by Todd DePastino
The citizens of Los Angeles were on edge. A Japanese submarine had just shelled the Ellwood Oil Fields in Santa Barbara. Press reports of the attack were muted, but rumors swirled. Was a West Coast invasion imminent? At 2:25am on February 25, 1942, the city’s worst fears appeared overhead in the form of Japanese warplanes. The Battle of Los Angeles had begun!
The weeks and months after the attacks on Pearl Harbor saw little change in nightly habits on the East Coast, where neon lights blazed as usual through the night, thereby silhouetting coastal cities perfectly for German U-boats.
On the West Coast, however, proximity to Imperial Japan and the large number of Japanese American residents caused concern about enemy subversion and invasion. Nightly curfews and blackouts became the norm from Juneau, Alaska, to San Diego. Rumors swirled of Japanese aircraft carriers offshore and enemy spies infiltrating local populations. In Seattle, mobs roamed the streets smashing lights and store windows that defined the blackout.
Then, in the early evening of February 23, 1942, Japanese submarine I-17 crept into Santa Barbara Channel, surfaced, and fired two volleys of shells—as many as 25 all together—at two large fuel tanks on shore in the town of Goleta, up the coast from Santa Barbara. The guns missed their targets and after twenty minutes, the submarine slipped beneath the surface and departed. No one was hurt, but the shells damaged the Ellwood Pier and some oil field equipment to the tune of $500.
Radio Tokyo reported that Santa Barbara had been leveled. In truth, the most significant harm was psychological. California residents panicked. All kinds of rumors, even conspiracy theories, circulated. Some swore they saw large ships and other submarines flashing lights to shore to signal sleeper agents to begin the takeover of America. Others argued that the whole thing was a hoax, a “false flag” attack, perpetrated by the US Navy to scare citizens and increase war bond sales.
Southern California responded the next night with a blackout and curfew. Coastal artillery batteries were on alert, awaiting the waves of enemy warplanes expected to appear in the blackened sky. At 2:25am, spotters began tracking what seemed to be enemy planes. Air raid sirens blared, and air raid wardens scrambled into position. Other batteries confirmed “about 25 planes at 12,000 feet” over Los Angeles. At 3:06am, four batteries of anti-aircraft artillery opened fire, and “the air over Los Angeles erupted like a volcano” with .50-caliber machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons cutting loose. Firing continued off and on until dawn broke, when coastal artillery announced a ceasefire.
While the Navy and Army both declared the “Battle of Los Angeles” a false alarm, the public traded in all kinds of theories, from enemy submarine aircraft carriers off shore to secret Japanese air fields in Mexico. One Santa Monica Congressman speculated publicly that out-of-state interests had staged the raid “to lay a political foundation to take away Southern California’s war industries.”
One thing was certain: with its 1,440 shells fired, the “Battle of Los Angeles” did more damage than the “Bombardment of Ellwood.” Shell fragments struck several buildings and vehicles, and three citizens died when their cars veered off the road during the firing.
In 1983, the US Office of Air Force History reviewed the case and concluded that the Battle of Los Angeles was likely sparked when pre-existing “war jitters” collided with weather balloons. Meteorological balloons released at 1:00am on February 25 likely raised the initial alarm, and other batteries followed suit. “Probably much of the confusion came from the fact that anti-aircraft shell bursts, caught by the searchlights, were themselves mistaken for enemy planes,” concluded the Air Force analysis.
Regardless of the cause, the effect of the hair-raising events of February 23-25, 1942 was to hasten implementation of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, signed just days earlier. The order authorized the incarceration and internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. Two-thirds of them were US citizens, American born and raised, victims of wartime hysteria.