My analysis today is even less heavy-handed than usual. You know…I spend a lot of time wading waist deep in academic nitwittery and today I feel like telling an interesting story – just because.
I sort of stumbled upon this story while looking into Los Angeles during WWII. So imagine this: you live on the west coast of the United States. It is February 1942 – on the heels of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. The country is at war and excitement is sweeping across the land. Another attack seems eminent. The people of Los Angeles are bracing themselves for the next onslaught…
Did you ever see the 1979 Steven Spielberg film 1941? It starred John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and other well-known comedic actors of the time. It is a fictional tale of a renegade Japanese submarine commander intent on attacking Hollywood, and a group of Los Angeles residents running amok in the first days of war.
Well, 1941 is laden with disturbing racial stereotypes (Hooorrryyyywoooo!!!!!!) meant (I believe) to convey war-era Americans’ perception of Japanese people rather than vulgar racist jabs. But racial analysis aside, I think Spielberg did a wonderful job capturing the hysteria that gripped the west coast in the early days of war. And as an added bonus, John Belushi is superb as fighter pilot Captain Wild Bill Kelso. You have to love the scene where he strafes Hollywood Blvd in his Custiss P-40 Warhawk. While the film received low marks from critics and audiences alike, I would recommend it nevertheless. It is a first-rate fictional tale and a visually stunning period piece.
But the truth is, the film wasn’t really that much of a stretch. Something along these lines actually (kind of) happened way back on February 24th 1942. It seems that reports of a Japanese air raid sent the good citizens of LA into hysterics. That evening, radar picked up several unidentified objects closing in on the Los Angeles area. After a bit, an artillery colonel reported enemy planes (although the radar blips had vanished) flying 12,000 feet above LA. This prompted coastal defense teams to send up flares and open up with a barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Four enemy planes were reported shot down, including one that was supposed to have crash landed on Hollywood Blvd.
People watched the scene unfold from rooftops and as the excitement persisted…they freaked out. Cars crashed, shell fragments fell on the city, and at least one person had a heart attack and died. But there was no attack, no enemy planes shot down, and no explanation for why coastal defense crews opened fire. Just a couple of unexplained blips, some spotlights, and a whole lot of artillery fire. The next day the Washington Post referred to the “battle” as a “recipe for jitters” and the New York Times simply stated that the event was “expensive incompetence and jitters.”
Well, call it what you want. At any rate…it is certainly a good story. I keep finding all kinds of little tidbits about LA during the war. Perhaps a short book is in order….