WORLD WAR II UFO SCARE
Fate Magazine, Volume 40, Number 7, Issue 448, July, 1987
By Paul T. Collins
On Wednesday, February 25, 1942, as war raged in Europe and Asia, at least a million Southern Californians awoke to the scream of air-raid sirens as Los Angeles County cities blacked out at 2:25 AM. Many dozed off again while 12,000 air raid wardens reported faithfully to their posts, most of them expecting nothing more than a dress rehearsal for a possible future event - an invasion of the United States by Japan. At 3:36, however, they were shocked and their slumbering families rudely roused again, this time by sounds unfamiliar to most Americans outside the military services.
The roar of the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade's antiaircraft batteries jolted them out of bed and before they could get to the windows the flashing 12.8 pound shells were detonating with a heavy, ominous boomp - boomp - boomp and the steel was already raining down. All radio stations had been ordered off the air at 3:08. But the news was being written with fingers of light three miles high on a clear star-studded blackboard 30 miles long.
The firing continued intermittently until 4:14. Unexploded shells destroyed pavement, homes and public buildings, three persons were killed and three died of heart attacks directly attributable to the one hour barrage. Several persons were injured by shrapnel. A dairy herd was hit but only a few cows were casualties.
The blackout was lifted and sirens screamed all clear at 7:21. The shooting stopped but the shouting had hardly begun. Military men who never flinched at the roar of rifles now shook at the prospect of facing the press. While they probably could not be blamed for what had happened, they did have some reason for distress. The thing they had been shooting at could not be identified. Caught by the searchlights and captured in photographs, was an object big enough to dwarf an apartment house. Experienced lighter-than-air (dirigible) specialists doubted it could be a Japanese blimp because the Japanese had no known source of helium, and hydrogen was much too dangerous to use under combat conditions.
Whatever it was, it was a sitting duck for the guns of the 37th. Photographs showed shells bursting all around it. A Los Angeles Herald Express staffer said he was sure many shells hit it directly. He was amazed it had not been shot down.
The object that triggered the air raid alarm had drawn 1430 rounds of ammunition from the coast artillery, to no effect. When it moved at all, the object had proceeded at a leisurely pace over the coastal cities between Santa Monica and Long Beach, taking about 30 minutes of actual flight time to move 20 miles; then it disappeared from view.(see)
You can well imagine with what chagrin public information officers answered press queries. The Pasadena Office of the Southern California Sector of the Army Western Defense Command simply announced that no enemy aircraft had been identified; no craft was shot down; no bombs were dropped; none of our interceptors left the ground to pursue the intruder.
Soon thereafter US Navy Secretary Frank Knox announced that no planes had been sighted. The coastal firing had been triggered, he said, by a false alarm and jittery nerves. He also suggested that some war industries along the coast might have to be moved inland to points invulnerable to attacks from enemy submarines and carrier-based planes.
The press responded with scathing editorials, many on page one, calling attention to the loss of life and denouncing the use of the coast artillery to fire at phantoms. The Los Angeles Times demanded a full explanation from Washington. The Long Beach Telegram complained that government officials who all along had wanted to move the industries were manipulating the affair for propaganda purposes. And the Long Beach Independent charged: "There is a mysterious reticence about the whole affair and it appears some form of censorship is trying to halt discussion of the matter. Although it was red-hot news not one national radio commentator gave it more than passing mention. This is the kind of reticence that is making the American people gravely suspect the motives and the competence of those whom they have charged with the conduct of the war."
The Independent had good reason to question the competence of some of the personnel responsible for our coastal defense operations as well as the integrity and motives of our highest government officials. Only 36 hours before the Los Angeles air raid, a gigantic Japanese submarine had surfaced close to shore 12 miles north of Santa Barbara and in 25 minutes of unchallenged firing lobbed 25 five-inch shells at the petroleum refinery in the Ellwood oil field. The Fourth Interceptor Command, although aware of the sub's attack, ordered a blackout from Ventura to Goleta but sent no planes out to sink it. Not one shot was fired at the sub.
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After the Ellwood incident had alerted all the West Coast defense posts to possible repeat attacks, these units were sensitive to anticipated invasion attempts. By Wednesday morning in the Los Angeles area they were ready to open fire on a boy's kite if it in any way resembled a plane or a balloon. Secretary of War Henry Stimson praised the 37th Cost Artillery for this attitude. It is better to be a little too alert than not alert enough, he said. At the same time he delicately suggested that it might have been a good idea to send some of our planes up to identify the invading aircraft before shooting at them. Planes of the Fourth Interceptor Command were, in fact, warming up on the runways waiting for orders to go up and interview the unknown intruders. Why, everybody was asking, were they not ordered to go into action during the 51-minute period between the first air-raid alert at 2:25 AM and the first artillery firing at 3:16?
Against this background of embarrassing indecision and confusion, Army Western Defense Command obviously had to say something fast. Spokesmen told reporters that from one to 50 planes had been sighted, thus giving themselves ample latitude in which to adjust future stories to fit whatever propaganda requirements might arise in the next few days.
When eyewitness reports from thousands searching the skies with binoculars under the bright lights of the coast artillery verified the presence of one enormous, unidentifiable, indestructible object - but not the presence of large numbers of planes - the press releases were gradually scaled downward. A week later Gen. Mark Clark acknowledged that army listening posts had detected what they thought were five light planes approaching the coast on the night of the air raid. No interceptors, he said, had been sent out to engage them because there had been no mass attack.
Believing an aerial bombardment was in progress, some people thought they saw formations of warplanes, dogfights between enemy craft and our fighter planes and other things that they assumed were evidence of such an attack. Obviously there were no dogfights because none of our interceptors were in the air. Tracer bullets were fired from military ground stations and some people mistook the fire pattern made by these projectiles for aerial combat. Other observers reported lighted objects which were variously described as red-and-white flares in groups of three red and three white, fired alternately, or chainlike strings of red lights looking something like an illuminated kite.
People suggested that some of these lights were caused by Japanese-Americans signaling approaching Japanese aircraft with flares to guide them to selected targets, but because no bombs were dropped, the theory was quickly abandoned. In any case, such charges fitted in perfectly with a hysterical press campaign to round up all citizens of Japanese descent and put them in concentration camps.
During the week of the Japanese submarine attack on the Ellwood oil field and the air raid on Los Angeles County, the press took full advantage of the made-to-order situation. Arrests of suspects were quickly made and the FBI was called in, but the Long Beach Press Telegram stated all investigations indicated nobody was signaling the enemy from the ground.