A cursory web search will tell history buffs that despite the firing of about 1,400 anti-aircraft rounds into the dark skies above Los Angeles in the early hours of Feb. 25, 1942, the city was not under Japanese attack.
It was, in fact, visited by an alien spacecraft.
The director of the Fort MacArthur Museum in San Pedro, who is writing a book on the encounter based on research and eyewitness accounts from those firing the anti-aircraft guns, dismisses that conclusion. But …
"The general gist is that I'm part of the conspiracy," Stephen Nelson said when asked about his interactions with UFO enthusiasts on the subject. "You think that I and these soldiers … they're all going to keep that secret? It defies logic, but whatever."
Nelson's museum annually celebrates the anniversary of what's been called "the Battle of Los Angeles" and will host an expanded gala to mark the 75th year. World War II weaponry will be on display, guests can take part in a swing dance, and the night sky will light up as spotlights and fireworks are used to re-enact the chaos.
The notion of extraterrestrial visitors didn't come up in contemporary accounts, Nelson said, with most of the claims stemming from a single, retouched photo of the event published in the Los Angeles Times. Some say the image, which reportedly underwent modifications that would be frowned upon by today's photo editors, shows an unidentified aircraft surrounded by searchlights.
One might assume the official account of the incident would lay these theories to rest. One would be wrong: The Navy declared the entire matter a false alarm, but a day later, the War Department, presenting the Army's side of the story, claimed at least one and possibly five unidentified aircraft were over the city that night.
It's unlikely such findings comforted West Coast citizens. Rumors of Japanese attacks on the mainland spread wildly early in the war, and on Feb. 23, 1942, about a day before initial air raid warnings put a swath of Southern California under a blackout, a Japanese sub lobbed shells at a refinery in Ellwood, a bit more than 100 miles up the coast from downtown Los Angeles.
Nelson said his research collaborates later findings that the firings likely were directed by inexperienced gunners at weather balloons. Complicating the matter was the recent addition of radar to the anti-aircraft defense system — the new technology was just months past initial field testing.
"I've probably talked to about 10 guys who were there, and they range from searchlight operators to gunners to radar guys. And the basic gist is that they did what they were told to do," Nelson said.
Prior to the UFO theories, the pop culture touchstone for the raid came in the form of " 1941," a 1979 comedy portraying a fictional attack on a panicked Los Angeles following Pearl Harbor. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring some of the era's comedy icons-to-be (John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy) and well-known actors (Ned Beatty, Robert Stack), critic Roger Ebert called it a "cheerfully disorganized mess" in a 1.5-star review.
"To be honest with you, I loved the film '1941,'" said Nelson, who expects his book to be out later this year. "Now, the soldiers I interviewed, they're not too thrilled with it, because it makes them look stupid."
The Fort MacArthur Museum, on the grounds of an Army post that protected Los Angeles Harbor from 1914 into the 1970s, houses exhibits that discuss coastal defenses during World War II and other eras, as well as other military links to the region. Learn more at www.ftmac.org.
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.