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Movie-A-Day #55: 1941 (1979).

February 24, 2011

The events of the night of Feb. 24, 1942, have gone down as a footnote in history as the Battle of Los Angeles. And, no, it had nothing to do with the forthcoming big budget movie of the same name. Instead, it had less to do with aliens and more to do with the West Coast’s post-Pearl Harbor jitters.

Less than three months after the Japanese bombed Hawaii, folks in Southern California were still on edge wondering if there would be another attack on American soil. Air raid and blackout precautions were in full effect and plenty of people kept their eyes on the skies in case something happened. Then finally on Feb. 24, something did happen. Lights appeared in the night sky over Long Beach and Santa Monica, prompting anti-aircraft fire from artillery units on the ground. This prompted other citizens on the ground to open fire as well, sending a panic throughout the Los Angeles area. By the time order was restored at dawn on Feb. 25, more than 1,400 shells had been fired, several buildings had been damaged, and six people were dead, either from friendly fire or from panic induced heart attacks. Yet nothing was shot down and there was no trace of whatever it was that had been seen overhead. Nobody knew for sure what they saw up there. Rumors ranged from Japanese fighter planes to innocent American aircraft to UFOs. Military officials didn’t say much at the time, and the matter wasn’t officially laid to rest until 1983 when the Air Force finally issued a report attributing the confusion to a stray weather balloon.

The Battle of Los Angeles was perhaps the most dramatic of a handful of similar incidents that occurred up and down the West Coast immediately after Pearl Harbor. All of which inspired “1941,” Steven Spielberg’s somewhat misguided attempt at a big budget epic comedy. It’s an interesting, oddball slice of L.A. history that probably deserves a better telling than what Spielberg gave it.

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