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Great L.A. Air Raid mystery a reason to party

Searchlights illuminate the sky on the night of February 25, 1942 in an event that has become known as The Great L.A. Air Raid. Each year, the Fort MacArthur Museum celebrates one of the most fascinating and controversial events in Los Angeles History by recreating the WWII air raid complete with a big band and a historical re-enactment.
Searchlights illuminate the sky on the night of February 25, 1942 in an event that has become known as The Great L.A. Air Raid. Each year, the Fort MacArthur Museum celebrates one of the most fascinating and controversial events in Los Angeles History by recreating the WWII air raid complete with a big band and a historical re-enactment.
(Los Angeles Times)

Pat Carrell was 3 years old and living with her parents and baby brother in Hawthorne when she was awakened by the sound of booming antiaircraft guns in the morning hours of Feb. 25, 1942. Less than three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the West Coast was on edge. Carrell remembers the shades being drawn, the fear in her parents’ eyes, the warning to keep the lights off. After what must have seemed like an eternity to a toddler, the explosions finally stopped and daylight broke. But for years, Carrell wasn’t sure what had happened during what came to be known as the Great L.A. Air Raid. To this day, no one is.

Either there were airplanes or there weren’t. Either they were Japanese fighter planes attacking Los Angeles or U.S. planes on a training mission. Either it was a UFO or it was nothing at all.

History buffs, veterans, swing dancers and those who love the World War II era know one thing, though: The Great L.A. Air Raid mystery is a terrific reason to celebrate the 1940s.

This weekend, the Ft. MacArthur Museum in San Pedro joins forces with the big-band aficionados of Maxwell DeMille’s Cicada Club to present the seventh annual re-creation of the air raid. The event starts with a dance and then gets much more serious -- as in seriously fun.

“We think photos and information are fine. But how much more lasting will the impression be if you actually see the searchlights, hear the sirens, see the men running to their positions and can interact with people as though you were there?” says museum director Stephen R. Nelson.

Visitors and costumed extras dressed in 1940s dresses and military uniforms will tour the museum’s rarely seen collection of vintage military vehicles, enjoy a floor show by the Satin Dollz Pin-Up Dancers and swing to the big band grooves of Dean Mora and the Ft. MacArthur Officers Orchestra. Then, in the midst of the festivities, impresario DeMille announces that Japanese subs have attacked Ellwood Oil Field in Goleta. Unidentified aircraft have been spotted. Civil and coastal defense kicks in. The lights cut out in the middle of a song and patrons must take cover as they’re surrounded by the sound effects of planes flying overhead and the very real sound of Ft. MacArthur’s four big antiaircraft guns being fired until the danger eventually passes.

“We have stories from people who saw airplanes and people who didn’t see anything, and both are so passionate about their belief they almost get into fights,” says Nelson. “The official opinion is that it remains a mystery. And that is what we celebrate.”

“I like re-creating the past, and the biggest compliment I get is when people tell me they feel like they’ve gone back in time,” DeMille says. “That means we’ve done it right.”

elina.shatkin@latimes.com

Great L.A. Air Raid of 1942 Where: Ft. MacArthur Museum, 3601 S. Gaffey St., San PedroWhen: 3-8 p.m. SaturdayPrice: $20 in advance, $30 at the doorContact: (310) 548-2631, www.theairraid.com


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