UFOs! Los Angeles! Trappist-1! – This Week in (Weird) History

75 years ago on February 25, Los Angeles was attacked by a UFO which launched a massive air raid, and one of the strangest events to conspire in WWII. Yesterday, NASA announced their discovery of a new solar system that is our closest bet yet to finding real alien life. Coincidence? Yeah, probably. No one thinks of this shit except you. I think not!

Let’s take a quick step back… in time. It’s the late 1930s, and the location is the Ellwood Oil Field just north of Santa Barbara, California. A Japanese tanker submarine approaches to take on crude oil. The captain of that ship, Kozo Nishino, trips and falls on a bunch of cacti on his way up from the beach, and as his staff help him pick cactus pricks out of his butt cheeks, the U.S. oil field crew looks on and laughs. In that moment, Nishino promises revenge.

Now, the year is 1942. The world is still reeling from the catastrophic attack on Pearl Harbor, and the west coast of the U.S. has been on high alert for the past three months. After Hawaii, California would be a likely target for a massive attack from the Japanese. Nishino, still captain of the tanker sub, finally has an opportunity to assert some dominance, and he directed his shelling right back at the Ellwood Oil Field and… he fires 16 shells, most of them falling short of the mark, and he inflicts minor damage and the submarine sinks back into the depths unavenged.

A Japanese postcard from World War II commemorates the I-17’s shelling the Ellwood refinery and storage facilities north of Santa Barbara. Image courtesy John Geoghegan.

Ok. So the cactus part of that story is a questionable moment of journalism that seems to have stuck around for no reason other than maybe to force a giggle in the midst of what was otherwise a terrifying time in world history. But the actual attack, referred to as the Bombardment of Ellwood, is significant in WWII history for a few reasons. It validated the fear that California could be the next target of a massive attack, and as eye witnesses reported seeing “signal lights” (lights from enemy forces on land helping to direct attacks from water and sky), the idea that the enemy was active and all around was on the forefront of people’s minds. It raised fear and anxiety that a bigger attack was soon to come.

And just over 24 hours later, those fears would be corroborated.

The Battle of Los Angeles

This is the timeline of events that occurred in and around Los Angeles on the night of February 24-25, 1942:

  • 7:18 PM An alert is called for the Los Angeles area, but is based solely on suspicion.
  • 10:23PM First alert is called off.
  • 2:15AM Radars pick up a UFO 120 miles north of Los Angeles. Green Alert (ready to fire) is issued.
  • 2:21AM Full blackout of Los Angeles ordered, air raid sirens sound. Plane detected on radar disappears just miles off the coast.
  • 2:43AM Planes were reported flying over Long Beach, and minutes later, an artillery colonel on the coast reported that 25 planes were flying 12,000ft over Los Angeles.
  • 3:06AM A weather balloon carrying a red flare was reported over Santa Monica.
  • 3:16AM Firing begins.
  • 4:14AM Firing ceases.
  • 7:21AM Blackout lifted.

The aftermath of the night counts over 1400 rounds fired, 5 civilian deaths reported (2 from heart attacks, 3 from traffic accidents due to the blackout), no return fire from the UFO was reported, and no wreckage of any plane or craft ever recovered. The Navy calls the night a “false alarm,” citing anxiety and war nerves, and the press backs them. The Army does an investigation and days later claims that there were, in fact, 1-5 unidentified planes flying over LA; they theorize that they were either commercial flights operated by the enemy from secret bases in Mexico, or that Japan had launched light-planes from a submarine offshore. The intent was for recon, or to take a blow on civilian morale. The difference between the Army and the Navy stories, as well as the holes in protocol and execution did not go unnoticed by the public.

If the batteries were firing on nothing at all, as Secretary Knox [Navy] implies, it is a sign of expensive incompetence and jitters. If the batteries were firing on real planes, some of them as low as 9,000 feet, as Secretary Stimson [War Department] declares, why were they completely ineffective? Why did no American planes go up to engage them, or even to identify them? … What would have happened if this had been a real air raid? –New York Times, February 28, 1942

It wasn’t until 1983 that the Office of Air Force History claimed that a weather balloon incited the whole event.

Picture enhancements
by Steven Lacey (click photo for source)

But we all know the truth. Weather balloons are almost always aliens. Right? I mean, look at that photo. If you squint your eyes just a little you can see a bell saucer. And with real life PhotoShop modifications, you can make it out even better! That is a real photo taken on the night of the event, as it was published in the LA Times, only modified a little bit from its original format to make front page news and draw attention away from the fact that the military had massively done something no one was sure about/proud of.

The only real thing that continues to tie this to alien conspiracy are the eyewitness accounts from the ground during the event. The most famous of these accounts came from a young woman named Katie, who like 12,000 others in Los Angeles at the time, volunteered to be an Air Raid Warden during the war. Her account, which is similar to many others from the night, goes:

“It was huge! It was just enormous! And it was practically right over my house. I had never seen anything like it in my life! It was just hovering there in the sky and hardly moving at all. 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! They sent fighter planes up [the Army denied any of its fighters were in action] and I watched them in groups approach it and then turn away. There were shooting at it but it didn’t seem to matter. It was like the Fourth of July but much louder. They were firing like crazy but they couldn’t touch it. I’ll never forget what a magnificent sight it was. Just marvelous. And what a gorgeous color!”

So there we have it. Whether it was an alien encounter, a weather balloon, or some sort of enemy attack, the one thing we can all take from the Battle of Los Angeles is: this is a very confusing night to everyone involved, the government might be trying to hide something (even they couldn’t agree on a good cover story), and no one really knows, or may ever know, what happened that night.

 75 Years Later, NASA and Trappist-1

Planet Hop Trappist-1!

So this all leads me to this. In case you’re living under a rock and missed it, on Wednesday, NASA announced the discovery of a new solar system, called Trappist-1. Trappist-1 is an ultra-cool dwarf star 40 million lightyear away from our Sun in the constellation Aquarius, there are seven Earth-sized planets circling it, and at least three of them are within the “habitable zone.”

So science, science, potential liquid water, science, and we’re left with three planets that may be capable of supporting alien life. So, while we don’t know right now whether or not there are aliens on any of the three planets, the really, really cool thing about all of this is that we’ll probably all find out within our lifetimes. “We hope we will know if there’s life there within the next decade,” says co-researcher Dr. Amaury Triaud, of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge.

Scully and Mulder are popping bottles of champagne somewhere right now.

This is grand and all, but is it also a little bit terrifying to anyone else? We might find aliens! We might not find aliens! We’re not alone in the universe! We are alone in the universe! Fundamentally, we’re told from a very young age that we are never truly alone, but what if we as a planet are? Or, what if we aren’t? Oh, the possibilities…


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