The Air Raid That Wasn’t

Conflict: World War II

Headline from the Los Angeles Times about the “air raid”

Headline from the Los Angeles Times about the air raid

It’s a mystery that may never be solved—what really happened the night of the 1942 Los Angeles “air raid”?

The day before, on 23 June, a Japanese submarine had bombarded an oil field on the Santa Barbara coast, so anxiety was running high in Los Angeles on the 24th. That night, an alert was put in effect at 7:18 p.m. but it was canceled at 10:23 p.m. Then, in the early hours of the 25th, radars picked up an unidentified air target about a hundred miles out to sea. At 2:15 a.m. the costal batteries were put on alert, and at 2:21 a blackout of the area was ordered. Sightings of planes began pouring in at 2:45, and anti-aircraft artillery began to fire at 3:06. The anti-aircraft shelling continued for an hour, firing over 1,400 shells.

Once the anti-aircraft guns quieted, the confusion began. Despite all the reports of enemy planes being spotted, none of the accounts seemed to match—some reported only a few planes and others reported large groups; some said the planes were traveling at top speeds while others said they were flying slowly; some observed the planes at high altitudes and others saw them at low ones. And either way, despite the shelling, there was no evidence that any planes had been shot down, and all the damages and the few deaths reported were a result of the coastal batteries’ own shells.

Photos from the Los Angeles Times showing the objects thought to be planes (top left) and the damage done by the anti-aircraft shells

Photos from the Los Angeles Times showing the objects thought to be planes (top left) and the damage done by the anti-aircraft shells

And as the day dawned, some military officials began to doubt that there were ever planes in the first place. While the secretary of the navy maintained that it had all been a mistake and there were never any planes, the army concluded that there were between one and five planes, either from secret enemy airfields in California or Mexico or launched from submarines. But regardless of where the planes came from, the army believed that their mission was only to draw out the location of LA’s costal batteries.

The mystery about what really happened that night remains even today. The general consensus is that the initial air targets spotted were actually weather balloons, and that once the firing began, the exploding shells were mistaken for additional aircraft. Since after the war the Japanese said they never sent any planes over Los Angeles, the weather balloon theory seems logical, but other theories still exist, such as the popular idea that the “air raid” was actually the largest public UFO sighting.

Read more about the Los Angeles air raid on Wikipedia or in World War II magazine. Or find other stories from the war in Fold3′s World War II collection.