There are two gigantic moments in the 70-year history of Fort MacArthur in San Pedro. One is Christmas Eve 1941, a little more than three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A Japanese submarine torpedoed a cargo ship carrying lumber a few miles outside Los Angeles Harbor. Although the attack took place within sight of Fort MacArthur, not a single round was fired by the coastal-defense guns at the Japanese submarine.
Two months later, the guns did open fire. In what is sometimes called “The Battle of Los Angeles,” the guns shot more than 1,400 artillery rounds in a little over an hour, beginning at about three o’clock in the morning on February 25, 1942. What they were firing at remains a question. There was widespread fear of a Japanese attack on Los Angeles, but there were no enemy aircraft in the skies. Shrapnel damaged many houses and cars up to ten miles away, and the deafening noise of the big anti-aircraft guns scared many people.
I didn’t really know much about either of these big events in the history of southern California until I visited the Fort MacArthur Military Museum, which is on a bluff overlooking Point Fermin. Burrowed into the hillside are thick concrete gun emplacements. The museum itself is located in one of those emplacements, Battery Osgood-Farley.
(Other areas of the Fort MacArthur that I explored on my own in decades past, mainly Battery Barlow-Saxton, are not accessible to the public now because structural collapses have rendered them unsafe.)
The federal government began setting aside land for coastal defense in San Pedro as early as 1888. By the 1920s, large artillery pieces—some weighing hundreds of tons–were added.
But time was always Fort MacArthur’s biggest enemy. It was a fortress designed to protect the port from the early 20th Century’s biggest worry, a naval attack. But by the time of World War II, attack strategies had shifted to the air, and Fort MacArthur, much of it nestled in a ravine, was vulnerable.
The guns were already obsolete in World War II. The Osgood-Farley artillery was declared surplus in 1944, and destroyed for scrap in 1946. They had cost millions to purchase and install. There were questions about how accurate 1920s armaments were in the 1940s, and Fort MacArthur’s weapons were seldom fired.
Except for that night in 1942. Looking at the old newspapers on the museum walls, it’s hard for us now to imagine the fear and vulnerability of a coastal community with a major port, a navy base, major defense manufacturers (aircraft plants in Long Beach, El Segundo, and Santa Monica), and a growing industrial infrastructure. And Fort MacArthur was the American defense outpost closest to Japan.
They knew they were targets of an aggressive imperial force that had already struck American interests in Hawaii and elsewhere.
So what was it that set off the guns that night 70 years ago? Was it Japanese aircraft? Almost assuredly it wasn’t. Studies of Japanese archives after World War II established that, at the time, there were no Japanese aircraft over California. Was it “war nerves,” as the Secretary of the Navy declared hours after the guns went silent? Undoubtedly, hysteria was involved. The day after the Secretary of the Navy spoke, the War Department weighed in. It had been at least five aircraft, Secretary Henry L. Stimson said, commercial planes that had overflown Los Angeles from a secret airfield in the California Desert or in Mexico, that were on a reconnaissance mission to see the terrain and gauge the defenses.
Forty years later, the Office of Air Force History issued a report that attempted to piece together all of the evidence. Its conclusion? That weather balloons sighted at 3:06 am drifting south from Santa Monica started the chain of events that led to the clamorous, anxious night.
But a recounting of the event in a newspaper article after the war may contain the most plausible explanation for what happened. The article was by Matt Weinstock, a reporter for the Daily News (not related to today’s Los Angeles Daily News).
According to the Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942 site, Weinstock’s article contained this quote from a man who had served in an Army squad that set up radar installations:
"Early in the war things were pretty scary and the Army was setting up coastal defenses. At one of the new radar stations near Santa Monica, the crew tried in vain to arrange for some planes to fly by so that they could test the system. As no one could spare the planes at the time, they hit upon a novel way to test the radar. One of the guys bought a bag of nickel balloons and then filled them with hydrogen, attached metal wires, and let them go. Catching the offshore breeze, the balloons had the desired effect of showing up on the screens, proving the equipment was working. But after traveling a good distance offshore and to the south, the nightly onshore breeze started to push the balloons back towards the coastal cities. The coastal radar's picked up the metal wires and the searchlights swung automatically on the targets, looking on the screens as aircraft heading for the city. The ACK-ACK started firing and the rest was history."
It is, of course, unfair from so far in the future to blame anyone for that calamitous night. Steven Spielberg tried to make light of it in a daffy comedy called “1941,” with John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and John Candy, in 1979.
And, this weekend, the Fort MacArthur Military Museum will commemorate it with a dinner/dance that has become its annual signature event. It’s called “The Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942.”