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The Great Los Angeles Air Raid – Podcast #181

“Mr. Vice President. Mr. Speaker. Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

With that historic first sentence, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt began his December 8th address to a joint session of Congress.  The brief speech would be just 6 minutes and 30 seconds in length. Thirty-three minutes after Roosevelt concluded, Congress would declare war against Japan.

Today, most people remember December 7, 1941, solely as the day that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, which is located on the island of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. Few are aware that Roosevelt added that Japan had also attacked Malaya (today Malaysia), Hong Kong, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippine Islands that same day.  Plus, on the morning of that speech, they further attacked Midway Island.

Roosevelt’s speech was broadcast live on the radio and was heard by an estimated 81% of all Americans, the largest listening audience up until that time. Its impact was immediate. The response to the speech was overwhelmingly positive and Roosevelt had made his case to the American people as to why the war was necessary.

Page 1 of President Roosevelt's first draft of the speech.
Page 1 of President Roosevelt’s first draft of the speech. National Archives image.

While the impending war seemed like a world away to the general public – after all, Hawaii is nearly halfway across the Pacific Ocean – people understood it was only a matter of time before the Japanese would attack the West Coast of the US mainland.

Of particular concern to the military was that the West Coast had a large concentration of aircraft plants, which would be tempting bait for the Japanese. There was Boeing in Seattle, Douglas and Lockheed in Los Angeles, and Consolidated (later Convair) in San Diego.

Needless to say, coastal communities were in a nearly constant state of what would later be referred to as “invasion fever,” the constant fear that a Japanese attack was underway. The first invasion fever incident took place during the same afternoon on which Roosevelt had made his speech. Rumors spread that there was an enemy carrier just off the coast of San Francisco and the Army claimed that it had tracked planes approaching the coastline from about 100 miles (161 km) from shore. This scare resulted in the closure of schools in Oakland, which lies right across the bay from San Francisco.  Later that evening, a three-hour blackout was enforced, and radio broadcasting ceased.

The next day unidentified planes were reported off Southern California and the Eleventh Naval District made preparations for battle. This was followed by a Navy report to the Army Air Force that they had spotted thirty-four enemy ships off the coast of Los Angeles, awaiting the lifting of the dense fog so that they could attack. Army airplanes took to the sky and discovered that the enemy ships were American fishing boats.

What few realized was that the Japanese had no desire to bring their aircraft carriers anywhere near the coastline. To do so would make them sitting ducks.  Instead, submarines were sent to do their dirty work. While the subs were incapable of causing significant damage, they were certain to keep a nervous nation on edge.

The first sub attack occurred at 2:15 PM on December 20, 1941.  The SS Agwiworld was 20 miles (32 km) off Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula of California when the Japanese sub I-23 fired fourteen artillery shells at her. The first shot missed and exploded just off the stern of the ship. Captain Frederick Goncalves spotted the sub and took evasive action and zig-zagged the ship toward safe harbor.  While the submarine continued its firing, the water proved to be too rough that day to get an accurate shot, and soon submerged.  The Agwiworld and its crew were unharmed.

October 9, 1941 image of the SS Agwiworld.
October 9, 1941 image of the SS Agwiworld. Wikipedia image.

Around the same time that this was happening, a similar battle was occurring about 330 miles (530 km) to the north.  This time the Japanese sub I-17 was firing on the SS Emidio. The outcome would not be the same. Five shells and one torpedo were fired at the ship, with the torpedo piercing its engine room.  Realizing that the ship was about to sink, the order to abandon ship was given.  Surprisingly, the ship somehow stayed afloat with its stern under the water’s surface for quite some time. It slowly drifted up the coast of California until it ran aground on the rocks off Crescent City in early January 1942. Sadly, five of its crew members were killed during the attack.

At least thirteen other merchant ships were attacked over the next two months. And, as you can imagine, residents feared that it was only a matter of time before the Japanese launched a full-scale attack on the West Coast.

SS Emidio in Vancouver in 1932.
SS Emidio in Vancouver in 1932. Wikipedia image.

And then it happened: At 7:15 PM on February 23, 1942, just as President Roosevelt was delivering one of his fireside chats to the nation, the Japanese submarine I-17 surfaced near Goleta, California, about twelve miles (19 km) west of Santa Barbara. Between twelve and twenty-five shells were fired. This was the location of Ellwood field, which was an active oil drilling operation, but the sub’s main target was a Richfield Oil aviation fuel tank. As you can imagine, firing under darkness from a submarine in choppy waters is incredibly difficult. As a result, most of the shells landed in the water or went way off course. Not a single one hit the tank. One shell did hit an oil drilling rig, causing about $500 (approximately $9500 today) in damage to its catwalk and some pumping equipment.

The Japanese I-17 submarine.
The Japanese I-17 submarine. Tistory.com image.

The next day, naval intelligence issued a warning that predicted an attack within the next ten hours. Reports of blinking lights and flares being set off near the defense plants began to pour in. A decision was made at 7:16 PM to issue an alert, during which all air raid wardens, police, firemen, Red Cross workers, and other emergency personnel were told to stand by for further orders. The alert was rescinded at 10:23 PM and everyone breathed a great sigh of relief.

It was not to last.

Around 1:45 AM on February 25, an unidentified blip was picked up at approximately 120 miles (193 km) from Los Angeles, and it was headed right for the city.  Keep in mind that radar was a relatively new technology and radar units were far and few between at the time, so radar operators decided to track the signal for a bit to make sure that it was real. They concluded that it was.

At 2:25 that morning, the Fourth Interceptor Command regional controller called for a blackout in the city of Los Angeles and its surrounding area, extending all the way down to the Mexican border. This included Santa Monica to the north, Long Beach and Huntington Beach to the south, and westward to the foot of the mountains.  Twenty-two minutes later, airplanes were reported in the vicinity of Long Beach.  Two minutes after that, a coast guard artillery colonel observed “about twenty-five planes at 12,000 feet.” (3.65 km)

It was clear what was happening: the Japanese were doing exactly what everyone had feared.  Los Angeles was under attack.

Within minutes, the sky was illuminated by hundreds of 800 million candlepower military searchlights directed their beams to the sky in search of the enemy airplanes.  Down in Long Beach, an estimated twenty searchlights converged on a group of planes. Moments later, the antiaircraft guns opened fire and the heavens lit up with exploding shells. Shrapnel began to rain down from the sky.

Similar battles were taking place in other locations along the coast, with the bulk of the activity taking place in the vicinity of the aircraft plants. The enemy planes came in two waves, both starting in the north near Santa Monica and then slowly heading south through Inglewood and southern Los Angeles, before finally heading out to sea at Long Beach.

Tracer bullets and exploding shells lit up the heavens, while the concussion of the antiaircraft fire could be felt as far as fifteen miles away (24.1 km).

Down on the ground, there was far less panic than one would imagine. Knowing that this day would inevitably come, there had been an incredible amount of preparation and practice done. They were ready.

More than 10,000 air raid wardens in the Los Angeles area quickly responded to the call and did exactly what they had been trained to do. They immediately used air raid sirens to alert the public, which was quite effective, even though less than one-quarter of those that had been purchased were installed and working properly.

Since many of us have never experienced an air raid alarm, the warning signal would be a rising and falling pitch for two minutes straight. That meant jumping into action and following the blackout rules.  And once all the danger has passed, the all-clear signal was a steady, non-fluctuating blast for another two minutes. (If this ever happened in my town today, my hunch is that few of us would know what it means.)

The rules were fairly straightforward: First, no illumination could be seen from the outside.  One could still use interior lights provided that they masked the windows. Driving was also forbidden. Upon the sounding of the alarm, all vehicles should immediately pull to the side of the road, turn off the ignition, remove the key, and occupants find shelter in the nearest building. Total radio silence was called for and use of the telephone was forbidden unless needed for emergency purposes. One shouldn’t turn the gas off, but should it be required, they should have a wrench handy. Once the all-clear is given, they should contact a trained gasman to turn it back on.

Reporter Jules Kinsler, writing for the International News Service shortly after the action began, wrote, “Running out in our nightclothes we saw the searchlights converging on a single point and moving slowly across the sky, from the direction of Santa Monica and Malibu beach to Inglewood, San Pedro, Wilmington, and Long Beach on the southeast.

“Most of the anti-aircraft shells burst well below the convergence of the searchlights’ beams. A few apparently from a single gun flashed right in the center of the focal point of the lights in rapid succession.

She added, “There must have been at least 20 searchlights trained on the plane. A neighbor told me she counted 22. All the neighbors were on their porches or in the street.  They huddled together shivering in their nightclothes.”

In May 2001, 85-year-old Emily Hilaiel told of her experience to the Los Angeles Times.  At the time of the attack, she was 26 years old, her husband Lloyd was serving in the military, and she was home with her 4-½-year-old son Michael. They just happened to live next door to an empty lot that contained one of the antiaircraft batteries.  “The one night we heard shooting, I ran and grabbed Michael and we sat on the floor in the hallway, and Lloyd’s mother dashed over to see if we were OK.

“We were scared to death. It sounded like it was overhead. We felt sure that we were going to be killed. We just sat there and held hands and prayed.”

It wouldn’t be until 7:21 AM – a few minutes before sunrise – that the all-clear signal was given. The enemy was clearly now gone, and it was now time to deal with the fallout of what had transpired over the previous five hours.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing in the aftermath was what was described as the “worst traffic jam in local history.” With all traffic having been frozen during the entirety of the blackout, suddenly everyone realized that they were late for work. Not only were the cars, trucks, and taxis not moving, but the streetcars were filled to capacity, leaving hundreds of people stranded on street corners. Many opted to walk to work, even if the distance was great.

A Japanese plane had supposedly been shot down at the intersection of 190th Street and Vermont Avenue. The curious came from all around to see the plane, clogging the streets in all directions only to find out that there was no plane there at all.

While there was no Japanese airplane outside her office, Lucile Martindale arrived to work to find a 6-room house parked at the curb.  Mover Jeff Gordon explained, “I was moving the house when the air raid alarm sounded. All I could do was pull over to the curb and park.” City regulations only allowed the house to be moved between midnight and dawn, so the house was stuck there for the remainder of the day.

There were many reports of damage from the antiaircraft shells and fragments. One shell exploded near the southwest Los Angeles home of Hugh Landis, showering him, his wife Bess, her sister Blanche Sedgwick, and their niece 14-year-old Josie Duffy, with debris.  No one was injured, but the bed in which Blanche and Josie had been sleeping in moments before was ripped apart. In addition, windows were shattered, the garage door ripped off, and the gasoline tank of Mr. Landis’s car was punctured.

Mr. And Mrs. George Watson of Santa Monica were startled out of bed when an unexploded shell buried itself deep in their concrete driveway. She described what happened, “I saw the flash and then we heard a hissing sort of screaming sound.  My husband said, ‘That’s a bomb coming.’ Then we heard it hit. There was a funny kind of burning smell. We rushed outside in our nightclothes. My husband looked down in the hole it had torn in the driveway.” Mr. Watson, a plasterer, opted to go to work and leave his wife to deal with the mess. The police roped off the area and posted a sign, “closed area – unexploded bomb” as they awaited the arrival of an Army demolition team to defuse it.

And then there were the scores of windows that were smashed all around the region. There was no looting.  Instead, the windows were shattered by either the concussion of the exploding shells or by air raid wardens, who, should they be unable to locate the proprietor, had legal permission to smash the glass if they needed to turn off a glowing light.

This premise backfired on 36-year-old Joaquin P. Tappia.  He saw the lights on in Mandel’s Jewelry Store at 105 S Broadway in Los Angeles and self-appointed himself as an air raid warden. He then picked up a garbage can and threw it through the plate glass window.  Police arrested him, thinking that he was attempting to rob the place. Tappia protested, “Hell, no. I wasn’t trying to break into the place. I was trying to put that light out.” Store owner Max Mandel confirmed that nothing had been stolen, but officers still threw Tappia in jail on a charge of malicious mischief.

There were numerous other stories about people and businesses failing to turn out their lights. Twenty-one Santa Ana merchants were fined $50 each ($950 today), although the judge later reduced it to $5 each and warned the violators not to do it again.

The Los Angeles Times reported that 21-year-old Justin Cooley had the honor of being the first person to be sentenced for violating the blackout.  Santa Monica police arrested him for hitting an air-raid warden’s car.  Cooley hit it while he was driving with his headlights off.  The judge in the case sentenced Cooley to thirty days in jail, with the time to be served on his days off so that it wouldn’t interfere with his airplane production work.

57-year-old produce dealer Giovanni Chigo was arrested for refusing to turn out his lights, as was 21-year-old Ernest Vander Linden, who refused to turn off his barn lights while he was out milking the cows. 32-year-old Ray Allen Elwanger refused to stop driving his car along Beverly Blvd in Beverly Hills and was arrested after he told police to “go to hell.”

And then there are the humorous blackout stories: The lights on the Universal City Bridge burned for more than thirty minutes after the blackout was called. Why? Very simple? The man in charge of extinguishing the lights lived more than two miles (3.2 km) away.

When air-raid warden Roy Kabat spotted light leaking from the front door of a Santa Monica house, he began to walk up the front stairs. A woman opened the door and questioned, “Are they real guns?” Kabat replied, “I’m afraid they are.” She then fainted in his arms.

Let’s not forget what happens when people attempt to move around in the dark; they get hurt. Air-raid warden Charles W. Hoffman fractured his right hip after falling from a 3-foot (1 meter) high rock wall while attempting to check on the lights in an apartment building.  Thomas G. Barber attempted to outdo Hoffman: He had to jump a fence to get to a house with its lights on and sprained his ankle. Lieutenant Walter Larter suffered a laceration on his right leg when he kicked in the plate glass window of a store that had a light on. Radio announcer William Stokey decided to run to work and suffered a deep cut above his right eye after he ran into an awning. Long Beach resident Clyde Lane, like many others, decided to watch the antiaircraft fire. Unfortunately, a piece of shrapnel fell from the sky and injured his scalp. Both Marie Charles and Roy Campbell, both 71 years of age, were injured when they fell down the stairs in their homes. Campbell was hurrying to his air raid warden post.

While some of these arrests and injuries are a bit quirky, there was a serious side to all of this. Five days prior to this aerial attack on Los Angeles, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of Japanese Americans.  While it would be a few months before this plan was put into action, ultimately resulting in nearly 120,000 people being relocated, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, the general public was deeply suspicious of anyone who was of Japanese descent.

A total of twenty Japanese people were arrested.  While some had simply violated the blackout regulations, others were arrested on suspicion of attempting to signal the invaders and were referred to the FBI. For example, three members of the Ohi family, who lived at 1505 Ocean Front Avenue in Venice, were arrested when the lights in their second-floor apartment above their café were observed to flash on and off.

The sad news was that five people died because of the attack. 63-year-old Henry B. Ayers suffered a fatal heart attack while at the wheel of an ammunition truck. 36-year-old air-raid warden George P. Weil was on duty when he also had a heart attack. He was taken to his home where he soon passed away. 59-year-old Long Beach Police Sergeant E. Larson was traveling to his air raid post when he was killed in a traffic accident. Mrs. Beulah Klein was killed when a car driven by her husband Harry during the blackout collided with a milk truck. And the last victim was Jesus Alferez, who was fatally injured when he walked into the side of a moving automobile. Most likely, all these vehicles were traveling with their headlamps off…

Yet the population did grow that night. A blackout and flying shrapnel simply weren’t enough to stop Mr. Stork from taking to the skies.  Fourteen babies were reported born in the area hospitals.  Plus, there was at least one home birth.  When Dr. Costello Bray arrived at the residence of Mrs. Lurline Nicholas, he had no choice but to deliver 8-pound William Dallas Nicholas under the glow of flashlights.

So just what happened that night? What was everyone shooting at?

Here is audio from CBS’ News of the World that was broadcast later that day:

“Anti-aircraft guns went into action against unidentified aircraft in the Los Angeles area shortly after 3:00 AM Pacific War time this morning. The anti-aircraft guns began barking during a blackout ordered by the 4th Interceptor Command at 2:25 AM. The unidentified object, which some sources thought might be a blimp, moved slowly down the Pacific Coast from Santa Monica and disappeared South of Long Beach. Army officials declined to comment on the possibility that the object might have been a blimp. However, it required nearly 30 minutes to travel some 25 miles. Far slower than an airplane. Watchers on the rooftop of the Columbia Broadcasting Building in the heart of Hollywood could plainly see the flashes of guns and searchlights sweeping the skies in a wide arc along the coastal area. Concussion of the shells could be felt in downtown Los Angeles, 15 miles away.”

A slow-moving blimp? Just what happened to the enemy airplanes that they were trying to shoot down? That’s a mystery that still remains unanswered.

The Fourth Army, headquartered in San Francisco, immediately issued the following statement after the hostilities came to an end:

“Cities in the Los Angeles area were blacked out at 2:25 a.m. today on orders from the Fourth Interceptor Command when unidentified aircraft were reported in the area.

“Although reports were conflicting and every effort is being made to ascertain the facts, it is clear that no bombs were dropped and no planes were shot down.

“There was a considerable amount of anti-aircraft firing.

“The all clear signal came at 7:21 a.m.”

Later that day, US Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox told the press that it was “just a false alarm.

 “There were no planes over Los Angeles last night, at least, that’s our understanding.”

He continued, “None have been found and a very wide reconnaissance has been carried on.”

US Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox
US Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Wikipedia image.

Less than one day after the battle with possibly no one, the Los Angeles Times published a rare front-page editorial that sought a better explanation from the military as to what had just taken place. “It seems to The Times that more specific information should be forthcoming from government sources on the subject, if only to clarify their own so-far conflicting statements about it.”

Instead, in typical government bureaucratic fashion, further explanations just muddied up the water.

Secretary of War Henry Stimson offered up the conclusions of an Army report, which was based on the information provided by West Coast Army officials. “As many as 15 planes may have been involved flying at various speeds, from what is officially reported as being ‘very slow’ to as much as 200 miles an hour, and at an elevation of from 9000 to 18,000 feet.”

Secretary of War Henry Stimson
Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Wikipedia image.

The Army offered up two theories as to where these airplanes came from.  First, they may have been commercial planes launched from secret airfields in California or Mexico and operated by an enemy.  Alternatively, the planes may have been light aircraft that were launched from Japanese submarines.

Stimson added, “The only comment I, myself, have to make is perhaps that it is better to be alert than not alert enough. At any rate, they were alert there.”

Another report was issued by the War Department on March 2, 1942. It said that Army-operated listening devices had clearly detected a small number of approaching airplanes, which it believes were launched from Japanese submarines and were on reconnaissance missions over Southern California.

Politicians expressed their outrage and promised that there would be congressional investigations into what had transpired.  Yet, in the end, it was all hushed up.  Neither the Army, Navy, nor the politicians were willing to accept the blame. Plus, there was a real war going on that required every bit of their focused attention.

Over the years, additional theories have been suggested.  Military reports typically concluded the sighting of an errant weather balloon triggered the battle, although no balloon or blimp was ever recovered. Others have suggested that it was a test conducted by the military to see if the West Coast was ready for an attack, but no proof of this theory has ever been found. Starting in the 1970s, some began to suggest that it was UFOs, mostly based on their analysis of a Los Angeles Times photo that was purposely doctored when it was first printed. This was a common practice at the time, allowing finer details in black-and-white images to be clearer to their readers.

Most people have since concluded that the battle that took place in the skies over Los Angeles during the early morning hours of February 25, 1942, was just a case of jittery nerves. There were probably never any enemy airplanes flying overhead, a fact confirmed by the Japanese after the war ended. The military was expecting the Japanese to attack the mainland at any moment, and once that first shot was mistakenly fired into the air, the bursts of the antiaircraft shells were mistaken for enemy planes. Couple that with an overeager defense force that was inexperienced in using the new radar equipment and it is easy to see how the whole thing spiraled out of control. Secretary Knox offered up the simplest explanation and it probably was the correct one: it was all just a false alarm.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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