It was the worst air raid Los Angeles had ever seen. And it happened on a night a lot like this. A night with cold clear skies, a hint of panic in the air. And it’s all true.
It was back in February of ’42. War had come to America with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December. And then on the night of February 23, a Japanese sub lobbed a bunch of shells towards an oil field north of Santa Barbara, mostly hitting the ocean. But it was the thought that counts, and people were on edge.
On February 24 at 7:18 pm an alert was called in Southern California. They had seen something out there in the gathering dusk near Los Angeles. Something… impossible. Or had they seen it? No. No, it couldn’t be. It must have been a mistake. At 10:23 pm, the alert was lifted. All clear. All is well.
Later that night, at 1:44 am February 25, a radar station made contact with an unidentified aircraft 120 miles off the coast. The radar operators had never seen the like. They smacked their hands against their scopes in disbelief, trying to knock the image off their screens, but there it stayed. Impossible! It was confirmed by two more radar stations. It was real. And it was headed straight for the heart of the American aerospace industry. With shaking hands they reached for radios and pneumatic tubes to make the call.
- 2:15 am — antiaircraft batteries went on Green Alert: “ready to fire.”
- 2:21 am — the regional controller ordered a blackout.
- 2:25 am — all of Los Angeles County was plunged into darkness.
As the sirens wailed and 12,000 air raid wardens leapt out of bed to report for duty, the people of Los Angeles waited and watched the skies.
By 3 am, the object had been tracked to within 3 miles of the Los Angeles coastline. The official military account notes that from this point on, all reports were hopelessly at variance.
Just after 3 am, something passed over the anti-aircraft batteries in Santa Monica. There it was in the searchlights, clear as day! With a scream of horror and disbelief, the first four batteries of coastal artillery began shooting into the sky. But the ghost ship drifted past them, indifferent to their assault. It continued onward over the city.
All radio stations were immediately ordered off the air. Everyone was ordered to stay off the phones. There was no news of what was happening. But all across the city, they could see! See with their own eyes! The thing! The specter!
Some said it looked like a huge blimp. Some said it looked like 25 silver craft flying in a V formation. Some said they saw a massive glowing orb, like a giant balloon carrying a flare. Some said it looked like a handful of coins thrown into the air, hanging there, jingling.
In the Hollywood Hills, an interior decorator named Katie got a call from her air raid warden. He was frantic. Do you see it? Do you see the thing?? She went to her window, and she saw.
“It was a lovely pale orange and about the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. I could see it perfectly because it was very close. It was big!”
To this very day, the Army denies it sent up any planes. To this very day, the Army can’t explain why it didn’t send any planes up to defend the country against an airborne attack. But through the window, Katie the interior decorator clearly saw planes attacking the ghost ship in waves.
“They sent fighter planes up and I watched them in groups approach it and then turn away. There were shooting at it but it didn’t seem to matter.”
After a few minutes of helpless ferocity, the planes were called off — or perhaps the planes never existed — and for a moment, the quiet sky held nothing but a drifting orange glow.
Witnesses said it was like a warm memory. They said that it was like peacefully forgetting. They said that it was hypnotic and alluring as it wafted over the city. Witnesses said they couldn’t tell if it was looking down, or scanning the horizon, or looking within itself. Witnesses said it may have been humming quietly to itself, or maybe purring like an outboard motor, or maybe hissing like a steam engine. Witnesses all across the city looked up at it, wondering.
At 3:16 am, all the cannons of the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade opened fire with 12 pound shells. Witnesses said the air over Los Angeles erupted like a volcano. The guns tore at the night with a heavy repetitive thud, and hot fragments of spinning steel rained down across the city. But the ghost ship drifted on, impervious to the flashing shrapnel.
Reports remained hopelessly at variance. There were reports that four enemy planes had been shot down. There were reports that a plane had landed in flames at a Hollywood intersection. There were reports that a woman was killed when she collided with a truck in the blacked out streets of Arcadia. There were reports that, a Long Beach policeman was killed in a car crash while rushing en route to duty.
At least 1400 shells were fired — more than 9 tons of artillery blasted into the sky above Los Angeles. Shrapnel tore at pavement and homes, tore at flesh and bone, falling shells destroyed cars and buildings. People fled in terror through the darkness! But the ghost ship drifted on, trailed by a shimmering cowl of death.
Some said it looked like a tree in flames. Some said it looked like a vast flock of crows, their black wings flashing silver and red in the searchlights. Some said it looked like the eye of a monstrous owl.
No one understood what was happening. It could not be happening. Nothing could withstand this kind of assault. The city could not withstand this kind of assault! The city was being torn apart by it’s own defenses!
There were reports that an air raid warden dropped dead from heart failure while on duty. There were reports that a Guardsman died of a heart attack while he was behind the wheel of an ammunition truck. There were reports that a dairy herd was caught in the rain of flaming death. There were reports that the cows scattered and ran for the shelters just as they’d been trained, but some of them were not fast enough. There were reports that several cows were casualties.
The ghost ship drifted over the 65th Coast Artillery Regiment in Inglewood, who fired shell after shell directly into it, helpless, impotent. Ignoring them, the ghost ship made a gentle right turn, heading straight into the air defenses of Long Beach. From the hills of San Pedro, the massive gun turrets of Fort MacArthur stood as a mighty rampart over the ports and factories. And those guns turned away from the sea to aim at the thing which bearing down on them, the thing already hanging over the city they were charged to defend.
For the first and last time in history, the anti-aircraft guns of Fort MacArthur opened up with everything they had as the ghost ship passed right over them. But it sailed on, impervious to the metal and flames.
Around 3:45 am, the thing drifted slowly back out to sea leaving a wake of smoke and ruin behind.
With all reports still hopelessly at variance, the intermittent artillery fire continued for another half hour, while the gunners tried to find something — anything — to shoot down. A quarter after 4, all the guns fell silent. Just after dawn on February 25, the blackout was lifted, and the sirens called all clear.
At least six humans and an uncertain number of cattle had died in the barrage that night. Many people were injured and the property damage was immense. Yet no one had any idea what happened. The Navy said it was nothing at all — just one big case of the jitters, a crazy hallucination shared by millions. The Army said it was between 1 and 50 aircraft, of some kind. Or maybe a weather balloon. Or maybe not. After the war, the Japanese said they never sent any aircraft of any kind to the area.
And to this very day, no one knows what the ghost ship really was.
Sometimes when there’s a chill in the air, the sky over Los Angeles will glow an unearthly pale orange. And sometimes looking out from the hills, the entire city will shimmer like a cauldron of glittering fire. And sometimes late at night, you might hear an airplane or helicopter overhead, but when you look, there’s nothing there.
And sometimes when it’s very quiet in the forests of Echo Park, you can hear the lonely call of the cows.