69 years ago today a battle raged in the skies over Los Angeles. It was 1942, just a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. America had entered the war and all that stood between us the Japanese Empire was a few thousand miles of water.
But even that water wasn’t enough to keep them away. On February 23rd California was actually attacked by a Japanese sub. Called the Bombardment of Ellwood, the attack was the culmination of a long series of sub skirmishes along the West Coast. After Pearl Harbor seven Japanese subs broke away from the main fleet and patrolled West Coast waters. They sank merchant vessels, and there were at least two battles with the Navy.
Kozo Noshino was the captain of one of the subs and had a personal history with the West Coast. He had been the skipper of a ship that had sailed into the Santa Barbara Channel and filled with oil at the Ellwood Oil Field; while oiling the ship he had been wandering around, fell down on a prickly pear cactus and had to have thorns removed from his ass. The Japanese seaman with an ass full of needles proved to be a popular site for local refinery workers, and they stood around laughing at him. He swore revenge.
When WWII came he returned to that spot with his sub and extracted his vengeance, shelling the Oil Field and some of the surrounding area. Noshino’s attack was a bust - there was minimal damage to some of the refinery equipment and a guy was injured when defusing an unexploded shell, but that was it.
While the Bombardment of Ellwood is hilarious in hindsight, at the time it terrified Californians. Los Angeles is just a bit south of Santa Barbara, and everyone began getting a serious case of what the military would later call ‘war nerves.’ And those war nerves would prove much more deadly than Noshino’s shells.
The next night air raid sirens sounded in Los Angeles and the entire city was ordered into a black out. Then, at 3 am, the military began lighting up the sky with anti-aircraft fire. Some sort of aircraft had been reported in the sky, but nobody knew what it was. 1400 shells were fired over the course of an hour; some buildings were destroyed by friendly fire and three people were killed by our own artillery. Three more died of heart attacks from the stress of the event.
Nobody ever came to a satisfactory conclusion about just what launched what was then known as The Great Los Angeles Air Raid but has been come to be known by the more important sounding Battle of Los Angeles. The official explanation, as often seems to be the case with these things, is that it was a weather balloon. It seems more likely that people just freaked out over nothing - that a weird radar reading and subsequent tightening of military sphincters caused a good old fashioned panic.
And of course the UFO people think it was flying saucers that night over Los Angeles. They point to the incredible divergence of reports from eyewitnesses, but it seems obvious that the divergence came from panic and misinterpretation. Having lived through a major terror attack I can tell you that no information you get in the immediate moments after a disaster is correct, and that people will honestly ‘see’ all sorts of things that aren’t there, or will incorporate wild gossip into their memories. This explains why the ‘objects’ were seen flying both low and incredibly high, and why they were reported as being impossibly slow as well as going over 200mph. And once the shelling began all bets were off when it came to eyewitness reports - lots of well-meaning nonsense got passed around.
People reported at least four planes being shot down; one supposedly went down in flames at a Hollywood intersection. When the dawn came, though, none of this proved true.
Thirty years later Steven Spielberg would visit this night in 1941, his very poorly-received comedic follow-up to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Taking the Great Los Angeles Air Raid as its starting point and mixing it up with the Bombardment of Ellwood, Spielberg’s movie (written by boy wonders Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale) posited a Japanese submarine coming to Los Angeles right after the Pearl Harbor attack. Much chaos, mayhem, broad comedy and lots and lots of noise ensues.
I haven’t seen 1941 in many, many years, and I keep waiting for a good release of the longer cut, which I’m told is actually a huge improvement over the theatrical (something very rare in comedies), so I can’t weigh in on the quality of 1941. I can, however, weigh in saying that it has more to do with the real Battle of Los Angeles than Battle: Los Angeles.
Don’t be fooled by the early advertising campaigns - Battle: Los Angeles isn’t really related to the historical event, or any other UFO flaps. It’s a much more straight forward invasion story where the aliens show up and start giving us hell.
So if you’re looking to commemorate the 69th anniversary of one of the strangest mass panics in American history, sidle up with the Spielberg film. If you’re looking to watch a military action film that pits a group of Marines against an impossibly superior extra-terrestrial foe, wait for Battle: Los Angeles on the 11th.