Second ‘Battle of Los Angeles’ a hoax
Early last month in this space, I wrote about the leadership of famed explorer, scout and Army officer Kit Carson, for whom this state’s capital city and the Carson River are named, during the Battle of Los Angeles when the U.S. was at war with Mexico.
The United States won that battle in January of 1847 as well as the U.S-Mexican War which ended the following year, victories that brought about the conquering of Mexico, the American seizure of Mexico’s Western territories and eventual statehood for Nevada and several other states in the Far West.
Today, I’m writing about the second Battle of Los Angeles which occurred on Feb. 24, 1942, exactly 75 years ago today and less than three months after Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
But hold on. There was no second Battle of Los Angeles. In fact, the only American deaths attributed to this fictional “battle” have been attributed to six heart attacks and two traffic accidents.
Californians and Nevadans were especially apprehensive following Pearl Harbor. And for good reason. Several U.S. merchant ships had been torpedoed and sunk by Japanese submarines off the California coast and the Japanese had sent aloft unmanned balloons carrying incendiary bombs over California and Nevada, some of which had caused forest fires, the fire-bombings of homes and a half-dozen deaths in both states.
U.S. Army anti-aircraft units were stationed in Los Angeles and other large West Coast cities after Pearl Harbor. Nightly blackouts were ordered in those cities. Tom Lewis, the late father of my wife, Ludie, served as a volunteer air raid warden in Los Angeles, and his responsibilities included making sure that residents of his neighborhood enforced the blackout by turning off non-essential lights and keeping their curtains, blinds and drapes tightly drawn so Japanese bombers would find it difficult to navigate their way across the city.
Near hysteria reigned in Southern California after a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast of Santa Barbara the day before the second “Battle of Los Angeles” and fired a dozen shells onto an oil field, damaging some structures but missing the oil tanks near the beaches.
Local citizens armed themselves with pistols, rifles, shotguns and even pitchforks in case Japanese marines invaded the coast. But they didn’t.
Although no one was injured or killed by the Japanese shells that day, the enemy’s proximity had a profound psychological affect on all Southern Californians and confirmed public fears that Japan was capable to bring the war to America’s doorstep, according to a Los Angeles Times retrospective published in 2002 that was titled “During WW II, the City Was Braced for a Japanese Invasion.”
The next day, Feb. 24, 1942, the day of the “battle,” the dreaded five-blast signals of an impending Japanese air attack were sounded throughout Los Angeles and neighboring areas.
Searchlights pierced the skies and anti-aircraft units fired 1,430 shells into the skies. The noise awakened thousands who either dived under their beds, sought shelter in basements or rushed outside to see what was going on. Ludie’s father and other wardens ordered all residents to douse their lights. Hospitals and morgues prepared to receive the injured and dead.
Fragments of shells fired by the anti-aircraft guns fell from the sky, damaging houses and commercial buildings. Home guard militia and many citizens, believing the fragments were bombs being dropped by Japanese aircraft, fired into the air. In the panic, one bullet hit a small civilian plane, causing it to crash south of downtown L.A. Its pilot was injured but survived.
The anti-aircraft batteries continued firing until 4:15 a.m. the following day. But they hit no Japanese planes because there were no Japanese planes flying over the city or anywhere else in the U.S. The eight deaths in the Los Angles area mentioned earlier in this column were outgrowths of the chaos resulting from the non-existent Second Battle of Los Angeles.
Within hours of the phony “air raid,” Navy Secretary Frank Knox told a hastily-assembled press conference in Washington, DC, that the entire incident was a “false alarm” due to “anxiety” and “war nerves.”
Some newspapers, however, reported that the attack did in fact occur, and that the U.S. government was guilty of a “coverup.” Other theories included allegations that the Japanese were firing at targets in Los Angeles from secret bases in Northern Mexico or that the incident may have been staged or exaggerated to give coastal defense industries an excuse to sell more anti-aircraft weapons. One Southern California congressman hinted the “raid” was a “practice raid” to scare citizens into pressuring Congress to take away the area’s war industries.
The Los Angeles Times, the day after the supposed Japanese attack, carried a massive front-page headline that screamed, “L.A. Area Raided … Jap Planes Peril Santa Monica, Seal Beach, El Segundo, Redondo Beach, Long Beach and Signal Hill.” The Times also published a photo of a searchlight illuminating a mysterious object in the sky during the phony “battle.”
Publication of the photo, which was discovered later to have been doctored to show the “mysterious object,” as well as similar hysteria-causing stories and photos printed in other daily newspapers, galvanized believers of unidentified flying objects (UFOs), conspiracy theorists and a wide array of crazies, fakers, liars and wackos into announcing that the “battle” was real and the “bombs” dropped on Los Angeles came from neither Japanese aircraft nor anti-aircraft fire but from alien spaceships and flying saucers.
Many years later, two motion pictures poked fun at the non-existent “battle.” They were the 1971 film “1941” directed by Steven Spielberg and “Battle: Los Angeles” which was released in 2011. I’ve seen neither of these movies, but I understand they are pretty good comedies and science fiction productions about alien space ships flying around Los Angeles during the “air raid.”
There’s been only one Battle of Los Angeles. It took place 170 years ago, 17 years before Nevada became a state, and featured cavalryman Kit Carson leading U.S. troops to the outskirts of L.A. on horseback where they handily defeated the Mexican Army.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.