Wednesday, March 23, 2022

How the Battle of Los Angeles Became a UFO Story


Before the Roswell incident, there was “the Battle of Los Angeles,” and both were big 1940s military-related newspaper stories later resurrected as major UFO cases. Our examination is not about primarily about what was in the California night skies in February 1942. Rather, we ask:

How, when, and why did this incident become associated with UFOs?

The Battle

The basic story is that during the early days of World War II, the “battle,” started with a plane being detected by radar off the coast of California, and the city of Los Angeles being blacked out. There was a very real fear that a second attack from Japan was coming, and it caused a panic. Searchlights roamed the sky while anti-aircraft artillery shells were fired at flying phantoms. The events were covered by the Los Angeles Times, Feb. 26, 1942:

"SEEKING OUT OBJECT - Scores of searchlights built a wigwam of light beams over Los Angeles early yesterday morning during the alarm. This picture was taken during blackout; shows nine beams converging on an object in sky in Culver City area. The blobs of light which show at apex of beam angles were made by anti-aircraft shells.”
Witnesses described seeing many things; blimps, balloons, strange lights, squadrons of planes in formation, while others saw nothing besides the searchlights.

A less dramatic photo appeared in
Life magazine March 9, 1942, in the article, “Japanese Carry War to California Coast.”

No Japanese aircraft were found to be involved, so in the aftermath of the battle, there was a controversy due to the uproar and damage caused by firing the artillery shells. People wanted to know: What was the Army shooting at, and if nothing, why? No one seemed to want to take responsibility for the mistake, and in that sense, maybe there was a coverup. In any case, the Martians were not suspected – yet.


Spaceships and Saucers

Spaceship in searchlights from Astounding, May 1940.

Ray Palmer was the editor of the science fiction and fantasy magazine, Amazing Stories, where he published the stories of Richard Shaver as nonfiction. Billed as the “Shaver Mystery,” the tales revolved around ancient spacefaring extraterrestrials, the Atlans, Titans, and “the deros,” their degenerate devilish descendants who lived in subterranean caverns beneath the earth.

Amazing Stories Feb. 1946 had a cover illustration reminiscent of the Battle of Los Angeles photo. Editor Ray Palmer, and AS June 1947

Carrying a cover date of June 1947, Palmer put out a special all-Shaver Mystery issue, released weeks ahead of the flying saucer sightings of Kenneth Arnold. In his editorial, Palmer presented the 1942 Los Angeles incident as sightings of spaceships, evidence in support of Shaver’s tales:
“Communication between these underground races (because they have the mechanical means to do so) and peoples who travel space in space ships, and sometimes venture near a sun-planet for raiding purposes (to steal ancient machines and supplies and to procure slaves), is postulated by Mr. Shaver, and borne out by the incredible number of reports we have and have had in the past, of visiting ‘ships’ in the sky (such as the mysterious ‘air raid’ suffered by Los Angeles during the war, and which the army now reveals has never been explained, except that it was no private or military plane of our own, and none of the Japs or any foreign power, but was certainly tracked by radar, and observed by many people to ‘appear to be rocket ships’ from three to five in number).”
The flying saucers sightings began shortly afterwards. Covering the controversy, the Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1947, ran an editorial article, “Have You Reported Your Flying Disk?” It skeptically suggested that UFOs sightings might be caused by disintegrating meteorites or a quirk of reflected light, and “From then on, autosuggestion is sufficient to carry it, as was the case with the 1942 ‘Battle of Los Angeles,’ when anti-aircraft bursts caught in searchlight beams were magnified into 27 twin-engined Japanese bombers, majestically flying in formation.”

Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1947

Into the 1950s

Ray Palmer left Amazing, but he launched a new similar magazine. Other Worlds Science Stories, January 1951 featured cover art by by James Settles for "Courtesy Call" by Roger P. Graham, writing under the house name, A. R. Steber. It was a first contact story, where a signal from space heralded the arrival of an extraterrestrial ship. 

A delegation of US authorities gathered on the coastline to meet the visitors, and the narrator said:
“I got out of the car and looked over the water. Here and there broad pillars of light climbed upward into the sky, searchlights seeking for the first glimpse of the space ships. Even as I looked the first beam caught one of them. At once a dozen of them swung over to fix it and follow it in its lazy downward swoop. It seemed cigar shaped, a typical science fiction conception of a space ship with its large stern rockets, until it banked. Then its full proportions were revealed, a gigantic discus that could have perched over the financial district, resting on the spires of skyscrapers.”
Its cover illustration was evocative of the Battle of 1942, but in this instance, there were only spotlights aimed at the skies, not artillery shells.

LIFE magazine May 21, 1951 featured a long article by Winthrop Sargeant that seriously discussed Science Fiction, but also discussed the trashy side, things like Bug-Eyed Monsters and the Shaver Mystery. Describing Ray Palmer’s publication of the Shaver tales, Life said:
“The deros were responsible for much of the evil in the world… [behind] virtually every mysterious or unexplained occurrence reported in the news. They were held responsible for the disappearance of Justice Crater, for the mysterious ‘air raid’ over California just after Pearl Harbor, for the reports of flying saucers.”

The 1942 shelling and the topic of saucers were mentioned together again, in the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 1, 1952, but as an argument against the reality of UFOs. Veteran columnist Bill Henry referred to "the great ‘Battle of Los Angeles’ of 1942 in which something resembling a flying saucer — it was really an errant weather balloon — touched off the gosh-durndest artillery barrage that our community has witnessed before or since."

Los Angeles Times, Aug. 1, 1952

The Air Force files of Project Blue Book contains letters received with reports of flying saucers, both new and old, but none of them mentioned the Los Angeles events. It wasn’t part of UFO history.

The 1960s: The Battle Enters UFO Lore

Ray Palmer had tried to bring spaceships into the story, but it didn’t take. About 25 years later, the Battle was finally adopted by ufology. The 1960s saw a resurgence of public interest in flying saucers and several authors were looking at old wonders in the sky to present as UFO cases. That may have prompted the rebirth of the Los Angeles story.

The first known direct association of the 1942 incident with UFOs comes from M. A. McCartney’s letter to National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) dated Jan. 10, 1966. McCartney had been a 23-year-old air-raid warden, and he reported seeing a brightly glowing, spherical red object over Hawthorne (southwest of L.A.) As quoted in The UFO Encyclopedia Volume 2 by Jerome Clark, 1992: 
“It traveled horizontally a short distance very slowly and then made an abrupt 90-degree [turn] rising abruptly,” he said. “Again it stopped and remained motionless.” 
Summarizing McCartney’s account, Clark wrote, “After a few minutes it flew away and was lost in the distance.” NICAP did not publish the letter at the time, so it didn’t play a public role in popularizing the story. However other people were on the verge of making the connection to UFOs.

Kenneth Larson wrote about the 1942 incident and published “The Los Angeles UFO’s” in the fanzine, Saucer Scoop Dec. 1966, while it didn’t include a photo, but mentioned it:
“The next morning, the Los Angeles Times printed several articles on the matter and even displayed a photograph showing the unidentified flying object in the sky. The article said that the Army’s Western Defense command insisted the blackout was the result of unidentified aircraft sighted over the city."
Only a few buffs read it, but in 1967, a new 5-page article by Kenneth Larson, “First Authentic Flying Saucer Photo” appeared in Flying Saucers Pictorial - The world's largest collection of UFO Photographs!, a magazine format volume edited and published by Max Miller. It was carried in newsstands and reached a general audience. It was the first presentation of the 1942 picture as something anomalous, and Larson concluded that since what was fired at could not be shot down, “It seems obvious that these objects that flew over Los Angeles in 1942 were UFO’s.”

Flying Saucers Pictorial

More exposure came when Brad Steiger and Joan Whritenour picked up on Larson’s story in Saucer Scoop and summarized it in their 1967 book, Flying Saucers are Hostile. (No photo was included.)
John P. Bessor (originator of the 1947 hypotheses that UFOs are celestial animals), had a letter published in Fate magazine April 1967, warning against the cruelty of exorcising of ghosts, since they might be banished into space and bothered by things like satellites and UFOs. He closed with a tangential question:
“Incidentally, has anyone the full story on the torpedo-shaped objects that hovered for more than an hour over Los Angeles one night in January or February, 1942 — drawing considerable anti-aircraft fire? — J. Bessor, Pittsburgh, Pa.”
Gordon Lore and Harold Deneault of NICAP focused on pre-1947 UFO events in their 1968 book, Mysteries of the Skies: UFOs in Perspective. Chapter 6 (pages 74-87) was titled “The Battle of Los Angeles,” and their primary source was “Raymond Angier, an aircraft worker who did double duty as an air raid warden.

Angier provided extensive notes he had compiled after the sighting and told the story behind the story of February 25, 1942.” Their examination was of the reports of the “unidentified lights” and the “flares and blinking lights” described as hovering near defense plants that night. The famous searchlights photo was not discussed or reproduced. The authors concluded, “Although it cannot be proved beyond a doubt that no planes were over Los Angeles on the morning of February 25, the evidence is more in favor of unidentified flying objects.”

“The UFOs of 1942” by Paul T. Collins appeared in Exploring the Unknown, September 1968, and later reprinted in Flying Saucer Digest No. 19 in 1972. Collins included his personal testimony, over 25 years after the events, saying he: “noticed a strange pattern of movement in certain bright red spots of light in the sky over Long Beach. It was a pattern which could not possibly have been made by any man-made object, or by beams of light, either from the ground or from aircraft.”

NICAP issued a UFO calendar in 1972 of historical highlights, and for Feb. 24, it featured the “Battle of Los Angeles.”

Ralph and Judy Blum mentioned the story in their 1974 book, Beyond Earth: Man’s Contact with UFOs, chiefly from the perspective of Ralph’s childhood memories of the shelling incident.

The Rest is History

The Battle of Los Angeles gradually was cited more frequently in books and magazines as an early flying saucer case, and it slowly entered the UFO canon. Above Top Secret by Timothy Good, 1987, featured a section, “The Los Angeles Air Raid, 1942,” and the books’ illustrations included the photo.

Exposure peaked around 2010 due to the exploitation of the 1942 story and photo in the marketing of the 2011 Columbia Pictures science fiction movie, Battle: Los Angeles. The promotion of the film was aided and abetted by several ufologists, cementing the UFO connection in popular culture.

It was also around this time that it was revealed that the flying saucer ufologists were seeing in the convergence of the searchlights in the LA Times photo was man-made. In 2011, Reporter Larry Harnisch located the print used in the Times and said,
“much of what you see in this photo is painted: The beams from the searchlights are airbrushed. The supposed bursts of antiaircraft shells are blobs of paint… [the] darkened skyline, is a combination of black paint outlined with the faintest edge of airbrushing.”

Los Angeles Times file photo

Tim Printy wrote a skeptical examination of the photo and story as UFO evidence in his online magazine see SUNlite vol. 1, “The Battle of LA UFO story.” Printy also located The Antiaircraft Journal, Volume 92, Number 3, May-June 1949, which featured “Activities of the Ninth Army AAA” by Col. John G. Murphy, CAC.

“L.A. ‘Attacked,’" was Murphy’s eyewitness testimony and explanation of the events:
“Roughly about half the witnesses were sure they saw planes in the sky. One flier vividly described 10 planes in V formation. The other half saw nothing. … Once the firing started, imagination created all kinds of targets in the sky and everyone joined in. Well after all these years, the true story can be told. One of the AA Regiments (we still had Regiments) sent up a meteorological balloon about 1:00 AM. That was the balloon that started all the shooting! When quiet had settled down on the ‘embattled’ City of the Angels, a different regiment… sent up a balloon, and hell broke loose again. (Note: Both balloons, as I remember, floated away majestically and safely.)”

"Necessity is the Mother of Invention”

Ray Palmer got there first, and he knew something about how to attract readers, and he certainly helped get the UFO business rolling. Since 1947, there has been a public appetite for new UFO cases, one that can’t be satisfied by the pace of genuine sightings. By mining historical events, enterprising ufologists can discover or manufacture “new” UFO cases for their audiences.
(Spurious ufologist illustration)

Particularly rich ore can be found in the ambiguity of events clouded with confusion and contradictory witness testimony. With some selective editing, old stories can be recast into something phenomenal.

. . .


For Further Reading 

To go beyond our summary of the incident, see the original news coverage at the Los Angeles Times.

The Battle of Los Angeles at Saturday Night Uforia, is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to examine the events and what followed.

Another good collection of photos and information is The Battle of L.A., 1942 by Scott Harrison at Los Angeles

Thanks to Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos, Isaac Koi, and Tim Printy for research materials and resources used in this article.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Project Saucer: The Movie

There was a great UFO movie from the early 1950s that was never made – until the 1960s. The story centered on the capture of a flying saucer and the exploitation of its technology – the intriguing concept behind the Roswell crash story and many other UFO legends. 

The investigation of unidentified flying objects by the United States Air Force was officially known a Project: Sign, then Grudge, then Blue Book, but originally more famous under the nickname of Project Saucer. One Hollywood producer thought that’d make a catchy name for a motion picture. Box Office magazine, September 16, 1950, carried an announcement for a new movie on page 28:
Jerry Fairbanks Plans Flying Disc Subject

“Better move over, Buck Rogers… Hollywood’s filmmakers are adding space sagas to their dockets. Latest of the movie moguls to probe an explanatory finger into the subject is Jerry Fairbanks, producer of commercial and industrial subjects and video films, who is planning Project Saucer as a feature length entry for theatrical release. He has booked Rip Van Ronkel (who scripted Destination Moon to prepare the storyline and will shoot the opus in color starting this winter, with distribution arrangements yet to be set. Data to be incorporated in the film, Fairbanks said, has been compiled by his research department for the past three years.” 

Another mention came in the Oct. 13 column by Dick Williams in the Los Angeles Mirror:

“Jerry Fairbanks is planning ‘Project Saucer’ based on the official Air Force investigation group (which persistent reports indicate is still busy at work at Wright Field, Dayton, O., under Central Intelligence). Variety says Warner Bros. is interested in ‘Behind the Flying Saucers.’ Republic will start work on ‘Flying [Disc] Men from Mars’ next month.”

The project stalled, but another attempt at making the film was announced in Broadcasting Telecasting, April 5, 1954: 

Broadcasting Telecasting, April 5, 1954

Catalog of Copyright Entries, Jan-June 1954

The timing or the money wasn’t right, and it stalled again. In 1964 Jerry Fairbanks revived Project Saucer, but it took two years to get the cameras rolling. Fairbanks was quoted promoting it in an April 11, 1966, Daily Variety, stating that the script for Project Saucer was written by Rip Van Ronkel “over a decade ago when flying saucers first became the rage in the U.S.” (Sadly, Van Ronkel had died the year before at the age of 56.)
The screenplay was submitted to the U.S. Department of Defense, but they objected to how the Air Force and the CIA were portrayed, and they requested a few changes. See the letter to Jerry Fairbanks dated 12 April 1966 in the CIA files.

As a result of the negative reaction from the DOD, Fairbanks, director Frank Telford and “a new team of writers” updated the screenplay, changing the story away from being a Project Blue Book investigation. As it was retooled, the Vietnam-era anti-war sentiment influenced the script and probably the location of the action. The organization sponsoring the UFO retrieval was not named as the CIA. Also, the role of the Air Force was virtually eliminated from the story and more of the characters were changed to civilian specialists.

From the revised screenplay

To save on the budget, the movie was set to be filmed in Spain, but Fairbanks was able to strike deals to make it for the same cost and began production in Hollywood in the fall of 1966 with National Telefilm Associates (NTA). When completed, Project Saucer sat on the shelf for over a year until a distributor could be found, finally released in early 1968 as The Bamboo Saucer. The title was a play on the Cold War phrase, “Bamboo Curtain,” itself a variant of “Iron Curtain” for the demarcation between the Communist and capitalist states of East Asia, particularly the People's Republic of China.

The plot of the movie was slightly similar to Mikel Conrad’s 1950 film, The Flying Saucer, with rival teams from the US and Soviets out to capture a flying saucer for their nation. The 1950 film was about a secret terrestrial weapon but this time, the saucer was of extraterrestrial origin. Otherwise, there were no science fiction elements, the story was based on UFO lore from the genuine – the saucer-related death of Captain Thomas F. Mantell on January 7, 1948, to the fantastic - Frank Scully’s magnetic spaceships from Behind the Flying Saucers.

In advance of its release, The Bamboo Saucer was promoted via the flyer pictured above at George van Tassel’s famous flying saucer Contactee convention in October 1967: 

“N.T.A. salutes the 14th annual Spacecraft Convention at Giant Rock, and respectfully directs your attention to the exciting new motion picture…” 

The copy teased the story:

“From deep inside Red China a peasant’s drawing of a terrifying object from outer space spurs a dramatic search with international significance, terminating in an incredible flight through infinity!”

 The actual theatrical movie poster for The Bamboo Saucer said:

"’IT LANDED HERE...IN RED CHINA!’ These words trigger the most incredible life-and-death struggle between RUSSIA and the UNITED STATES...who would be first to find this fantastic machine from outer space and unlock its awesome secrets!”


The Depiction of UFO Concepts in the Movie

Our summary of the film skips many of the plot elements and drama to focus on the UFO aspects of the story. If you wish to watch the movie before reading, I can be viewed on YouTube

While flying the experimental X-109, test pilot Fred Norwood encounters a UFO, a large blue disc with a domed top, no ports or windows. The saucer does not rotate, but pulsing lights around seem to spin around its rim. It flies with great speed and makes erratic turns and maneuvers. The title and the opening credits roll, then this text introduction appears on the screen:

“Grateful acknowledgement is made to all the nationally recognized organizations and publications whose research and records have formed the basis for this story. To the more than 5,000,000 persons who claim to have actually seen Unidentified Flying Objects, no explanation is necessary. To all others no explanation is possible. 

When Norwood lands, he describes the saucer to the flight control as, “Disk-like maybe 40 feet in diameter. Shiny, metallic.” However, there’s no proof; the UFO disabled ground radar, and they tell him all he saw was an illusion caused by a temperature inversion. Norwood is fired from the project, but tries to pursue the UFO independently, and it results in his friend being killed in a crash reminiscent of the tragic incident with Captain Mantell. We aren’t told that the UFO is hostile, but both incidents depicted show the saucer interfere with the flight of our aircraft, the second time with deadly results.

Sometime later, Norwood is summoned to the Washington, D.C. to meet Mr. Hank Peters of an unnamed US government agency with an office door marked, “Security Personnel Only.” Peters shows him a sketch that matches Norwood’s saucer and tells him it’s of a UFO was that was recovered in Red China and hidden in an abandoned church:
“It landed there… the bodies of two – uh – creatures were found nearby, human-like and yet different… The remains decayed very rapidly, and the peasants cremated what was left. …that thing could be so scientifically advanced as to make our technology obsolete and if the Red Chinese get their hands on it, the free world is obsolete.”

Peters recruits Norwood and two other civilians for the US team, and they parachute into China with the mission to clandestinely evade the Chinese Army to capture or destroy the saucer. On the way to the UFO’s location, they encounter their counterparts, a team from the Soviet Union and they face each other with guns drawn.

Both teams are composed of scientists and technical experts but led by government men with a military agenda. It turns out the Soviets are also operating in secret, and the two teams reluctantly agree to work together for mutual survival, and to prevent the Chinese government from getting the saucer.

Cast from left to right: Bernard Fox (as metallurgist Dave Ephram), Bob Hastings (as electronics wizard Jack Garson), Lois Nettleton (as USSR electronics engineer Anna Karachev), Vincent Beck (as USSR metallurgist Zagorsky), Rico Cattani (as Comrade Dubovsky, Soviet team leader), Dan Duryea (as Hank Peters, USA team leader), and John Ericson (as test pilot Fred Norwood).

When they finally find the saucer, the scientists determine it is made from an unknown metal stronger than anything known. Entering the cabin, they find it full of consoles, screens, and instruments designed to be operated by human-like beings.

Portions of the dome are transparent, like four one-way windows, undetectable from the outside. There are no seats or restraints, and they decide the ship produces its own gravity field which allows the occupants to withstand the extreme maneuvers the craft performs. They briefly activate the propulsion and determine its technology operates by “universal lines of magnetic force.” The Russian metallurgist Zagorsky says:
“If we could utilize this principle, we could exploit literally limitless fields of energy. We could irrigate deserts, desalt oceans, increase production of food, of everything, one-hundred-fold.” 
Norwood, replies, “We could also manufacture one hell of a super-weapon.”

The Chinese army discovers their location and each team’s hawkish leader takes their men to (G-rated) war. Three of the teams’ members narrowly manage to escape with the saucer, but they lose control, and it flies into space. 

As it approaches light speed and heads for a crash into Saturn, working together they literally turn things around and return to earth, deciding no one nation should be given such power.

They head for neutral territory, and on the way, Fred Norton delivers the moral of the story:
“You know, when the world sees this ship, everybody's gonna have to realize there are other intelligent beings in the universe. They will have to meet them face to face one day. All the nations of this earth better be ready to stand together.”

The story was influenced by Silas Newton’s Aztec yarn depicted in Behind the Flying Saucers by Frank Scully, where landed saucers and dead crewmen were captured by the US military. 

Frank Scully and Silas Newton (seated).

Another element from Scully’s book is the magnetic powers source which can be used to provided free energy or used as a lethal weapon. The screenplay eliminates the aliens from the story and only the saucer itself is left as a technological mystery and prize for the nation who captures it. The final message is similar to that of the Contactees like George Adamski, that Earth’s nations should unite in brotherhood.

The Crash of a Flying Saucer Film

 The Bamboo Saucer is a little-known film that it was overshadowed by the release of two science fiction classics the same year, Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film was produced by a minor studio, a low-budget B-feature exhibited mostly at drive-in theaters. While

The Bamboo Saucer has its flaws, it is worthwhile for how it examines some UFO concepts. It might be regarded as a classic if it had been completed in the 1950s alongside The Thing from Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The screenplay was ahead of its time, but by the time it was filmed a decade and a half later, even television had been churning out saucer and alien stories for years.

The Bamboo Saucer was translated and issued abroad. In 1969 it was re-released, cut from 103 to 90 minutes under title Collision Course and later televised under that name.

The end of the 60s were bad for the UFO business in fact and fiction. On television, Star Trek was cancelled on Feb. 18, 1969, and months later Project Blue Book closed shop on investigating UFOs. Except for the Planet of the Apes franchise, not much was happening for science fiction and space films in the cinemas. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, when a sf resurgence led to mainstream blockbusters like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The Bamboo Saucer was either behind or ahead of the times. It’s worth picturing it as an anachronism, and with a healthy sense of wonder and imagination - for what might have been.

The original theatrical version can be seen at the Internet Archive or watched on YouTube.

The Bamboo Saucer

A Jerry Fairbanks Production

Writer/Director: Frank Telford

Original Story: Rip Van Ronkel, John P. Fulton

Photography: Hal Mohr

Special Effects: John P. Fulton, Glen Robinson, Deon Hanson

Music: Edward Paul

The American Film Institute site reports that one contributor died shortly before movie and another shortly after its release. “On 1 Jul 1966, in the midst of pre-production, writer and special effects man John Fulton died of a blood condition... The Bamboo Saucer also marked the final feature film role for Dan Duryea, who died of cancer on 7 Jun 1968.”

. . .

Special thanks to Ricky Poole for introducing me to this The Bamboo Saucer and the story behind it.

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