Following the devastating attacks on Pearl Harbor, which left over 2,400 U.S. service members dead and nearly 20 warships damaged or destroyed, millions of Americans entered into a state of mass hysteria and fear.
Immediately after the ambush, as the United States declared war on Japan, Americans began preparing for what many feared was another imminent attack. On December 9, 1941, two days after Pearl Harbor, stock prices tumbled after unsubstantiated reports of an impending invasion set off a panic in New York City. Soon, blackouts were ordered up and down the West Coast in an attempt to conceal population centers from invading forces, and concern only grew as Secretary of War Henry Stimson warned that U.S. cities should be prepared for “occasional blows” from the enemy.
One of those blows took place on February 23, 1942, when a Japanese submarine attacked an oil refinery off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, marking the first time the mainland United States had been bombed during the war. Though the incident resulted in little damage — missing gasoline reserves and inflicting only minor damage on piers and oil wells — it further heightened the fear of a widespread attack on the mainland.
Just days later, Los Angeles found itself under attack. On the evening of February 24, an alert that an attack on the city “could be expected within the next ten hours” was issued. By the early morning hours of February 25, radar began tracking what appeared to be approaching enemy aircraft off the coast.
As air-raid sirens sounded throughout the city, soldiers on the ground rushed to their battle stations and searchlights began scanning the sky. Over the course of the next 15 minutes, reports flooded in from individuals claiming they’d seen aircraft in the sky, including one artillery colonel who relayed that he could see “about 25 planes at 12,000 feet.”
Around 3 a.m., after the Coastal Artillery Guard reported seeing a balloon carrying a red flare was observed over Santa Monica, the sky lit up with thousands of anti-aircraft and .50 caliber machine gun rounds.
While some present that night said they saw nothing but shrapnel and smoke, others claimed to have seen bombs raining down from above and called in reports of paratroopers dropping from enemy planes flying in formation. Some accused their neighbors of signaling enemy aircraft and, as a result, roughly 20 Japanese-Americans were arrested for supposedly aiding the enemy.
When the shooting finally ended an hour after it started and the dust cleared, the military and civilians alike realized something was wrong. Though five people were reportedly left dead, they had succumbed to heart attacks or traffic accidents, not enemy fire. And despite reports of downed aircraft in the streets of downtown Los Angeles, when the sun came up, the only damage appeared to be from friendly fire and anti-aircraft shrapnel that had blown out windows and pelted the roofs of buildings.
As the Army’s Western Defense Command put it, “Although reports were conflicting and every effort is being made to ascertain the facts, it is clear that no bombs were dropped and no planes were shot down.”
While Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox said hours after the incident “the whole raid was a false alarm and could be attributed to jittery nerves,” Secretary of War Henry Stimson had a very different message. He said that enemy planes had flown over the city, and even theorized that they could have been commercial aircraft “operated by enemy agents” in an attempt to test the U.S. preparedness and simultaneously strike fear into the hearts of the public.
While Stimson later walked back those claims, and the Japanese military said after the war they had no aircraft in the area at the time, many still swore they’d seen something in the sky that night.
A New York Times editorial published shortly after claimed that thousands of Californians had seen “a big floating object resembling a balloon.” And according to a 1983 Office of Air Force History report, those witnesses may have been right.
“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,” the Air Force report said.
But that hasn’t stopped a slew of theories from emerging in the decades that followed, including that the real culprit was extraterrestrial.
While the true story may never be known, the people living in Los Angeles in February of 1942 will never forget the greatest battle that never happened.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.