December 7th, 1941 saw the Japanese attack on America’s Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and as President Franklin D. Roosevelt would later opine, it was indeed a day that would live on in infamy. The events of that day, and the tumultuous war the attack led America to enter, have been the subject of countless books, television series, and movies, but little attention is usually paid to life within the continental United States in those early, and dramatic, days of American involvement in World War II.
Here today in sunny 2017, I sit between not one, but three large computer screens I’ve placed adjacent to an even bigger picture window overlooking the woods that surround my house. I’m sipping coffee and digging through three notebooks worth of scribbled information about attacks that took place on American soil during the second Great War, and although our nation is currently embroiled in multiple conflicts around the globe (some which are currently stalled in a bloody stalemate) I couldn’t feel safer or more secure. Despite being at war, we here in the continental United States might never know it – the fighting, the dying, the fear… it’s all a world away.
This level of certainty and comfort has been developed over hundreds of years of American service members taking the fight to our enemies right at their front doors. American troops fly, boat, and parachute into the worst fighting our globe has to offer, and while combatants from our fifty united territories have become a staple of war fighting around the globe – none of us have ever lived to see a similar invasion, occupation, or even skirmish in the streets of our own cities. America’s homeland feels safe, secure, and detached from the reality of war… insulated by our powerful military, global allies, and political discourse. Of course, terrorist attacks do occur, but in a nation so broad, with a population so huge, they’re usually just blips on the radar… still so far away and so uncommon that it’s hard for many of us to perceive them as real threats to our own wellbeing.
This sense of safety isn’t a bad thing – it’s the incredible payoff born of generations of men and women fighting and dying on our behalf. It’s not a winning lottery ticket, it’s a 401k we’ve been paying into since our nation’s very inception… but things didn’t always feel so safe. In fact, for a long time there was little separating American defenses from those enjoyed by other world powers – and even less certainty that the first forty-eight states of our Union were out of the reach of our enemies.
We may worry about a terrorist attack, or about the possibility of a far-off conflict effecting the value of the dollar, but when you’re walking your dog and your ears catch the sound of a jet or helicopter up above you, most of us don’t look up in fear of seeing foreign paratroopers or a Russian jet on a bombing run. We expect 747s and traffic copters – despite our nation actively being at war. On the evening of February 23rd, 1942, almost a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans didn’t have that sense of security… they had just been thrust headlong into the largest war the planet had ever seen, and they were scared.
And then their worst fears were realized. A Japanese submarine, one of a number of subs that had snuck their way to the American Pacific Coast, surfaced near Santa Barbara, California and proceeded to fire over a dozen artillery shells at an oilfield and refinery. The attack inflicted little damage and produced no casualties, but it was immediately clear to the Americans living in the area that the war had come to them. The offending submarine saw no direct interference from the American military, submerged again and disappeared into the murky depths of the sea.
Only a week prior, U.S. Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, had told the media that the American public should be prepared to accept “occasional blows” to our cities as we joined in the fighting that was already underway in Europe, and as far as the people of California were concerned, this first submarine attack was proof positive that Stimson was right – and that they were all in danger.
Less than twenty-four hours later, Naval intelligence units released a message to defense installations up and down the West Coast: there was reason to believe there could be an impending attack. For hours, radar stations remained on high alert, looking for signs of Japanese bombers, and just after 2:00 a.m. on February 25th, their radar screens began to light up. Operators notified the command element immediately of what they saw… enemy contacts one hundred and twenty miles out to sea and closing. The war had not only begun, it was about to be in our backyards.
Air raid sirens began blaring throughout Los Angeles, a city-wide blackout was put into effect to limit the bombers’ ability to differentiate target structures, troops manned their .50 caliber machine guns, three-inch artillery positions and anti-aircraft guns. Spotlights from all across the city illuminated the night sky, scanning back and forth across the horizon looking for the first sign of the enemy planes and then – at just about 3:00 a.m. the shooting began.
Reports from all over the city poured in. Military personnel and civilians alike notified local command elements of bomber formations coming in from the ocean, some claimed to have seen a Japanese plane crash in the streets of Hollywood and others reported paratroopers coming down from the dark skies above them. Hundreds of anti-aircraft shells exploded in the skies above the city, raining shrapnel down that destroyed parts of some people’s homes. The battle raged on for the better part of an hour before the “All Clear” was sounded. When all was said and done, over 1,400 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition had been expended defending the skies above Los Angeles… but there wasn’t a downed craft anywhere to be found.
After daybreak, it was clear: there were no Japanese paratroopers, no buildings destroyed by enemy bombs, and the only casualties reported were five poor souls who succumbed to ailments like heart attacks in the uproar of the one-sided battle. It would seem the American military had gone to war with ghosts – and no one was sure why. In the fervor, at least twenty Japanese Americans were arrested for “signaling” the bombers that never materialized – a dark precursor to the internment camps to come.
Contradictory reports in the media ranged from American heroes defeating a Japanese incursion to a massive false alarm. Secretary of War Henry Stimson went on record claiming that at least fifteen planes had buzzed the Los Angeles area during the battle, though he would later adjust his story to citing commercial planes potentially piloted by enemy fighters, while other officials dismissed the event as the product of fledgling radar technology and nerves – but neither story really explained the hundreds of reports of people seeing aircraft, or even paratroopers landing in their neighborhoods.
The Japanese would later claim that they never launched an air offensive over Los Angeles, confirming the beliefs of many that the Battle of Los Angeles was nothing more than the result of fear and nothing more, but conspiracy theories immediately began to spring up. Everything from stealth planes, to secret government projects, and even flying saucers were tossed into conversation as people struggled to make sense of what amounted to a mass delusion suffered by hundreds of people all across the city. The New York Times and various other media outlets interviewed several witnesses, many who claimed to see different things, but all who were certain that they’d seen something.
To date, no explanation for the Battle of Los Angeles has ever surfaced that seems to satisfy historians and conspiracy theorists alike, but the commonly accepted theory is that something like fishing boats appeared on American radar screens, prompting service members with itchy trigger fingers to go looking into the dark night sky for something, anything, that might look like an enemy bomber. Once the first shell was fired, the rest was simply a matter of trying to participate in the war effort. The explosions littering the sky coupled with a city-wide blackout left plenty of opportunity for people’s eyes to play tricks on them – and the whole thing was one big mistake.
Of course, for conspiracy theorists, there were too many witnesses, some with extensive training and even combat experience to pull from, for the enemy to have been a figment of Los Angeles’ collective imagination.
Perhaps we’ll never know if the Battle of Los Angeles was an anxiety born delusion or something more mysterious – but the story can still serve as a reminder that our great American castle isn’t the impenetrable fortress we’re sometimes tempted to believe it is… and even the most powerful country on the planet can succumb to fear in the face of impending destruction.
The Battle of Los Angeles may not have been real – but its lessons certainly are.
Image courtesy of the LA Times