In 1942, in the early months of American involvement in World War II, something very strange happened in Los Angeles. Today, the Los Angeles Air Raid (less commonly known as "The Battle of Los Angeles") remains a historical anomaly. It's not taught about in schools, but it's one of those odd episodes which makes the study of history so rewarding. The raid itself would go on to have little historical significance, but the way the government reacted to it launched an entire sorry chapter in defense history.

At 7:18 pm on the night of February 25, lights and flares were seen in the sky near defense plants in Los Angeles, triggering a four-hour alert. The four hours expired without incident, but at 2:15 am, radar picked up an incoming unidentified aircraft 120 miles out to sea. At 2:25, the air raid sirens went off. The city went into blackout, and anti-aircraft artillery units began scanning the skies.

At 3:16, the AAA opened fire on a number of unidentified and visible aircraft coming in from over the ocean. Searchlight beams tracked the attackers through the skies of LA. There were apparently two types of craft involved. Thousands of witnesses on the ground saw small objects, red and silver in color, flying in formation, dodging the AAA salvos. One observer calculated the speed of the formation to be a remarkable 18,000 mph. Witness Paul T. Collins, an employee of the Douglas Aircraft Company, saw the craft "appearing from nowhere and then zigzagging from side to side. Some disappeared, not diminishing in brilliance or fading away gradually but just vanishing instantaneously into the night." Instead of flying straight over the city, they were observed to "mix and play tag with about 30 to 40 others moving so fast they couldn't be counted accurately."

The second type of craft was the object seen on radar. This larger object moved very slowly over the ocean and observers on the ground said it appeared to be luminous. It finally began to move over land at Culver City, where all searchlights trained on the object. The slow craft was photographed, and the artillery opened fire, scoring several direct hits. By all accounts, the object was impervious to the AAA's 12.8 lb shells. It then moved at 60 mph to Santa Monica and south to Long Beach, where it was lost.

The fire against the smaller craft ended at 4:14 am on the 26th. In all, about 1430 shells were expended firing at the unidentified objects. No bombs were dropped, no fighters were scrambled, and no aircraft were shot down. Several buildings, however, were destroyed by the shell debris, and three people died from heart attacks brought on by panic.

The next day, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox announced that no enemy planes had been in the sky over Los Angeles, and that the sirens and anti-aircraft barrage were the result of "war jitters." Two days earlier, a Japanese submarine had surfaced and shelled fuel storage tanks north of Santa Barbara, and the prospect of a foreign assault on American soil was very real. But while Knox made his calming announcement to the civilian world, a SECRET memorandum was reaching the desk of President Roosevelt, stating that unidentified planes were probably over Los Angeles the night before. (Read it here.)

This memo was not released until the Freedom of Information Act was passed. For years, the Department of Defense claimed to possess no official reports concerning the Los Angeles Air Raid. Now the truth is known, and the raid stands as the American government's earliest investigation of UFOs (and the most violent reaction to them). Some ufologists (a minority) see the incident as the beginning of a government cover-up about all things have to do with unidentified flying objects. My personal feeling is that the DoD simply did not want to discuss this embarrassing episode. In any event, the disturbing censorship concerning the raid is a fitting start to the study of the government's involvement with UFOs. No one would care about flying saucers or UFOs for another five years, when the UFO era really began, but this footnote of history perfectly foreshadowed the paranoia and confusion which was to come.

To this day, no one knows what happened over Los Angeles on the evening of February 25, 1942.

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