide Pacific Ocean – viewed by many war planners as an impenetrable barrier to enemy attack or invasion – rapidly shrank to only a shallow moat. Very quickly, the Departments of War and the Navy (the precursors to the Defense Department) began developing plans to guard the west coast and its many important ports, to include Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Within months of U.S. entrance into the Second World War, major commercial installations were ringed with machine gun and anti-aircraft emplacements, and the emerging technology called "radar" was deployed. But, as with most new and developing technology, radar was not the ultimate detection panacea it was envisioned to be…

Prelude to the Battle

At seven o'clock in the evening of February 23 (Pacific time), President Franklin D. Roosevelt began one of his many "fireside chat" radio broadcasts that punctuated his 12+ years in the White House. His address was eerily appropriate; as he stated, "The broad oceans which have been heralded in the past as our protection from attack have become endless battlefields on which we are constantly being challenged by our enemies."

Japanese sub I-17 shelling Ellwood Oil Field, February 23, 1942; Painting by Chuichi Mikuriya, Navy Battlefield Artist; Image courtesy of
Japanese sub I-17 shelling Ellwood Oil Field, February 23, 1942
Painting by Chuichi Mikuriya, Navy Battlefield Artist
Image courtesy of

Five minutes into his radio broadcast, the Japanese submarine I-17 broke the surface of the Pacific Ocean off the town of Ellwood, a small hamlet on the California coast 12 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. At about 7:15 PM, the I-17 began shelling the Ellwood Oil facility. For about 20 minutes, the sub floated 2500 years offshore from the town, and pumped between 16 and 25 5 ½ inch shells from its deck gun into the piers, storage tanks, and oil wells of the major oil field for which the town was known. The shots, however, were poorly aimed. Only one shot struck an oilwell, while the others either went long or fell short into the ocean.

The sub was sighted by oil workers and town residents, but there was little they could do except report the incident to the local sheriff's department. Some local U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) pursuit planes attempted to find the sub, but were unsuccessful. The shelling frightened hundreds of local residents, who fled the area for safer locations inland. This incident sparked invasion fears all along the Pacific coast; it also convinced state and federal officials that it would be necessary to intern all Japanese-American residents to preserve order and security. This decision was later found to be unnecessary, but the war hysteria of the times would not be denied.

[The sub's commander, Captain Kozo Nishino, had been skipper of a Japanese tanker in the late 1930's and knew well the importance and location of the Ellwood Oil Field. When assigned to the I-17, he took the opportunity to attack this cog in the American war machine. According to a story in "Parade" Magazine from 1982, while visiting Ellwood to pick up a cargo of crude oil, he fell into a patch of prickly pear cactus. As Kozo was having the spines removed from his posterior, nearby oil workers were loudly laughing at his discomfort. Was the attack on Ellwood revenge for Kozo's embarrassment and pain??]

Great Los Angeles Air Raid, or the "Battle of Los Angeles"

During the night of February 24/25, 1942, unidentified objects caused a succession of alerts in southern California. On the 24th, a warning issued by naval intelligence indicated that an attack could be expected within the next ten hours. That evening a large number of flares and blinking lights were reported from the vicinity of defense plants. An alert called at 7:18 p.m., Pacific time, was lifted at 10:23, and the tension temporarily relaxed.

But early in the morning of the 25th renewed activity began. Radar picked up an unidentified target 120 miles west of Los Angeles. Anti-aircraft batteries were alerted at 2:15 am and were put on Green Alert – ready to fire – a few minutes later. The USAAF kept its pursuit planes on the ground, preferring to await indications of the scale and direction of any attack before committing its limited fighter force.

Los Angeles harbor lit up on night of February 24/25, 1942; Image courtesy of
Los Angeles harbor lit up on night of February 24/25, 1942
Image courtesy of

Radar tracked the approaching target to within a few miles of the coast, and at 2:21 the regional controller ordered a blackout. Thereafter the information center was flooded with reports of "enemy planes," even though the mysterious object tracked in from sea seemed to have vanished. At 2:43, planes were reported near Long Beach, and a few minutes later a coast artillery colonel spotted "about 25 planes at 12,000 feet" over Los Angeles. At 3:06 a balloon carrying a red flare was seen over Santa Monica and four anti-aircraft batteries opened fire, whereupon "the air over Los Angeles erupted like a volcano." From this point on reports were hopelessly jumbled.

Probably much of the confusion came from the fact that anti-aircraft shell bursts, caught by the searchlights, were themselves mistaken for enemy planes. In any case, the next three hours produced some of the most imaginative reporting of the war: "swarms" of planes (or, sometimes, balloons) of all possible sizes, numbering from one to several hundred, traveling at altitudes which ranged from a few thousand feet to more than 20,000 and flying at speeds which were said to have varied from "very slow" to over 200 miles per hour, were observed to parade across the skies. These mysterious forces dropped no bombs and, despite the fact that 1,440 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition were directed against them, suffered no losses.

There were reports, to be sure, that four enemy planes had been shot down, and one was supposed to have landed in flames at a Hollywood intersection. Residents in a forty-mile arc along the coast watched from hills or rooftops as the play of guns and searchlights provided the first real drama of the war for citizens of the mainland. The dawn, which ended the shooting and the fantasy, also proved that the only damage which resulted to the city was such as had been caused by the excitement (there was at least one death from heart failure, three others from traffic accidents in the blacked-out streets), or by shell fragments from the artillery barrage.


Attempts to arrive at an explanation of the incident quickly became as involved and mysterious as the "battle" itself. The Navy immediately insisted that there was no evidence of the presence of enemy planes, and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox announced at a press conference on February 25 that the raid was just a false alarm. At the same conference he admitted that attacks were always possible and indicated that vital industries located along the coast ought to be moved inland. The Army had a hard time making up its mind on the cause of the alert. A report to Washington, made by the Western Defense Command shortly after the raid had ended, indicated that the credibility of reports of an attack had begun to be shaken before he blackout was lifted. This message predicted that developments would prove "that most previous reports had been greatly exaggerated."

Secretary of War Henry Stimson, c. 1929; Photograph from the Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress
Secretary of War Henry Stimson, c. 1929
Photograph from the Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress

The Fourth Air Force had indicated its belief that there were no planes over Los Angeles. But the Army did not publish these initial conclusions. Instead, it waited a day, until after a thorough examination of witnesses had been finished. On the basis of these hearings, local commanders altered their verdict and indicated a belief that from one to five unidentified airplanes had been over Los Angeles. War Secretary Henry Stimson announced this conclusion as the War Department version of the incident, and he advanced two theories to account for the mysterious craft: either they were

  • commercial planes operated by an enemy from secret fields in California or Mexico, or
  • light planes launched from Japanese submarines.

In either case, the enemy's purpose must have been to locate anti-aircraft defenses in the area or to deliver a blow at civilian morale.

The lack of agreement between the War and Navy departments over the entire incident proved to be a field day for the newspapers. Both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post ran editorials days later, essentially asking the military for an explanation lest the public lose confidence, and descend into a state of "jitters."

A careful study of the evidence suggests that meteorological balloons – known to have been released over Los Angeles – may well have caused the initial alarm. This theory is supported by the fact that anti-aircraft artillery units were officially criticized for having wasted ammunition on targets which moved too slowly to have been airplanes. After the firing started, careful observation was difficult because of drifting smoke from shell bursts. The acting commander of the anti-aircraft artillery brigade in the area testified that he had first been convinced that he had seen fifteen planes in the air, but had quickly decided that he was seeing smoke.

Footnote #1: A photo published in the Los Angeles Times on February 26, 1942 has been cited by modern-day conspiracy theorists and UFOlogists as evidence of an extraterrestrial visitation. They assert that the photo clearly shows searchlights focused on an alien spaceship; however, the photo was heavily modified by photo retouching prior to publication, a routine practice in graphic arts of the time intended to improve contrast in black and white photos.

Unretouched photograph used as evidence of alien presence during LA Air Raid; Image courtesy of
Unretouched photograph used as evidence of alien presence during LA Air Raid
Image courtesy of

Footnote #2: Los AngelesTimes writer Larry Harnisch noted that the retouched photo along with faked newspaper headlines were presented as true historical material in trailers for the film Battle: Lost Angeles (2011). Harnisch commented, "If the publicity campaign wanted to establish UFO research as nothing but lies and fakery, it couldn't have done a better job."

Footnote #3: The 1979 film 1941 was loosely – very loosely – based on the Great Los Angeles Air Raid. It starred John Belushi, Christopher Lee, Toshiro Mifune, Slim Pickens, and Robert Stack. The script took a great deal of historical license. In fact, during the pre-production phase, John Wayne was asked to read the script by Stephen Spielberg with the possibility of "the Duke" portraying Gen. Joseph Stillwell (the role went to Robert Stack). Wayne replied to Spielberg the next day, calling the movie unpatriotic, saying, "You're making fun of a war that cost thousands of lives at Pearl Harbor. Don't joke about World War II." Obviously, Spielberg ignored Wayne's admonition. The movie made money, but it was not the rousing success he hoped it would be. Spielberg in later interview said it was his fault, that his own arrogance – after the success of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – got in his way. [Spielberg also jokingly said, that halfway through film, he considered turning the production into a musical.]

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.