The Battle of Los Angeles

At the beginning of WWII, the American defense forces in Los Angeles fought a battle against a UFO.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Aliens & UFOs

Skeptoid #171
September 15, 2009
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Today we're going to turn the pages back to an American UFO story dating from World War II, the Battle of Los Angeles, when (according to modern lore) the United States Army and Navy battled a giant UFO hovering above the city of Los Angeles.

It was late February, 1942, less than three months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Residents on the Western coast of the United States expected they were next, and so stood ready with hasty fortifications and kept their eyes on the sky.The crews manning the antiaircraft artillery batteries in Los Angeles had been trained, but lacked experience in actual combat. Only one day before, the Japanese submarine I-17 had surfaced off of Santa Barbara and fired 25 shells at some aviation fuel storage tanks, so the alert level was the highest it had ever been. An attack on Los Angeles was imminent.

Just after 2:00am on the morning of February 25, radar picked up a target off the coast. The antiaircraft batteries in Los Angeles were put on Green Alert, ready to fire. By 2:21am the radar target had approached closer, and a blackout was ordered. The radar lost contact with its target, and searchlight beams swept the sky for nearly half an hour. Then, reports of aircraft came in. Over Santa Monica, a balloon carrying a red flare was spotted, and the batteries opened fire at 3:06am. The Battle of Los Angeles was on.

For nearly an hour, batteries fired 1,430 rounds of antiaircraft artillery, raining eight and a half tons of shrapnel back down onto Los Angeles. But what did they see? What were they shooting at? Therein lies the rub. Many saw nothing. Some reported balloons. A few reported airplanes. CBS Radio called it a blimp. The moon had set at 2:30am, and sunrise was not until 6:30am; combined with the blackout, it was about as dark as dark can be. The only thing anyone could see was whatever the searchlights struck, which was smoke from the AAA bursts. The Office of Air Force History described the field reports as "hopelessly at variance". The most famous photograph, from the Los Angeles Times, shows a convergence of searchlights onto a single large cloud of smoke. Property damage from the shrapnel was widespread, and since no bombs were dropped and no evidence of enemy aircraft was ever discovered, demands for explanations and investigations followed: Both in a scathing editorial in the Los Angeles Times the following day, and from the White House.

Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, held a press conference that same day to state that it was a false alarm, that no aircraft had been involved, and that the entire incident had been an expensive case of jittery nerves. Chief of Staff George Marshall wrote a memo to President Roosevelt, stating the current understanding that airplanes may or may not have been involved, possibly as many as fifteen, possibly commercial aircraft, at various slow speeds. Given the lack of confirmation that any aircraft were present at all, Roosevelt's response was to ask the Secretary of War to clarify exactly who is authorized to order an air alarm.

And that's where the story was left for decades: a false alarm from the opening days of World War II: No mysteries, no strangeness, no aliens, no supernatural element. But of course, as you can guess, it did all eventually appear. It took more than 40 years, but UFO enthusiasts finally decorated the Battle of Los Angeles with some imaginative additions.

To understand how it happened, you first have to understand the Majestic 12 papers. In 1987, a group of UFOlogists, William L. Moore, Stanton Friedman, and Jaime Shandera, announced the existence of several government documents, classified as top secret, that purported to contain a 1947 order from President Harry Truman establishing a group called Majestic 12, an assortment of the usual Illuminati from government, business, and the military. Majestic 12 was charged with handling everything to do with extraterrestrial aliens.

Later, another UFOlogist, Tim Cooper, announced his own batch of secret Majestic 12 documents. Rival UFOlogists work together in the same way that rival Bigfoot hunters do: Not very nicely. Moore and his proponents launched into Cooper's documents, pointing out clues that prove them counterfeit; and Cooper and his proponents did the same to Moore's documents, revealing the flaws that disproved their authenticity. When infighting among adversarial bamboozlers does all the work revealing each others' hoaxes, it makes the legitimate investigator's job so much easier.

Among this tangled mess of hoax documents is a letter called the Marshall/Roosevelt Memo from March 5, 1942, stating that two unidentified aircraft were in fact recovered after the Battle of Los Angeles: One at sea, and one in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles. It says in part:

This Headquarters has come to a determination that the mystery airplanes are in fact not earthly and according to secret intelligence sources they are in all probability of interplanetary origin.

The letter is, of course, properly scuffed up and smudged in the most realistic and dramatic fashion. A PDF of it is available for download from Hilariously, page 2 of the PDF is an order form to purchase a wide range of UFO related documents, CDs, and books. Obviously, it's not legal to distribute actual top secret documents, and the fact that the FBI permits the availability of this (and the many others on is a pretty good tipoff to the FBI's assessment of their authenticity. Skeptical investigator Philip Klass brought the documents' publication to the FBI's attention in 1988, and the FBI quickly concluded that all the documents were fake. So download freely, and send in those order forms.

As far as I could determine, this letter's late-1980's appearance was the earliest reference to anything UFO related happening at the Battle of Los Angeles. Since then, of course, innumerable references have appeared on the web. Most UFO web sites discuss the battle and show the picture from the LA Times, describing the cloud of AAA smoke in the searchlights as a "large craft". But this was not the contemporary identification. For more than 40 years, not a single person associated with the Battle of Los Angeles entertained any thoughts about extraterrestrial spacecraft or aliens, according to all available evidence (at least when you discard the hoaxed evidence). The alien spacecraft angle is purely a post-hoc invention by modern promoters of UFO mythology.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Modern UFOlogists seem to have forgotten what the "U" in UFO stands for: Unidentified. They tend to identify such objects as extraterrestrial spacecraft, for reasons known only to themselves; so they should really pick a new term. The Battle of Los Angeles was triggered by true UFO's: Something spotted in the sky that nobody was able to definitively identify. Most gunners reported never seeing anything at all, and simply fired at wherever they saw other air bursts. For this, the gun crews were officially reprimanded. The Office of Air Force History says in its 1983 report entitled The Army Air Forces in World War II:

A careful study of the evidence suggests that meteorological balloons — known to have been released over Los Angeles — may well have caused the initial alarm. This theory is supported by the fact that anti-aircraft artillery units were officially criticized for having wasted ammunition on targets which moved too slowly to have been airplanes. After the firing started, careful observation was difficult because of drifting smoke from shell bursts. The acting commander of the anti-aircraft artillery brigade in the area testified that he had first been convinced that he had seen fifteen planes in the air, but had quickly decided that he was seeing smoke. Competent correspondents like Ernie Pyle and Bill Henry witnessed the shooting and wrote that they were never able to make out an airplane.

But of course, to the conspiracy theorists and UFO believers, any report put forth by the Air Force is simply part of the conspiracy and not to be trusted. So let's play the devil's advocate and assume that interplanetary spacecraft were, in fact, shot down during the battle and recovered, and the government has full knowledge of it, as the UFOlogists expect us to believe. Then it becomes a question of how they were able to keep this a secret for more than 40 years: Retroactively change the newspaper accounts, change the radio reports, pay off or kill everyone who participated, pay off or kill everyone in Los Angeles who witnessed it, yet continue to allow the "top secret" confessions to be downloadable from the Internet; the proposition quickly becomes ludicrous.

An alternate explanation, supported by evidence, requires us to make no such absurd leaps of logic or pseudoscientific assumptions: That the Battle of Los Angeles was simply a case of jittery nerves, at a time when every single person in Los Angeles was living in daily fear for their lives from imminent Japanese attack. There is simply no need for the introduction of a paranormal element to explain it. Whenever you hear a tale from history that involves alien spacecraft or any other paranormal element, you should always be skeptical.

Brian Dunning

© 2009 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Craven, W., Cate, J. The Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1983. 277-286.

Editors. "Army Says Alarm Real." Los Angeles Times. 26 Feb. 1942, Newspaper: Front page.

FBI. "MAJESTIC 12." MAJESTIC 12. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 28 Aug. 1991. Web. 15 Sep. 2009. <>

Friedman, Stanton T. Top Secret/Majic. New York: Marlowe & Co., 1996.

Klass, Philip. "The New Bogus Majestic 12 Documents." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 May 2000, Volume 24, Number 3.

Knight, Peter. Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003. 700.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Battle of Los Angeles." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 15 Sep 2009. Web. 31 Mar 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 30 comments

The famous photo is just the convergence of all those light beams on a load of smoke, the brightness at the top of it is just an AA burst.

Whatever was responsible for the original alarm all you need is one gun to fire a burst at something its crew 'thinks' it sees and then all the other guys start zoning in on it, it is has been a common problem in the military - that's why fire control evolved - you wait until someone who is knowledgeable and authorised confirms and directs the fire.

Contrary to what some here, say not ALL theories have equal weight - otherwise folks could say it was a unicorn and be considered as serious a proposition as a balloon or misidentification.

What is wrong with alien UFO believers and their thinking?

Imagine that they are correct and ET was on a scouting mission. This alien guy is advanced and intelligent enough to travel vast interstellar distances but for some reason decides to spend a whole HOUR loitering in the skies of Los Angeles and receiving up to 1,400 rounds of air-burst. Why can't the believers see how stupid that is?

I do hope and believe that non terrestrial life exists but it will take a lot more than a dodgy photo, video or eye-witness account for me to KNOW it as fact.

Fact of the matter is, that believers are bringing down the the whole credibility of the alien UFO field, by being too ready to believe anything is an alien ship, the authorities do not need any program of disinformation - believers are doing it for them.

Dapper Dave, London, England
August 18, 2012 12:39pm

Please Dapper Dave... to date we have found that aliens are extremely poor at landing because they do not have any reliable form of RISK asssment.

Makes you wonder how mars/human hybrids ever got born...geneti testing says none... but we still speulate

Lets face it, the aliens are responsible for chemtrails and furthermore self destructive particle physics.

Dapper Dave, thanks for the great post. Brian hasn't the time or economics to exult good critical skills that appear many many times a week on his site.

Yours was a classic in critical thinking.

Now here is one to Macky of Auckland (named after my father) of all the ridiculous positing I throw at any speculator (rad "conspiracy theorist" or just conspiracist) how is it that just the easiest of claims can be reduced by harassment an questioning?

I am happily admitting I am " reduced to harassment" prior to questioning... but for a purpose...

A very long lead to a lot of questions..

Why isnt the alien connection from the particular poster here but elsewhere is an omission from that commenter..

Speculations within spculations is not wheels in within wheels from the fantasy Bene Gesserit. Nor will it ever live to become established like Frank ever imagined.

Like we get big time science from hobbit movies?

Mud, Virtually Missing point, NSW, Oz
December 21, 2012 8:53pm

and lease.. exercise your critical thinking skills in advancing a double, triple or multiple post in skeptoid.

I am sure that well structured posts that require bods here to think the parameter of Brian world... would be appreciated by Brian.

Mud, missing point, NSW, Oz
December 21, 2012 8:58pm

This case is very intersting but the attempts at debunking it as nothing are quite frankly laughable.

One the balloon theory is unsustainable. All balloons used at the tame would have been slow moving (at best) thus easy to hit even by the most inexperienced gunners.

Also no balloon (even today) could stand hits from over 140 shells (that is presuming only 10 percent hit).

Second the photo shows smoke from the AA shells exploding.

This is also unsustainable. The smoke from that many airbursts would be not confined to just the narrow point of the convergence of searchlights.

Lastly while it was a known fact that jitters and hyper vigulance were common after pearl harbor.

But you have to presume that every gunner, every battery commander and the officers in charge of the overall LA airspace are paranoid, forgot all their training, and just lost it.

This would be the only way you could justify over 1400 shells used and the shooting lasting over an hour on what skeptics call balloon or nothing at all.

This would defy logic that many people could not control themselves and would shoot at nothing.

I firmly believe they saw something they could not identify that night and it continued to take hits from explosives, thus justifying an hour + of shooting.

It was not nothing or a balloon.

But what it was exactly no one knows or is willing to tell us.

Eric, Northern IL USA
February 1, 2013 12:52am

AAA shells are fused so they go off at a certain height, so although there were explosions that doesn't mean anything was being hit. Also, AAA guns, despite what is commonly believed, are fired at a specific sector of sky, whether there is a target there or not (to avoid all the guns in the area being concentrated on a single target and letting others through).

So why is it so difficult to believe that each battery was firing because other batteries were? It's not a matter of 'losing control'. They fired until they were told to stop. And that only happened when someone in command realised there was nothing there to shoot at, the original object, in all likelihood a balloon, having already been destroyed.

Darren, Liverpool, UK
February 1, 2013 9:57am

Darren you are right in the fact AA batteries would keep firing untill ordered to by command to stop.

You are also right that AA goes off at a set hight.

However there is more to it if you look a little closer.

One AA shells at the time were not as percise as they are today. You could set the fuses but there would be some natural varience in altitude of detonations.

Two Due to not only the inaccracy of detection devices (radar, observer, ect)and that an enemy would NOT stay at one altitude the different batteries would be exploding shells at different altitudes. Along with the reality that EVEN IF all guns were aimed at the same place all shells would NOT be in the same place at the same time.

Given one and two the idea a AA burst cloud would be on one relatively small space is unrealistic.

The military does not place novice commanders in charge of deadly high explosives to be shot over a city.

The idea that a "balloon" was destroyed but the command did not realise it for an hour is unrealistic.

Something was out there, enough of a threat to have AA defences shoot 1400+ shells for over an hour and cause a reflection in searchlights.

We do not know what it is (or is willing to tell us).

But to continue with this "balloon" or nothing theory is just plain silly.

Eric, Northern IL USA
February 1, 2013 11:43pm

So aliens didn't used battleships because they didn't fire back? They just came to try they new defense system and for that experiment become a target of American defense forces for nearly an hour? And don't you think that if people shoot down a number of spacecrafts,that they would not start some sort of intergalactic war? In fear eyes are big! And it was war. So who knows what started the shooting. But balloons and aliens?

victor, russia
June 26, 2013 9:04pm

"But you have to presume that every gunner, every battery commander and the officers in charge of the overall LA airspace are paranoid, forgot all their training, and just lost it."

It makes more sense to pour fire onto a perceived target then have egg on your face later when it turns out you lit up a cloud than it is to not fire and it turn out to be a Japanese bomber formation.

Another Nick, Alexandria VA
July 8, 2013 7:43pm

As "Mars Attack" clearly showed,it would have been more economical and more effective to play country music at a high volume in the direction of the UFO's......

nick cox, singapore
July 17, 2013 12:20am

First victor.

When one of our subs should be attacked by great white sharks (sea deadliest pred) since it cannot hurt it do we go and torpedo it? NO we don't.

Maybe the object (if manned) had the same adv tech and felt no need to retalitate against a species that clearly cant hurt it. Be it manned armed or unmanned it just decided to observe and gather data while ignoring the "loud noises"?

Another nick

If it were for a short time the AA fire went on I may agree with your theory.

But remember they shot for over ONE HOUR and used 1400+ shells. Also note that this was over A HEAVILY POPULATED CITY. It could and DID cause civilian deaths.

No commander in his right mind is willing to "not have egg on his face" and have to explain even one civilan death. Not to mention the large amount of ammo (that at the time was in short supply) used.

All we can confirm with research is these few facts.

The military continued to shoot at SOMETHING that was UNAFFECTED by over 1400+ AA rounds.

Civilian and military witnesses stated on the record THEY SAW SOMETHING.

One confirmed picture showed something that was NOT a weather balloon or ANY KNOWN AIRCRAFT.

No balloon would stand up to that much AA fire and no military commander would continue to fire after a balloon was distroyed.

Beyond that any attempt to dismiss this as a balloon or jittery military commanders (two of the main explinations) does not hold up to factual research...or even just good old common sense

Eric, Northern IL usa
July 23, 2013 12:54am

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