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This Day in History: Los Angeles under siege . . . sort of

On this day in 1942, the Battle of Los Angeles is fought . . . sort of. Americans were ferociously firing at something that wasn’t there! Perhaps the situation was unsurprising. Everyone was on edge: After all, the Japanese had attacked an oil field near Santa Barbara just one day earlier.

A Japanese postcard celebrates the bombing of Ellwood.

Yes, you read that right. A Japanese submarine fired at the California coast line during World War II, less than three months after Pearl Harbor.

Americans were left reeling, trying to digest what had just happened. First Hawaii and now California. Could the mainland United States be invaded?

The ruckus began when Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-17 was dispatched with orders to find and attack a target on our western coast. No one is quite sure why Captain Kozo Nishino chose the oil field near Santa Barbara, although one theory might give you a good chuckle. Nishino had already visited Santa Barbara at least once before, in the 1930s. On this earlier visit, he apparently stumbled and fell into a prickly-pear cactus. He’d been humiliated by the laughter of oil workers as he worked to remove cactus needles from his person. Did he choose Ellwood as a sort of revenge?

Who knows? But if so, he didn’t get much in the way of revenge. Nishino bombarded the area, but the damage was relatively minor. In the end, the attack mostly created a lot of noise and disrupted everyone’s night with blackouts and air raid sirens.

“They missed with all their shots at this plant,” the owner of a nearby hotel told a reporter, “though some of the shells landed fairly close, throwing up geysers of dirt and sand near the building.” His conclusion? “Their marksmanship was rotten!” Another eyewitness, J.J. Hollister III, later described the “eerie whistling and caterwauling” that he heard. “It was a sickening sound,” he concluded.

People must have been nervous. By the next night, Los Angeles was acting like a city under siege. Air raid sirens blared. Someone thought they sighted Japanese aircraft. One anti-aircraft gun was fired, then more joined in. Soon batteries all around the city were participating in the “battle.” The city was blacked out. Spotlights raked the sky, searching for Japanese planes. An “all clear” wasn’t called until 7:21 a.m. the next morning.

What had happened? Was it a false alarm? The Army’s Western Defense Command insisted that an unidentified aircraft had been spotted. Meanwhile, the Secretary of the Navy attributed the situation to “jittery nerves.” The disagreement continues today. You’ll find some who think that a UFO sparked the panic! Or a weather balloon. Or perhaps it really was just jittery nerves.

Either way, no Japanese aircraft was downed that night. No bomb was dropped on the city. There were a few casualties and some damage, but they’d all been caused by American anti-aircraft shells.

Americans had fought the Battle of Los Angeles against themselves.

None of this stopped the Japanese from spreading propaganda, of course, pretending that they’d inflicted more pain upon us. (The attached Japanese stamp, for example, shows an allegedly serious attack on Ellwood.) The Japanese would make a few more attempts to attack the United States mainland, but none of these efforts succeeded.

Naturally, those are stories for another day.

Primary Sources:


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