Few wartime incidents have been so compelling, and controversial, in the eyes of modern ufologists as that famous "battle" which took place in the skies above Los Angeles in the early morning of February 25, 1942. While conventional history maintains that the entire ordeal had been the result of "war nerves," UFO researchers have scoffed at the assertion that an object allegedly seen in the skies above Los Angeles that evening had simply been meteorological balloons (see Wesley Craven and James Cate's 1983 The Army Air Forces in World War II: Defense of the Western Hemisphere for more on the official analysis of the incident).
The story is well known by now: a strange object appears on radar, moving in slowly toward land from off the Pacific, and soon there are reports buzzing about sightings of Japanese planes over California. Artillery fire ensues, lasting until around 4:14 AM, causing damage to buildings, and even a handful of deaths throughout the panic-stricken city, with reports of disabled Japanese fighter planes crashing to the ground.
The story has remained sensational, largely due to the interest and assertions of UFO researchers; in the past, I too have questioned, on occasion, how a misidentified aircraft of any kind might sustain an onslaught lasting nearly an hour and a half, courtesy of 12.8 pound anti-aircraft shells. For all we know, maybe the root of the mystery really does have to do with an exotic aircraft... and to be fair, maybe weather balloons are still just as worthy of consideration. But over the years, there has been enough misinfo presented by both sides--favoring skepticism as well as belief--to almost forever color the waters around this strange and scary incident. So what happened on that February night over Los Angeles, and was California really visited by an unknown aircraft capable of sustaining long-term firing well into the morning hours?
Over the years, there have been a number of bad reports--some of them outright hoaxes--that have been passed along as "evidence" of something strange in the skies over Los Angeles in 1942. Back in 2010, I had taken particular interest in reports appearing at various sites online that alleged the object seen over LA that evening had resembled a giant butterfly. The specific source being cited for these claims had been The Reno Evening Gazette February 26, 1942 edition, thus resulting in a few Fortean scholars who began to draw parallels between the LA air raid of '42 and later "Mothman" reports emanating from Point Pleasant, West Virginia, during the late 1960s. Like many others, I was intrigued by this, and so I decided to see if I could hunt down an old microfilm copy of this edition of the Gazette; sure enough, I located the paper thanks to a little help from an amateur historian friend of mine, with the famous headline emblazoned across the frontpage that read, “Los Angeles Confused Over Air Raid Alarm.” My search for a large Fortean fluttering beast had begun, but the biggest surprise came at the end, when it became clear that there was no mention of any "giant butterfly":
Upon finishing the article, I was surprised to find no mention, whatsoever, of any “giant butterfly.” Thinking I must have somehow misread the article, I went back and looked over the entire piece again (beginning on the front page, and continued on page 7), but still to no avail. I followed that course of action by then looking through all 13 pages of the February 26th Reno Daily Gazette, hoping there might be a second piece with further witness testimony included as well. Although page 6 featured a photograph of a gentleman identified as “H.O. Landis” kneeling in his garage, studying damage sustained from falling shrapnel, still I found no mention of any “giant butterfly.” Could this report of a strange cryptid/ufological phenomenon associated with the phantom “attack” on Los Angeles in 1942 have been taken from a different news source, perhaps attributed wrongly to the Reno Evening Gazette? This seems very possible… similarly, there is the chance that it could have been an exaggeration all along; perhaps something based on rumor and hearsay, which eventually found its way onto the web and became widely circulated.
A few years out, I've gravitated more toward the latter approach, especially since I've found no further evidence that anything resembling a "giant butterfly" ever surfaced in relation to the Battle of Los Angeles incident. But this wasn't the only evidence of hoaxing and hearsay that led to misperceptions of what had really been going on with regard to the famous incident. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, writer Larry Harnisch also managed to find a number of doctored images that made convenient use of photoshop in order to circulate more compelling looking newspaper headlines from the period, which were later featured in one of the early trailers for the film Battle: Los Angeles.
While one cannot deny the trickery that had taken place (yet again!) in this instance, I must admit to finding Harnisch's assertion that, "if the publicity campaign wanted to establish UFO research as nothing but lies and fakery, it couldn't have done a better job" to be woefully biased. Obviously, "lies and trickery" are often the underlying elements behind UFO reports, although it would be unfair to omit the fact that, more often, there are honest individuals who have simply misidentified a known aircraft, or who have otherwise misperceived some variety of aerial phenomenon, and thus report what they've seen as a UFO. I could go on for days about why this doesn't necessarily have to mean that we're dealing with alien spacecraft, but the cultural meme of "UFO=extraterrestrial" has already been firmly planted in our collective imaginations. I don't think there's any harm in speculating about the extraterrestrial nature of some UFO reports. However, in the minds of most debunkers (i.e. researchers with their own innate preconceptions about what UFOs are... or more importantly, aren't), this has effectively brought the UFO soundly onto the landing strip, pried open its silvery entry portal, and revealed the tremendous heap of baloney they believe to exist within the heart of the UFO-ET believer cult. Sadly, the preponderance of phony "evidence" that exists on the web is routinely used as fuel for gunning down UFO reports in this way, albeit in a biased fashion, and with far more effectiveness than the artillery used against an alleged "unknown" over the early morning skies of Los Angeles in 1942.
So what actually happened that evening? With many years--and many more opinions--having passed since those days when ufological studies were barely even in their infancy, let alone being the cultural phenomenon we recognize today, there have been a plethora of ideas set forth. Returning again to the work of the aforementioned Craven and Cate, there may be some justification for the idea that weather balloons could have been in the vicinity on the night in question:
At the end of the war, the Japanese stated that they did not send planes over the area at the time of this alert, although submarine-launched aircraft were subsequently used over Seattle. 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. It is hard to see, in any event, what enemy purpose would have been served by an attack in which no bombs were dropped, unless perhaps, as Mr. Stimson suggested, the purpose had been reconnaissance.
And again, we must take into consideration the fact that no damage was incurred on the ground level that night, save only that which resulted from friendly fire; thus, we can pretty safely rule out Japanese fighter planes. Granted, the above explanation does not, by virtue of the evidences used to formulate the argument being expressed, incorporate even a cursory glance toward anything ufological with regard to the "unknowns" witnessed that night. However, with information that states meteorological balloons were indeed known to be in the air on the night in question, we can't rule out this piece of evidence as perhaps the best explanation for the confusion that erupted over LA on the evening in question. If one troubling question were still to remain, it might be this: with the already heightened concern regarding a Japanese attack in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, who would have thought it was a good idea to release weather balloons in the first place? Although some balloons of this sort were being fitted with instrumentation for purposes of monitoring and prevention of oncoming attacks (as well as the lesser-reported Japanese "balloon bombs" of WWII), it is almost troubling how often (and convenient) the appearances of weather balloons seem to be in conjunction with popular UFO reports.
It can be troubling at times for the dedicated ufologist, especially when the act of combing all the available evidence seems to lead to the almost inevitable task of "murdering one's darlings." And yet, so many of the tried and true UFO reports that have seemed to stand the test of time, upon closer inspection, will likely begin to reveal tiny flaws... exposed threads that, if pulled, will begin to allow the outer garments to fall away, thus leaving a clear view of the exposed underpinnings where truth lies. Does this remove, in any way, the possibility that Earth is being visited by extraterrestrial beings? Not in my opinion... nor does it in any way take away from the obvious fact that UFOs are a valid and real phenomenon in our culture today. But to borrow again from Doyle's axiom in quoting his most famous detective, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." The serious ufologist, to wit, is neither believer, nor disbeliever; all that is required, instead, is a desire to know the truth, and to examine all the possible angles in uncovering whatever that reality is that lies beneath.