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During WWII, the City Braced for a Japanese Invasion

Times Staff Writer

A shallow bluff-top trench covered with ice plant overlooks the coastline and marks the spot where infantrymen once guarded Los Angeles Harbor against a Japanese invasion. Ft. MacArthur, now the centerpiece of Angels Gate Park, was the “Guardian of Los Angeles,” the coast’s first line of defense from 1914 through 1982.

More than half a century ago, these peaceful hills bristled with 30,000 soldiers, 5,000 feet of tunnels, gun crews, machine-gunners and aircraft spotters. The fort, one of nine along the California coast, was named for Civil War hero Lt. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, father of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Today, it’s a reminder of World War II’s profound effect on the Pacific Coast, as well as evidence that today’s anxieties about terrorism are nothing new. Back then, people on this side of the ocean lived in fear. Newspaper stories asked readers to heed blackouts, prepare for air raids and learn to extinguish incendiary bombs.

Before Pearl Harbor, no one dreamed that Ft. MacArthur -- the only fort in the nation with 14-inch disappearing gun batteries -- would actually be called upon to defend the harbor.

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But after Dec. 7, 1941, nine Japanese submarines moved east to target merchant ships off the Pacific Coast.

Just 13 days after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese sub Nishino torpedoed and sank the tanker Emidio off the coast of Eureka, Calif., killing five seamen.

Three days later, the 440-foot tanker Montebello was torpedoed by the Matsummura off the coast of Cambria. The tanker went down in about 900 feet of water with its cargo -- 75,000 barrels of crude oil. As the crew escaped in lifeboats, the submarine surfaced and opened fire with its deck gun. Miraculously, all 38 of the Montebello crew members survived.

Today, the Montebello sits upright on the southern edge of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, its millions of gallons of oil intact.

On Christmas Eve 1941, soldiers at Ft. MacArthur watched in disbelief as a torpedo struck the lumber freighter Absaroka five miles offshore. Badly damaged, the ship limped into the harbor with one of its sailors dead.

Military aircraft scrambled to intercept the raider, and the next day headlines screamed: “Army Flyer Sinks Coast Raider. Air Filled With Debris as Nippon Submarine Is Destroyed.”

There was debris, all right, but it turned out to be the remains of the fishing barge Kohala, a victim of American warplanes’ friendly fire.

Arming the Pier

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Ed Ries watched the torpedo strike from the deck of a Navy minesweeper off San Pedro. Afterward, “although the sub was long gone, fear spread and on Christmas Day soldiers from Ft. MacArthur set up field artillery and machine guns at the end of the Redondo pier,” he said in an interview from San Diego.

Over the next few days, six other tankers were attacked off the California and Oregon coasts, but escaped with little or no damage.

Other ships along the West Coast would be sunk by Japanese submarines in the coming months, and at least eight more lives would be lost. The Japanese would also invade Kiska and Attu in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in June 1942, killing 38 people and wounding 28 others -- the first time invaders had captured U.S. territory since the War of 1812. It took U.S. forces several weeks and 500 lives to retake the islands a few months later. Nearly all 2,350 of the Japanese trying to hold the islands died.

The first attack on the U.S. mainland came Feb. 23, 1942, in the midst of one of President Roosevelt’s fireside chats. A Japanese submarine rose out of the sea at Goleta, 12 miles north of Santa Barbara, fired 13 shells at the Ellwood oil field and caused $500 in damage. Oil field supervisors handed out pitchforks and told workers to defend the beach.

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Although no one was hurt, the enemy’s proximity had a profound psychological effect on coast dwellers and confirmed public fears that Japan was capable of bringing war to America’s doorstep.

Two days later, in the predawn darkness, the worst fears seemed to be coming true. The dreaded five-blast signal of an impending attack was sounded along the Southern California coast. Radar had detected an unidentified object that was widely believed to herald a Japanese air raid, triggering a five-hour blackout.

Searchlights pierced the sky and anti-aircraft guns yammered for an hour, loosing 1,430 shells in what became known as the “Battle of Los Angeles.” The noise awakened thousands who either hid under their beds or switched on their lights and rushed outside.

Air raid wardens desperately tried to enforce the blackout. In Pasadena, a warden broke his hip when he fell from a retaining wall while urging occupants of an apartment house to shut off their lights. Another warden gashed his leg kicking out the window of a Hollywood store, and another sprained his ankle jumping over a Hollywood fence. Los Angeles resident Eve Clayton was arrested for leaving her lights on while intoxicated.

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‘Blackout Babies’

But life continued. Hospitals reported that the stork delivered 14 babies while the guns roared. The new arrivals were dubbed “blackout babies.”

A barrage of bullets came from regular citizens as well as the Home Guard militia, which opened fire from atop Patriotic Hall in Los Angeles. In the melee, a round hit a small plane that crashed near 185th Street and Vermont Avenue, injuring the pilot.

Shell fragments fell from the sky, littering the streets and damaging a number of homes and buildings. An unexploded shell crashed through the kitchen roof of Dr. F.W. Stewart in Long Beach. He was unhurt. Another shell cut a good-sized divot from a golf course. The sheriff arrested 20 Japanese Americans, accusing them of firing flares from their homes.

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Five deaths -- three in traffic accidents, two the result of heart attacks -- were attributed to the blackout.

As it turned out, there had been no enemy aircraft over Los Angeles. The Army called the incident a case of the jitters.

But real Japanese forays continued. On Sept. 9, 1942, two pilots catapulted in their seaplane off the 30-foot deck of a Japanese submarine and dropped two incendiary bombs near the coastal town of Brookings, Ore. The idea was to start forest fires that would spread to the cities, causing panic, but that didn’t happen.

On May 21, 1944, the San Pedro-bound tanker Neches hit a Japanese mine that was believed to have drifted from somewhere in the South Pacific to 60 miles off the San Pedro coast, according to Steve Lawson, a researcher with California Wreck Divers. The tanker limped into the harbor with a 15-by-22-foot hole in its bow, but no one was hurt.

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In 1945, about 355 unmanned balloon bombs crafted of durable rice paper reached U.S. territory via the jet stream. The devices, 70 feet high and 30 feet in diameter, were intended to cause panic and start forest fires. They, too, failed, but there were casualties: Six picnickers in Bly, Ore., died when one of them touched the fallen device and it exploded.

A rare balloon bomb with a rubber coating and radio transmitter was found 66 miles off San Pedro. Another blasted a crater in the dry bed of the Santa Clara River near Saticoy in Ventura County. An entire balloon was found in Moorpark, its untriggered incendiary bombs intact.

Hundreds of balloon bombs and remnants were found throughout the United States, but the attacks weren’t revealed at the time. The media cooperated with the government to prevent the Japanese from knowing whether their unassuming weapons had made it to American shores.

Patriotic Japanese schoolchildren had crafted more than 10,000 balloons as part of the war effort. In 1987, several tried to atone. They folded 1,000 paper cranes, a Japanese symbol of healing and peace, and sent them to the families of the Oregon picnickers. An excerpt from one of the accompanying letters:

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“We participated in the building of weapons used to kill people without understanding much beyond the knowledge that America was our adversary in a war. To think that the weapons we made took your lives as you were out on a picnic! We were overwhelmed with deep sorrow.”

Duty Discharged

When peace came in 1945, Ft. MacArthur became a separation center where more than 150,000 soldiers received discharge papers.

During the Cold War, Ft. MacArthur was the headquarters for Nike Missile site bases that were up to 70 miles away. The fort included a cemetery for the dogs that helped guard the sprawling bases.

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Today, part of the fort is submerged under Cabrillo Marina, but most vestiges remain. Old barracks are used as classrooms for the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Marine Mammal Care Center. Former Army and Navy officers’ mansion-like houses and administration buildings belong to the Air Force. And the artillery bunker that houses the 20-acre Ft. MacArthur Military Museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Historic battles are re-created and weapons of war are on display at the museum, but the big guns are gone -- turned to scrap when airplanes and missiles rendered them obsolete.

Much of the fort was deeded to the city of Los Angeles under the federal Lands to Parks program in the mid-1970s, but a few soldiers remained until 1982.


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