It began late on February 24, 1942, with the sound of air raid sirens going off, followed by orders for a total blackout and the call for thousands of air raid wardens to get to their posts. Then, sometime around 3 a.m., the anti-aircraft guns,12 pounders, began shelling and continued to fire intermittently until after 4. At 7:21 a.m. the all clear was sounded.
The Battle of Los Angeles was over.
When the Secretary of the Army held a press conference later the same day and called it ‘a false alarm,’ the rumors began to spread exponentially. The press went wild. (It can still be found in some catalogues of unexplained UFO sightings.) A Santa Monica politician called for an investigation and sometime around 1983 a report appeared that pronounced the most likely cause: weather balloons. Radar picked them up, everyone went on general alert and somebody gave the order to fire.
But before we judge the war-frenzied residents of L.A. too harshly, we should probably pause and remember that it was, after all, not even three months since the bombing of Pearl Harbor – and only the day before, February 23, the town of Ellwood just up the coast on the outskirts of Santa Barbara had been attacked by a Japanese submarine.
Ellwood was not so much a town as it was an oil refinery and the sub, equipped with only one gun, had fired in its general direction for about twenty minutes before retreating. Very little damage was done, but enemy submarines off the west coast were clearly not a figment of anyone’s imagination.
The attack on Ellwood was one of the two assaults on the western side of the US mainland during WWII; the other was a more successful attack on the coast of Oregon. Anyway, it’s understandable that Angelenos might be a little jittery.
One week after the attack on Ellwood, FDR issued the famous Executive Order 9066 and the round-up of Japanese-Americans began.
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Many happy returns to Steve Jobs, who celebrates his 56th birthday today. He shares the day with Dr. Jocelyn Bell, discoverer of the pulsar, and Winslow Homer.