Bronze-level articleBattle of Los Angeles

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The woo is out there


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Aliens did it...
... and ran away

The Battle of Los Angeles occurred during the night of 24-25 February, 1942, - though how appropriate the word "battle" is may be disputable as only one "side" seems to have done anything hostile. It is claimed to be one of the few "unexplained" UFO phenomena.



Shortly after the US's entry into WW2 something came under a coordinated searchlight illumination and anti-aircraft attack as it apparently travelled down the coast from Santa Monica to Culver City.[1]

The fact that over 1,400 rounds were fired at the perceived object, without apparent affect, has been used by ufologists to challenge the hypothesis that it was a balloon of some kind[2] - however there are possible explanations for this below.[3] The vigorous response to whatever it may have been was witnessed by thousands on the ground. Eight people died as a consequence of this anti-aircraft fire - five from falling shrapnel, and three from heart attacks.


Originally thought to have been a secret Japanese weapon, the incident is now the subject of various hypotheses.

Fu-Go bombing balloon

A Japanese fire balloon. A prime suspect, but 2-3 years too early.

It could have been a Japanese Fu-Go Bombing Balloon, but these were only launched against America from 1944 onwards. However, their existence was kept a secret, until a balloon bomb killed 6 picnickers in Oregon.[4] If these devices had somehow reached LA, then neither the US nor Japan have records as evidence of their existence.

The idea of balloons as long range weapons is older than the Japanese weapons, with a British study into their effectiveness commissioned as early as 1937. Operation Outward, as it was known, was approved in late 1941 and launched its first offensive balloons in March 1942, continuing until the D-Day landings and ending completely in September 1944. Although it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that these short range and low altitude balloons (which were a cost-effective nuisance and distraction for the Luftwaffe more than an deadly threat) would have been present on the west coast of America, it does demonstrate that the concept was around in the early 1940s.

Weather balloons

Nevertheless the most logical solution appears to be the the object or objects were weather balloons. In order for anti-aircraft gunners to be aware of weather conditions their anti-aircraft companies would release balloons from each of the dozen positions around the city every six hours. The balloons were illuminated from below by an enclosed candle which would reflect off the silver lining of the balloon itself to ensure that it was visible at night.

Reports suggest that gunners from all but one battery mistook the balloons for planes and opened fire. Interestingly, the only gun battery that did not fire, D Battery of the 203rd Coast Artillery Regiment, was directly in the supposed flight path of the object. It was this company that had most recently launched its balloons at 3am, shortly before the firing started. Afterwards, staff at the Battery were instructed not to mention the balloons, and the commanding officer, Col. Ray Watson, was pensioned off.[5]

Mistaken identity

It also seems probable that many of the shell bursts were themselves mistaken for aircraft and this led to the wildly fluctuating reports on the number, speed and altitude of the aerial objects. Further confusion occurred when the Navy and Army issued different statements - the Navy claiming it was a false alarm, and no planes had been over Los Angeles, whilst the Army stated there were possibly five "light enemy aircraft," launched from secret bases within California, Mexico, or from offshore submarines.[1]

If it was a balloon, why didn't it pop?

There is evidence that anti-aircraft fire might be less effective against Zeppelin-type airships and balloons than common sense suggests. Rigid and semi-rigid aircraft do not rely on substantial overpressure to sustain their shape, and unlike a party balloon won't necessarily "pop" and deflate immediately when punctured. The flexibility of a balloon or blimp's gas bag also provides some protection from explosive anti-aircraft fire; with the skin denting and distorting to absorb the impact without actually puncturing. This is exploited in experimental spy blimps such as the LEMV. This means that a balloon may well be able to sustain damage from the anti-aircraft fire but not be actually shot down immediately.

Secondly, it isn't guaranteed that a hydrogen dirigible or balloon will ignite when hit by normal bullets or shrapnel common to anti-aircraft fire. During World War I, a Zeppelin, the L33, was hit by anti-aircraft fire, but did not catch fire. The ship was forced to crash-land in Britain, whereupon her crew set her ablaze.[6] Fighter aircraft only began to see successes against Zeppelins, when they switched from normal ammunition to a mixture of explosive and phosphorus incendiary bullets. A combination of these fired at a Zeppelin would invariably ignite the ship's hydrogen gas-bags.[7]

This adds some credence to the possibility that shrapnel from the anti-aircraft batteries would not necessarily have destroyed a balloon outright but could have punctured it, leaving it to descend in to, and later sink in, the Pacific Ocean. This isn't a guaranteed explanation, however. Fu-Go balloons (if they did make an appearance earlier than officially recorded) did operate with some hydrogen overpressure and a small number were recorded as shot down by fighter aircraft - the primary difficulty in tackling them was their high altitude and surprisingly fast speed, rather than Zeppelin-like resilience.

Army report

Memo from Gen. Marshall to Pres. Roosevelt

The full report from the Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, to President Roosevelt, included the following points:

  1. Unidentified airplanes, other than American Army or Navy planes, were probably over Los Angeles and were fired on by elements of the 37th CA Brigade. These units expended 1430 rounds of ammunition.
  2. As many as 15 airplanes may have been involved, flying at various speeds from what is officially reported from being "very slow" to in excess of 200 mph and at elevations from 9,000 to 18,000 feet.
  3. No bombs were dropped.
  4. No casualties among our troops.
  5. No planes were shot down.
  6. No American Army or Navy planes were in action.


Notwithstanding the fact that the object may or may not have been real, the air raid led to many unfortunate and unusual incidents, especially for Los Angeles' Japanese-American community. Only days before, Roosevelt had issued Executive Order 9066, which called for their internment. More than 30 were arrested that night, on charges of everything from "signalling to the enemy", to having a "lit radio dial." In the beach city of Venice, the FBI brought in a 51-year-old Japanese mother and her two sons when, according to a local paper, a citizen "notified officers that he had seen lights in their home blinking suspiciously." Even the press got in on the act, the Los Angeles Examiner claiming, under the headline "Flare Signals Rise in Jap Area During Shelling," that "12 were arrested for allegedly releasing paper balloons that later burst into flames, becoming flares that 'fell in rotations of 3 white and 3 red' as they descended."[5]


Since 2001, the Fort MacArthur Museum has held an annual entertainment event each February, to commemorate the Battle of Los Angeles.[8]

See also

External links


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