The Battle of Los Angeles – Santa Monica/Culver City
With Pearl Harbor fresh in the nation’s mind, and war jitters at a fever pitch, Los Angelenos were jarred out of their comfy beds early on the morning of February 25, 1942 by the sound of air raid sirens and anti-aircraft fire. It was the first time in history that an airborne enemy had been engaged in the continental U.S., but officials and civilian witnesses were not entirely sure about what they had seen beginning at about 2 :15 AM. Defense batteries opened up from their bases in Inglewood and Santa Monica and other south bay locations that were
never pinpointed in daily papers, since “loose lips sink ships.” Shrapnel and a few unexploded shells fell from the skies, smashing into sidewalks, driveways and even a few homes. Miraculously, there were only five deaths reported, and those were due to traffic accidents and a couple of heart attacks.
The term “flying saucer” would not be invented until more than five years in the future, when Kenneth Arnold would see a group of objects from his plane in Washington State and described their movement as “like a saucer skipped across water.” Although newspapers continually referred to the invaders as “planes” or possibly “blimps” no one could agree on their size or even the number of targets. Reports ranged from one object to perhaps fifty. At 2:25, a general blackout was ordered and lights began going off from northern L.A. down to the Mexican border. Though residents were asked to stay indoors, many could not resist the free show and crowded out onto sidewalks and balconies. There was even a “blackout murder” as one killer took advantage of the darkness to beat a 40 year-old woman to death in a rooming house.
Army observers looking at the celestial fracas through binoculars from atop a tower in Culver City thought they saw a group of silvery objects which they assumed were airplanes. All witnesses agreed that the things came in from the northwest (probably from the ocean) near Santa Monica and moved southwest in a leisurely fashion until they disappeared somewhere south of Long Beach. Because all lights in the city had been turned off, stars shined on the moonless night with an intensity most had never seen.
Just before the firing started, a woman identified only as “Katie” said that she received a call from the local air raid warden at her home near Santa Monica, telling her to look out the window and see if she could report anything. “It was huge! It was just enormous! And it was practically right over my house. I had never seen anything like it in my life!” she said. “It was just hovering there in the sky and hardly moving at all. It was a lovely pale orange and about the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. I could see it perfectly because it was very close. It was big!”
When the “attack” began, powerful searchlights lit up the early morning sky, converging on the object (or group of objects) so that the gun batteries could get a good bead on the thing. The UFO never changed direction or speed, even with the combined firing of hundreds of anti-aircraft guns, many of which scored direct hits. The whole thing lasted for about a half-hour, as the “mystery planes” took their sweet time traveling 20 or so miles across the night sky.
Optical physicist Bruce Maccabee performed a detailed analysis of one of the dramatic original negatives from the Los Angeles Times. Taking into account the size of the searchlight beams, the angle of incidence from the ground, and reported altitude of the target, he estimated that the UFO was measured anywhere from 100 to 300 feet from end-to-end.2 The strange thing about contemporary news accounts is the glaring lack of any concrete guess as to what exactly was floating over a metropolis of 3 million people that night.
William Randolph Hearst’s jingoistic and sensationalized L.A. Herald Express summed everything up with section featuring the glaring headline: “Was It A Raid?”
An analysis of the first report on the firing in the Los Angeles area early today fails to give convincing proof that any enemy planes were over Los Angeles during the disturbance. It is significant that “no bombs were dropped and no planes were shot down.” It may be also stated that persons equipped with powerful glasses failed to discern a plane or planes at the apex of the searchlight beams where many people feel sure they saw a moving object or objects under the fire of our batteries. If a moving plane or object was caught in the light beams, it seemed to move too slowly across the sky to have the speed of a modern airplane, such as our own planes which flash across the sky so rapidly. This newspaper, at this time, is unwilling to hazard even a guess on exactly what transpired in the skies above Los Angeles last night, but certainly the city was given a splendid practical lesson on what to do in case of attack.