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A few minutes after 7 p.m. on February 23, 1942, the Japanese submarine I-17 surfaced a few hundred yards off the Barnsdall Oil Company’s mile-long row of shoreline derricks 10 miles north of Santa Barbara, California. Moments later it opened fire on the giant Richfield aviation fuel storage tanks on the hill behind the beach. The 20 or so shots, for the most part, were wild, one landing more than a mile inland. The closest shell exploded in a field 30 yards from one of the tanks. No coastal defense units were within 100 miles of the area to shoot back, so after its ineffective cannonade the Japanese sub slipped away without incident.

If U.S. coast and anti-aircraft defense units were on edge before, the incident of February 23, just a few months after Pearl Harbor, considerably heightened their tension. In fact, what happened that night 10 miles north of Santa Barbara contributed to what followed the next night in the skies over Los Angeles.

At 2:25 a.m. on February 25, air raid sirens blared throughout parts of the ‘City of Angels.’ It was not the city’s first air raid alert of the war. The most recent warning had been in effect earlier that night. None of these warnings, however, had ever gone beyond the yellow-alert stage. Yellow alerts were sounded when unidentified aircraft were detected. Of the dozen or so instances when yellow alerts had been announced, only two had gone to the red stage. Red alerts were serious business. Not only did they trigger air raid alarms, blackouts and radio silence, they sent some 10,000 air raid wardens and auxiliary police onto the streets. Anti-aircraft guns were manned and searchlights turned on.

When an air raid defense radar picked up a mysterious contact shortly before 2 a.m. on February 25, the unknown contact was approximately 100 miles southwest of Los Angeles. By 2:07 it was officially declared an ‘unidentified aircraft approaching the coast’ and a yellow alert was called. Fifteen minutes later, the blue alert signal was given. This indicated that presumed enemy aircraft were bearing down on the coast. Three minutes later, with the aircraft still unidentified, the red alert was given. Air raid sirens immediately began to sound, and wardens donned their white helmets and grabbed their flashlights. Two minutes later, radio silence was ordered. At 2:32, anti-aircraft and searchlight crews were at the manned-and-ready position. At 3:05, San Diego was given the red-alert warning, and radio communication between the two cities stopped five minutes later. The Los Angeles air raid was on.

Anti-aircraft guns from the IV Interceptor Command opened fire at 3:16 a.m., fired steadily until 3:36, stopped, then resumed at 4:05 for another 10 minutes. During their 30-minute fusillade, the command’s guns hurled 1,440 rounds of 3-inch and 37mm ammunition into the night sky above Los Angeles. Not counting unofficial shots, 48 shells were fired per minute. And almost 10 tons of expended ammunition fell somewhere on the city during the supposed raid.

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.’ Some of the 3-inch anti-aircraft shells had failed to explode in the air and hurtled back to earth.

Young Mary Perez and her two brothers, walking through a familiar vacant lot on the way to school the next morning near Hawthorne, noticed two small craters that had not been there the day before. In just five minutes the two boys picked up more than a dozen jagged pieces of shrapnel and the detonators from two faulty 3-inch anti-aircraft shells that exploded when they hit the ground less than 100 yards from the Perez home.

At the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Landis a single faulty 3-inch shell blew up only when it hit the concrete driveway in front of the garage. When the shooting started, Mrs. Landis woke up her sister, Blanch Sedgwick, and 14-year-old niece, Josie, who were sleeping together in the guest bedroom, telling them to ‘come see what was happening.’ Seconds later the anti-aircraft shell hit the driveway, blowing out the windows of the garage and sending deadly chunks of shrapnel into the house–luckily just missing Sedgwick and her daughter. ‘When we went back into the bedroom,’ said Mrs. Landis, ‘we found one fragment of shell had cut clear through the blanket and mattress where my sister and niece were sleeping just moments before.’

A second shell exploded between two houses just east of the Landis home. Two pieces of jagged hot metal were blasted into the bedroom occupied by Selas Sakellaris’ son, shattering the doorframe and striking the bed occupied by the boy. A third fragment crashed through the window of his daughter’s bedroom, and a fourth ripped through the side of the garage, blowing out a tire on the family car.

At Fred Watson’s home in Santa Monica a shell hit the concrete driveway and, according to Mrs. Watson, ‘made a thunderous rumble, a terrific jar, and sounded like the screeching of a thousand wild animals’ before burying itself 3 feet underground.

The next morning the Army had the entire street roped off, with a large sign at both ends warning ‘UNEXPLODED BOMB.’ After explosives expert Sergeant C.M. Weathers dug up the unexploded shell, a newspaper photographer asked, ‘Could you dust it off a little bit so I can take a picture?’ ‘Would you like us to put a little sandpaper on it and blow us all to hell?’ asked Weathers. ‘Never mind,’ said the photographer as he backed away, ‘that’ll do just fine.’

Even when the anti-aircraft shells went off where they were supposed to, fragments of various sizes fell all over the city, including at shipyards and aircraft plants where late-night shifts were at work. According to the Los Angeles Examiner, 5,000 workers in the Calship Yard in San Pedro’scrambled to safety…when a sudden rain of anti-aircraft shell fragments showered down over the yards.’

Shipyard worker James Mason said that when the fragments started falling ‘we ducked for shelter in the hulls of ships, 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.’

At the North American Aviation plant in Inglewood, several workers who had gone outside to watch the spectacle had taken refuge under the wings of one of the many B-25s lining the field outside the factory. Some did not remain there long, however, as the sound of shrapnel fragments peppering the wings of the planes drove them back inside. The next morning several holes were found in the wings and fuselages of some of the planes where larger pieces of shrapnel had gone clear through their aluminum skins.

The air raid led to many unfortunate and unusual incidents. Of the more than 100 people arrested for various blackout-related violations, many were Japanese-Americans, who just days before had learned of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 that called for their internment. In all, more than 30 were hauled in for everything from a lighted-up radio dial to allegedly signaling to enemy planes. In the beach city of Venice, the FBI brought in a 51-year-old Japanese mother and her two sons when, according to a local paper, a citizen ‘notified officers [that] he had seen lights in [their] home blinking suspiciously.’ Thomas Asahi, a 25-year-old, was arrested in the Japanese-American community of Gardena for flashing his car lights ‘in a signaling manner.’ He said he was testing to see if the car was equipped for night driving. His sentence was 90 days in jail or a $300 fine. Asahi took the 90 days. In all, 20 Japanese-Americans were arrested in Gardena for driving during the blackout. A Los Angeles Examiner story, under headline ‘Flare Signals Rise in Jap Area During Shelling,’ reported that 12 were arrested for allegedly releasing paper balloons that later burst into flames, becoming flares that ‘fell in rotations of 3 white and 3 red’ as they descended.

Eight people died during the raid, three of heart attacks, the others in accidents related to the blackout. Sixty-year-old California State Guard Sergeant Henry B. Ayers died of a heart attack at the wheel of the Army truck he was driving while hauling ammunition at the height of the barrage.

Not only Japanese-Americans were arrested. Allen Lewanger was pulled over by a Beverly Hills police officer for driving with his headlights on. After being told it was illegal to drive, let alone with headlights on, during a blackout, Lewanger still refused to comply. He told the officer he could ‘Go to hell’ and was promptly arrested. A second arrest came when police detained a man who claimed that he had thrown a garbage can through the window of Mandel’s Jewelry Store because a light was shining in the display window. A third arrest came when a 21-year-old aircraft worker earned a dubious distinction–he became the first person arrested for violation of blackout regulations when he rear-ended an air raid warden’s car while driving illegally during the blackout.

As soon as the guns fell silent, people began to discuss what had happened and what they had seen. By far the most controversial topic of debate was the exact number of planes that had flown over the city. In its morning edition, the Los Angeles Examiner said, ‘The numbers reported by civilian witnesses [were] as high as 50.’ Peter Jenkins of the Examiner‘s editorial staff wrote that he clearly saw ‘the `V’ formation of about 25 silvery planes overhead moving slowly across the sky toward Long Beach, apparently in search of the aircraft plants located there.’ He added, ‘About 10 minutes later, after the first barrage, a second flight of planes coming from the Santa Monica Mountains also were picked up by the searchlights.’ Jean Fison in Long Beach said she saw 12 planes drop flares that burned out around 3,000 feet. Some people in Torrance said they saw as many as 15 planes in formation; others reported ‘clouds of planes.’

Reports from the military, like those from civilian sources, also varied widely. An unidentified coast artillery colonel said his battery spotted ‘about 25 planes flying at 12,000 feet.’ The IV Interceptor Command notified the commanding officer at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro that’some 20 or 30 unidentified planes were flying in the direction of the aircraft plants in and around Los Angeles.’ Records show that one of the batteries at Fort MacArthur fired 15 rounds at a single plane that came over, ‘but it drew out of range rapidly and fire was discontinued.’ Sergeant John Ziesler of the 122nd Coast Artillery Regiment, guarding a Consolidated-Vultee aircraft plant in Downey, said his battery spotted three or four planes flying so high that, despite increasing the fuze setting on their 3-inch shells to infinity, they still exploded 10,000 yards below the aircraft. At 3:28 a.m. Battery G, 78th Coast Artillery Regiment, located in Long Beach, reported 25 to 30 heavy bombers over the Douglas Aircraft plant. Thirty-one minutes later, the same battery reported 15 more planes approaching the plant, at which they fired 246 3-inch shells until the targets disappeared out to sea. Six minutes later, a second flight of 15 planes was reported heading for Douglas, but were too high for the 3-inch guns to reach. At 4:55, the 37th Coast Artillery headquarters in downtown Los Angeles was told that the Douglas plant at Long Beach ‘had been bombed but suffered no hits.’

The official report from the commanding general, Southern California Sector, Fort MacArthur, said that at 2:35 a.m. an anti-aircraft detachment in Santa Fe Springs reported’seeing 14 planes in searchlight beams flying south,’ and that this was confirmed at 3:28 by a searchlight battery at Artesia that reported seeing ’14 or 15 planes in searchlight beams flying west.’ The report concluded that accounts from officers, enlisted men and civilians ‘tend to establish the fact that unidentified planes were over the Los Angeles area from approximately 2:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m.’ A second report claimed that the number of planes, although unconfirmed, was ’25 or 30 bombers,’ and that parachute flares were ‘dropped over Santa Monica at 0405, and orange flares [over] Catalina Island, [but] no confirmed reports of any bombs dropped.’ After sifting through all the reports and miscellaneous information, Army authorities in Los Angeles settled on 15 as the official count of enemy planes that had appeared overhead. California Congressman William Johnson told his constituents, ‘I have checked carefully with War and Navy Departments concerning air raid Wednesday morning. Coastal defense in hands of Army and Navy reports their lookouts sighted planes, probably 15 in number, flying at slow speed from 9,000 to 18,000 feet.’

Later that day, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson issued his own statement confirming the 15 planes. Stimson was smart enough to leave himself an out by saying that planes were probably over Los Angeles, and that as many as 15 may have been involved. Nevertheless, headlines in most newspapers carried the words ‘Stimson Says 15 Planes Over L.A.’

The only place that 15 planes could have come from was an aircraft carrier. A thorough search of the waters off the coast, however, revealed nothing. When confronted with this technical detail, Stimson asserted that the planes may have been ‘enemy agents flying commercial planes to demoralize civilians, disclose anti-aircraft positions and the effectiveness of blackouts.’ This version of events had the added benefit of explaining why no bombs were dropped.

No sooner had Stimson come out with the Army’s statement than Navy Secretary Frank Knox, when asked about the raid, contradicted his opposite number. ‘There were no planes over Los Angeles last night,’ he said; the whole thing was ‘a false alarm.’

Knox’s contradiction stirred up a hornet’s nest. It started in Los Angeles, when Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz and Harold W. Kennedy of Los Angeles County’s Civil Defense authority issued a statement declaring, ‘We jointly decry the very great damage done to civilian defense morale by the reputed statement of Secretary of the Navy Knox that today’s air raid was a ‘false alarm.” Two days later, headlines reading ‘Raid Inquiries Demanded by Congress’ and ‘Questioning of Knox and Stimson Urged in Los Angeles Alert’ appeared in the Los Angeles Times, followed by the statement, ‘Reverberations from the…unclarified air raid alarm at Los Angeles early Wednesday morning continued today in the Senate and House chambers, with action shaping up for at least two Congressional inquiries into the affair.’

The House Military Affairs Committee called Stimson and Knox in for questioning. Representative Harry Englebright of the Special Senate and House Defense Committee urged that the two departments ‘explain why the secretary of war continues to tell the country the raid was real, while the secretary of the Navy hasn’t withdrawn his inference that it was `phony.” Stimson got himself off the hook by repeating that he had said unidentified planes were probably over the city, and as many as 15 planes may have been involved and that enemy agents might have flown them. In reference to his no planes over L.A. statement, Knox claimed he was referring to them as enemy planes, and that no Japanese planes were found after a wide reconnaissance later that morning.

With all the reported sightings from both military and civilian sources, it is difficult to believe that there was nothing in the sky over Los Angeles that night. There is little doubt that thousands of people believed they had seen enemy aircraft. In the years since the raid, however, only two things have been definitely determined about the alleged enemy aircraft that evening: First, if there were any planes, they were not Japanese; and second, no one in the 60 years since the raid has come forward and said, ‘Yes, there were planes up there that night, and I ought to know because I was flying one of them.’

If there were no Japanese aircraft overhead that evening, the question remains as to what caused such an extreme reaction by citizens and soldiers. The answer can probably be found in the Army’s statement that the suspicious aircraft ‘flew very slowly while going from 9,000 to 18,000 feet when it disappeared,’ and that it might have been a blimp.

Compounding the confusion were meteorological balloons sent up that night by the 203rd Coast Artillery Regiment. This National Guard anti-aircraft unit from Missouri had been activated in September 1940. Seventeen days after Pearl Harbor, the 203rd arrived in California and was assigned to guard the Douglas Aircraft plant in Santa Monica against anticipated enemy air attacks.

With 3-inch guns ranging as high as 25,000 feet, it was necessary to keep anti-aircraft gunners up to date on current wind conditions in order to make any adjustments before any shooting started. This information was gathered periodically by releasing meteorological balloons and then tracking them with a theodolite, an instrument designed to compute the velocity and direction of the wind. The 4-foot-diameter balloons were released by each of the dozen or so anti-aircraft regiments around the Los Angeles area every six hours.

At 3 a.m. on the morning of the raid, the 203rd launched two balloons, one from its headquarters on the Sawtelle Veterans Hospital grounds in Westwood and the other from Battery D, located on the Douglas Aircraft plant site in Santa Monica. So that the balloons could be tracked at night, a candle placed inside a simple highball glass was suspended under each balloon, whose silver color would reflect the light enough to be tracked to heights usually well above 25,000 feet. Lieutenant Melvin Timm, officer in charge of Battery D’s meteorological operations, ordered his balloon launched and had notified the filter room–also known as the Flower Street Control Center, where all planes, identified or otherwise, were tracked on a giant, flat table map–of its departure, when ‘all hell broke loose.’

By the time Timm released his balloon, the city had been under red-alert conditions for more than half an hour; searchlights were on and probing the sky; and anti-aircraft gunners, fingers on their triggers, were nervously following the searchlight beams in hopes of spotting the anticipated enemy planes. It was at this time that Sergeant George Holmes, who had launched Battery D’s balloon, called Timm, saying he was no longer able to track it, that someone was shooting at it.

‘I went over and couldn’t follow it either,’ said Timm. ‘A shell would explode near it and it would blow far enough so it wasn’t visible on the scope.’

At regimental headquarters they were having the same problem. The officer in charge of the meteorological operations at Sawtelle, Lieutenant John E. Moore, recalled: ‘As soon as [their] balloon attained altitude and was carried up the coast by the wind, searchlights came on, picked up the balloon and shortly thereafter, 3-inch anti-aircraft guns began firing. Corporal John O’Connell, in charge of tracking the balloon, ran to me and reported, `Lieutenant, they’re firing at my balloon!’ I went to the theodolite to verify his report and, sure enough, bursts of AA fire were exploding all around it causing it to bounce and dance all over the sky. I immediately reported to our regimental commanding officer, Colonel Ray Watson, that the guns were firing at our balloon and that there were no aircraft in sight.’

Watson sent out the order that none of the 203rd’s 3-inch guns were to fire, then notified the Flower Street Control Room of what was happening. Astonishingly, the order came back from Flower Street to shoot down the balloon.

According to Moore, ‘Our balloon continued up the coast, and the guns continued firing into the night. The next day the newspapers proclaimed `Japs Bomb Los Angeles.”

The fact that the 203rd, sitting directly in the flight path of the ‘enemy’ planes as they crossed the coast, did not fire a shot upset IV Interceptor Command officers. Timm remembered a staff officer from the Fourth coming in and jumping all over Battery D’s commander for not firing. ‘When Captain Harris gave him my story,’ said Timm, ‘I was summoned. 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.’

For Watson, it was a lot worse. He was called on the carpet for ordering the entire regiment to ‘hold their fire because he said he knew a meteorological balloon when he saw one, and they weren’t going to shoot.’ Sergeant Orville Hayward, who accompanied Watson to headquarters that day, remembered, ‘Ray was simply relieved of command, with two options: be reassigned to a desk with some other outfit, or retire. He chose to retire.’

Regardless of what was or was not overhead, once the shooting started nobody seemed to care. Whenever and wherever searchlights stopped probing and focused on something, orange-colored bursts of exploding anti-aircraft shells quickly filled the sky around it. At least one unit, the 211th Coast Artillery Regiment, admitted that although its members did not see any planes, they shot anyway.

First Sergeant Leon Earnest from the 203rd observed that as the searchlights followed the targets down the coast and the big guns opened up, ‘the smaller ones, unable to stand the strain, also opened up.’ Sergeant John Ziesler, with the 122nd Coast Artillery in Downey, said that as soon as his battery went into action everyone went crazy: ‘Guys were seen firing .45 pistols, rifles, submachine guns; even the 37mm guns from the roof of the aircraft plant were firing. You could hear the expended ordnance landing all around.’

Even the Navy got involved. At the Consolidated shipyard in San Pedro, the 3-inch anti-aircraft guns from a dry-docked destroyer also sent up several hundred pounds of steel into the skies over Los Angeles.

Although nobody from the Fourth ever came forward to admit that, possibly, the ‘raid’ was more the result of overreaction by its men than marauding Japanese aircraft, it is almost certain that the excitement that evening stemmed from a misread radar contact that placed the city on a red alert, and underexperienced and overanxious anti-aircraft gunners who chose to shoot first and ask questions later when the balloons began floating over the city. It is fortunate indeed that casualties from the subsequent shower of steel falling on the city were so light.

While it is easy to look back and laugh at the excitability of Los Angeles’ defenders, their reaction to the possibility of an enemy air attack reflects the anxiety that gripped much of the West Coast in the months after Pearl Harbor.

This article was written by Donald J. Young and originally published in the September 2003 issue of Word War II.

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