Have you seen the billboards around town that read “Battle:LA 03.11.11”?
They are there to promote an upcoming science fiction action film called Battle: Los Angeles, which stars Aaron Eckhart as a Marine battling to save us from them, with “us” being the Earth, and “them,” a bunch of invading aliens from outer space.
What most people don’t realize, there actually was a Battle of Los Angeles during the early days of World War II.
While it turned out to be a “bogus battle,” officially attributed to a bad case of war nerves, it brought about the twin tragedies of civilian deaths and the internment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast.
The “battle” actually began the night before on the evening of February 23, 1942, when a Japanese submarine shelled an oil producing plant twelve miles north of Santa Barbara.
The particulars of the attack sound like the start of a bad WWII-era joke: Did you hear the one about the Japanese submarine commander who sat on a cactus and started the Battle of Los Angeles?
Let me explain.
Before the war a Japanese tanker commander stopped to fill up his ship at the Ellwood Oil Field near Goleta, California. While he was ashore he tripped and fell on a cactus which resulted in the painful extraction of quills from his rump, accompanied by a chorus of ribald laughter from the oil workers.
A short time later, the same man found himself in command of a Japanese submarine that was patrolling the waters off California after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. On the night of February 23, the submarine surfaced near the oil field and the commander, in an obvious act of revenge over his previous harsh treatment, ordered his gunners to fire.
The attack was the first direct assault by a foreign enemy on the American mainland since the War of 1812. It caused minimal damage, but frazzled nerves up and down the coast.
The following night, air raid sirens sounded all around Los Angeles, and the skies over the city were lit up by anti-aircraft fire. The targets were thought to be enemy aircraft, but officially the government said the belligerents were stray weather balloons. (Isn’t that what they always say?)
The bogus battle claimed six civilian lives – three from friendly fire, and another three from heart attacks. It also helped bring about the governmental policy of placing Japanese-Americans into internment camps, which began just days later.
Some feel there was a third great tragedy of the battle – that unfortunate Steven Spielberg film 1941, which was based on the story.