Saucers, bathtubs, hubcaps, stars;
Russian space ships, men from
Bananas, headlights, silver
Hallucinations or weather
Close encounters of the strangest kind are, of course, a fact of life in Los Angeles. So, it comes as no surprise that the area was an epicenter for one of the late 20th century's genuinely eccentric preoccupations: unidentified flying objects.
In fact, a few days after the region endured one of its most mysterious wartime traumas--the so-called "Battle of Los Angeles"--UFO enthusiasts were suggesting that extraterrestrial tourists, rather than Japanese aviators, had flown across the basin's sky early on the dark morning of Feb. 25, 1942.
Memories of Pearl Harbor were fresh, and just two days after a Japanese submarine surfaced and shot 16 shells at an oil field 12 miles west of Santa Barbara, radar stations picked up an unidentified object over Santa Monica Bay at 2:25 a.m. The region's antiaircraft batteries--the largest at Ft. MacArthur--went fully into action, blindly firing nearly 1,500 rounds into the suddenly searchlighted skies.
As The Times wrote the next day: "At 5 a.m. the police reported that an airplane had been shot down near 185th Street and Vermont Avenue. Details were not available. . . ." Five persons died in the "air raid," three in car crashes and two from heart attacks.
To this day the real story of the "Battle of Los Angeles" remains unknown. The Japanese deny that their warplanes ever flew over Los Angeles; official U.S. wartime records are inconclusive. Although some residents later claimed that they had indeed seen a globular or triangular craft in the sky, military officials blamed the whole thing on jittery nerves and a wayward meteorological balloon. No bombs were dropped or shots fired from the air.
And there was more to come:
Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, Los Angeles was a hotbed of UFO sightings. In fact, former Times editor DeWayne B. "Doc" Johnson, now retired, was a UCLA student at the time, writing his unpublished 1950 thesis: "Flying Saucers: Fact or Fiction?" which chronicled who saw what, where and when from 1947 to 1950.
Johnson's work is a treasure trove of period detail, linking local UFO sightings to others around the world.
On July 8, 1947, for example, Lt. Joseph C. McHenry, two sergeants and a stenographer at Muroc Dry Lake, now Edwards Air Force Base, reported seeing "two silver objects of either spherical or disk-like shape, moving about 300 mph at approximately 8,000 feet." More officers gathered as a third object came into sight. A test pilot had reported seeing a roundish object at about 12,000 feet the day before.
The base's initial news release said, "The many rumors regarding the flying discs became a reality today." An hour later, Brig. Gen. Roger Ramey told a different story about the objects being "of some sort of tinfoil."
A magazine article pointed out, "Muroc is the Air Force's most hush-hush sanctum, where the Air Force and Navy test their secret supersonic models, so it's not a place where you would expect personnel to get unduly excited by strange things in the sky."
Although the Air Force attributed 96% of all UFO sightings to the high-altitude U-2 and SR-71 super-secret U.S. spy planes, it took care not to reveal that to the public. Concern during the Cold War that the Soviets might try to use UFO sightings to touch off mass hysteria and panic in the U.S. prompted the Air Force and other agencies to downplay the issue and concoct cover stories for unexplained sightings, according to a 1997 CIA journal.
On March 12, 1950, amateur photographer and medical assistant Bette Malles snapped a photo of "something shining" flying over a Hawthorne field. An artist's drawing printed in The Times and taken from the unretouched negative showed that the center part of the object was "composed of a luminous oblong doughnut."
Other unpublished 1950 sightings, reported in Johnson's thesis, included one by Frank E. Taylor, a producer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who was driving home with his wife from Pasadena when they said they witnessed three revolving disks traveling at great speed. The next day, a group at Caltech reported seeing the same objects; Johnson himself later witnessed, along with a friend, a UFO over the Arroyo Seco during daylight hours that he said defied the laws of physics.
In 1956, 15-year-old Michael Savage, son of a San Bernardino surgeon, took a picture of a mysterious flying object that he said hovered near his house for 30 seconds; those photos, too, made the paper.
Just as the phenomenon was beginning to die out, Hollywood added its own inimitable touch to the UFO craze.
In January 1957, actress Gloria Swanson and a group of friends heard that a spaceship had landed in the Hollywood Hills. So, off they trekked through mud and dark of night to an area off Lakeridge Road. (History does not record what they had been consuming before they set out.) In a shallow hole at the end of their hike, they found a 12-foot-diameter disk, which purportedly had knocked down a lamppost upon landing. The cockpit seats were upholstered in coral Leatherette, and two electrical cords dangled to the wooden flooring.
Amazed by their find, they called The Times.
After a careful inspection, Times aviation writer Dewey Linz not only found that the "spacecraft" was lacking an engine and controls, but--after interviewing neighbors--learned that it was a prop that had been discarded after a documentary was filmed on the site.
Today, the Mutual UFO Network, one of several private organizations that keep track of such information, receives more than 300 reports a year of UFO sightings nationwide that cannot be explained.
UFOs have survived jokes, scientific ridicule and bad movies, and continue to maintain a firm grip on the imagination of skeptics and believers alike.