We have duly celebrated the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor; I don’t want to let us overlook the 50th anniversary of another historic event in World War II.
It was on the night of Feb. 25, 1942, that Los Angeles experienced the Great Los Angeles Air Raid. It was a night when everyone’s fears apparently were realized--Japan had brought the war to mainland America, and Los Angeles was the target.
(I have previously reported on this splendid action, and the following is a revision of that account.)
The Great Air Raid began at 2:25 a.m. on that clear moonlit night when the U.S. Army announced the approach of hostile aircraft, and the city’s air raid warning system went into action for the first time in the war.
Suddenly, the night was torn by sirens. Searchlights swept the sky. Gun crews at army posts along the coastline began pumping ack-ack into the moonlight. (In the entire episode, 1,433 rounds would be fired.)
Thousands of volunteer air-raid wardens tumbled from their beds and grabbed their boots and helmets--those who had helmets--and rushed into the night. Tens of thousands of citizens, awakened by the screech of sirens and the popping of shells, jumped out of bed and, heedless of blackout regulations, began snapping on lights. It was pandemonium.
The Times did not fail the moment. At daylight it was on the street with a dramatic account of that gaudy night: “Roaring out of a brilliant moonlit western sky, foreign aircraft flying both large formations and singly flew over Southern California early today and drew heavy barrages of antiaircraft fire--the first ever to sound over United States continental soil against an enemy invader. . . . “
But the second paragraph was a puzzling anticlimax: “No bombs were reported dropped.” One would think that the rewrite man who wrote that story would have wondered at the lack of bombs. Why were those enemy aircraft flying over singly and in formation if not to drop bombs? But no doubt that writer was caught up in the drama of the hour, like everyone else, and was merely striving for words to do it justice.
The story did go on to say that an airplane had been reported shot down near 158th Street and Vermont Avenue, though details were not available. (Neither, as it turned out later, was the airplane.)
Although no bombs were dropped, the city did not escape its baptism of fire without casualties, including five fatalities. Three residents were killed in automobile accidents as cars dashed wildly about in the blackout. Two others died of heart attacks.
Several persons were injured hurrying to their various posts. A radio announcer ran into an awning and suffered a gash over one eye. A police officer kicked in the window of a lighted Hollywood store and cut his right leg.
The toll among air-raid wardens was especially high. (They were said to have acted with valor throughout.) One fell from a wall while looking into a lighted apartment and broke a leg. Another jumped a 3-foot fence to reach a lighted house and sprained an ankle. Another fell down his own front stairs and broke an arm.
There was scattered structural damage caused by antiaircraft shells that failed to explode in air but did so when they struck the ground, demolishing a garage here, a patio there, and blowing out a tire on a parked automobile.
Exultation was in the air. The city had met its first taste of war with valor. It was exhilarating. But exultation turned to embarrassment the next day when the Secretary of the Navy said there had been no air raid. No enemy planes. It was just a case of jitters.
Embarrassment turned to outrage. The army was accused of shooting up an empty sky. The sheriff was particularly embarrassed. He had valiantly helped the FBI round up several Japanese nurserymen and gardeners who were supposedly caught in the act of signaling the enemy aviators.
The Secretary of War tried to save face by saying that while there were no enemy aircraft in the air, it was believed that 15 commercial planes flown by “enemy agents” had crossed the city. Though no one believed this gross canard, most agreed with the secretary that “it is better to be too alert than not alert enough.”
At war’s end, an Army document explained what had happened: (1) numerous weather balloons had been released over the area that night. They carried lights for tracking purposes, and these “lighted balloons” were mistaken for enemy aircraft; (2) shell bursts illuminated by searchlights were mistaken by ground crews for enemy aircraft.
The Japanese, after the war, declared that they had flown no airplanes over Los Angeles on that date. All the same, it was a glorious night, and I commend its memory to those who think Los Angeles has no history.