Art by Ryan Ward

That Time ‘UFOs’ Took Over Los Angeles

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Legend has it that 1940s L.A. witnessed one of the most important UFO sightings in history, known as the Battle of Los Angeles — depending on who you ask.

Los Angeles is home to fabulists, storytellers and Hollywood make-believe so it’s no surprise conspiracy theories run rampant. Our regular series, Conspiracy Theories Uncracked examines the history behind these local urban legends.

It was the early morning of Feb. 25, 1942. A large unidentified object hovered over a Pearl Harbour-rattled Los Angeles, while sirens blared and searchlights pierced the sky. One thousand and four hundred anti-aircraft shells were pumped into the air as Angelenos cowered and marveled. “It was huge! It was just enormous!” one female air warden allegedly claimed. “And it was practically right over my house. I had never seen anything like it in my life!”

But that wasn’t all. Some Angelenos claimed there were more strange objects in the sky that night, namely dozens of airplanes — or was it flying saucers? — that had come to destroy L.A.

“The obvious thought was that these were Japanese bombers come to attack the United States,” UFO expert Bill Birnes, publisher of UFO Magazine, told PR Newswire in 2011. “But it wasn’t. They were flying too high. And the astounding thing was not one artillery shell could hit the craft — out of all the hundreds of shells that were fired. People outside that night swore that it was neither a plane nor a balloon — it was a UFO. It floated, it glided. And to this day, nobody can explain what that craft was, why our anti-aircraft guns couldn’t hit it — it’s a mystery that’s never been resolved.”

That night, befuddled officials would only help the urban legend grow. Many officials now believe two weather balloons released by the 203rd Coast Artillery Regiment from the Douglas Aircraft Plant in Santa Monica and the Sawtelle Veterans Hospital in Westwood may be responsible for the ensuing chaos. Jittery soldiers already on high alert in the early days of World War II panicked and the rest is conspiracy theory history.

All of the pieces were in place, according to the LA Times, “for the confused action known as the ‘battle of Los Angeles.’”

“People outside that night swore that it was neither a plane nor a balloon — it was a UFO. It floated, it glided. And to this day, nobody can explain what that craft was, why our anti-aircraft guns couldn’t hit it — it’s a mystery that’s never been resolved.”

UFO expert Bill Birnes, publisher of UFO Magazine, in PR Newswire interview

The city was on high alert following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Rumors of an imminent Japanese invasion were constant.

According to Terrenz Sword, author of The Battle of Los Angeles 1942: The Mystery Air Raid, during one incident, the Navy reportedly received a tip that there were more than 30 enemy ships off the coast. Army pilots took off to find them — only to discover they were nothing more than fishing boats.

Southern California’s worst fears were realized on the night of Feb. 23, 1942. The LA Times described the scene 20 years later:

As President Roosevelt warned a nation-wide radio audience that the oceans “have become endless battlefields on which we are constantly being challenged by our enemies,” a Japanese submarine, I-17, surfaced off-shore at Ellwood, near Santa Barbara, and pumped 13 rounds of 5 ½ in shells at oil installations. Minor damage was done to piers and oil wells, but the raider missed a gasoline plant, apparently its actual target.

A panicked Los Angeles awoke on Feb. 24 to photos of the damage from the shells and news that the enemy submarine was nowhere to be found. That evening, the Navy received word of another imminent attack. In the early morning hours of Feb. 25, air raid defense radar tracked an unidentified object approximately 100 miles from L.A. At 2:25 a.m., air raid sirens blasted. Shortly after, radio silence was ordered and searchlights began to pierce the sky. A little after 3 a.m., a balloon-like object appeared in the sky over Culver City and Santa Monica — the same one that people would later call UFOs or a mysterious aircraft.

“We all got out and watched it,” one retired officer told Huell Howser decades later. “We saw something, but it was nothing definite. Seemed to be something circling slowly around … I was standing next to my commanding officer, and he said, ‘It looks like an airplane to me.’”

Minutes later, the shelling began. As gunners shot around 1,400 rounds of artillery into the sky, L.A. citizens believed the end was near. Around 12,000 volunteer air raid wardens took their positions, patrolling the street making sure no light was visible and no citizens were outside, as shells fell from the sky and rained down on L.A.

“I will never forget that night,” Pasadena local Jean Ballantyne later told the LA Times, “because I was in Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital having my first child. All the new mothers felt helpless as I did amid all the sirens and searchlights, so in the pitch-black halls, the nurses came along handing out babies to anxious mothers. I will never know to this day if I had the right one, but it doesn’t matter. Wasn’t that a humane and thoughtful thing for maternity nurses to do?”

As explosions ripped the night, folks peeped out of their windows to look at the sky. People claimed to see many different things — a blimp, more than 50 planes, nothing much.

Whatever was actually in the sky, most of the danger lay on the ground below. “We ducked for shelter in the hulls of ships,” shipyard worker James Mason recalled, “under them, anywhere we could get. We sure got out of the way in a hurry. By 8 the next morning, three of my buddies had picked up a tin hat full of shrapnel. By the time the graveyard shift clocked out, everyone went home with their pockets loaded.”

After almost an hour, the Great Los Angeles Air Raid was over. Frightened residents eagerly reached for their morning paper.

“Roaring out of a brilliant moonlit western sky,” the LA Times reported, “foreign aircraft flying both large formations and singly flew over Southern California early today and drew heavy barrages of anti-aircraft fire — the first ever to sound over United States continental soil against an enemy invader.”

The LA Times also published a heavily doctored photo of searchlights shining on the unidentified object flying over the city. The photo was picked up all over the country and eventually made its way into Life Magazine. According to the Los Angeles Examiner, “shrapnel-strewn areas took on the appearance of a huge Easter-egg hunt, [as] youngsters and grownups alike scrambled through streets and vacant lots, picking up and proudly comparing chunks of shrapnel fragments.”

“We all got out and watched it. We saw something, but it was nothing definite. Seemed to be something circling slowly around … I was standing next to my commanding officer, and he said, ‘It looks like an airplane to me.’”

Retired officer in an interview with Huell Howser.

The appearance of a real battle and opposing narratives provided by the Army and Navy only made matters worse. On Feb. 27, the LA Times printed an editorial stating: “This Is No Time for Squabbling.” In it, they wrote:

What baffled historians may later describe as the great Los Angeles Air Raid mystery showed some signs yesterday of developing into a squabble between the Army and Navy over the question whether there actually were any enemy planes, unidentified planes, or planes of any kind over this area between 2 o’clock and daylight Wednesday morning.

Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and the Army Chief of Staff initially stated there were 15 enemy aircraft here to spy on L.A. However, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox claimed that it was simply a false alarm caused by jittery nerves — and thus the overeager Army’s fault. In retaliation, the Army doubled down on their assessment. According to the LA Times:

All of which, so far as it may express interdepartmental feeling, seems to the Times to the last degree unfortunate and dangerous. Correctly or otherwise, there is supposed to exist a certain amount of rivalry and jealousy between our two chief armed services … there has never been a time in our history when complete harmony between the United States Army and Navy was so important as now. No good purpose can be served by hasty and perhaps ill-informed outgivings from either side which, even unintentionally, reflect on the ability of the other.

There also may have been a coverup to save officials from the embarrassment of fighting a weather balloon. “I was summoned,” one soldier recalled. “I was told to keep my mouth shut, and that there had been seven Japanese planes up there. I was also told that if I repeated my story about shooting at a balloon and not enemy planes, I would be put behind bars.”

When it became clear that the “battle” had probably been much ado about nothing, there was a furious backlash. According to the LA Times, Representative Leland Ford called for investigations asking if the battle had been “a practice raid, or a raid to throw a scare into 2 million people, or a mistaken identity raid or a raid to take away Southern California’s industries.”

Up to six people died that morning, some in car accidents and others due to heart attacks. Many volunteer wardens were also injured by falling shells, and numerous Japanese Americans were arrested for “signaling” to the invaders.

The mystery of what actually happened on Feb. 25 would linger for decades.

Then, in 1975, aviation expert and then LA Times aerospace editor Marvin Miles wrote a memo, explaining what he believed occurred that was published in the Times:

As a survivor of both the Great Air Raid and the dangers of penetrating the blackout to reach The Times city room that night … may I call your attention to Volume One of the ‘Army Air Forces in World War II’an official historywhich devotes some three pages to the incident in which 1,400 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition were shot, no bombs dropped and no planes shot down. In sum, the history points out:

(1) That the Japanese at war’s end said they sent no planes over the area.

(2) That much of the confusion came from shell bursts caught by searchlight beams which themselves were mistaken for enemy planes, and

(3) that 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 a theory supported by the fact that anti-aircraft artillery units were officially criticized for having wasted ammunition on targets which moved too slowly to be airplanes.

But this rational explanation did not stop a new otherworldly theory from taking hold. As early as the 1970s, the idea that an extraterrestrial invasion was responsible for setting off the Battle of Los Angeles began to circulate in the UFO community. Many used the L.A. Times doctored photo as proof, along with the fact that the floating object had appeared immune to gunfire.

According to Skeptoid podcast host Brian Dunning, the conspiracy theories really ramped up in 1987, when the now-discredited Majestic 12 Documents were released. One of them appeared to be an official government document. The “Marshall/Roosevelt Memo, March 5, 1942” claimed that two alien aircraft had been recovered after the Battle: 

This Headquarters has come to a determination that the mystery airplanes are in fact not earthly and according to secret intelligence sources they are in all probability of interplanetary origin.

This fake memo jump-started the belief of an alien visitation to wartime Los Angeles that has never abated. “For more than 40 years,” Dunning wrote in his blog, “not a single person associated with the Battle of Los Angeles entertained any thoughts about extraterrestrial spacecraft or aliens, according to all available evidence (at least when you discard the hoaxed evidence). The alien spacecraft angle is purely a post-hoc invention by modern promoters of UFO mythology.”

There is no doubt people saw unidentified objects that night. There is a very slight chance that a Japanese submarine could have released a seaplane over L.A. But the truth behind the Battle of Los Angeles is probably more about human fallibility — bad intel, errant weather balloons and poor training — than anything else. However, the records are so muddled that the true story of the Great Air Raid will forever be fodder for those with conspiratorial minds.

Los Angeleno