Thanks to countless trailers, TV spots, Internet ads, large-scale billboards, and overall marketing saturation, most everyone who pays even a modicum of attention to popular culture knows that the Columbia Pictures sci-fi spectacular Battle: Los Angeles, which tells the story of a group of Marines attempting to thwart an alien invasion in the City of Angels, opens in theaters everywhere on March 11th. What most people don't realize, however, is that there was a real-life "Battle of Los Angeles" (not quite as exciting as the movie, but still) that was "waged" in the skies over Santa Monica on February 25, 1942 - exactly 69 years ago as of this writing.
As part of the studio's promotion for the upcoming sci-fi/action flick, a press conference was recently staged with a group of "UFO experts" to discuss both the famous "battle" that allegedly inspired the film, as well as other anecdotal reports that they believe point to a greater historical UFO phenomenon. The panel, as it were, was made up of two ex-Air Force officers - Charles I. Halt and Robert Salas - both of whom claim to have experienced genuine extraterrestrial manifestations while serving in the line of duty; William Birnes, famous "UFOlogist" and creator of the now-cancelled History Channel series UFO Encounters; and Mark Easter, Director of Public Relations for the non-profit organization MUFON, which specializes in the "scientific study" of UFO sightings.
The real "Battle of Los Angeles," also known as the "Great Los Angeles Air Raid," began on the evening of February 24th, when thousands of military personnel were mobilized after unidentified aircraft were spotted in the skies above Santa Monica Bay. It had been less than three months since the invasion of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, which had left the American people - particularly those living on the coastlines - stunned and living in fear of the next full-scale attack by Axis forces.
After a brief lifting of the initial alert, which was thought to have been a false alarm, around 2am new reports began streaming in of enemy plane sightings just off the coast, prompting the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade to open fire on the vaguely-glimpsed unknown threat with powerful anti-aircraft weapons. However, once the dust cleared (over 1,400 shells had been fired in total) it soon became apparent that the only damage done in the midst of the "battle" had been the result of either wayward shell fragments from the Brigade's own weapons or accidents caused by panic-stricken Angelenos (it is also estimated that up to three people died of heart failure as a result of the pandemonium).
"The official story was it was a balloon," said Burns, speaking with authority from behind a long table set on a makeshift stage at the front of the room. "But air raid wardens in Santa Monica and Redondo Beach or from the city of L.A. were told that it was an unidentified flying object. A piece of it came down, and I hope to get my hands on that piece and analyze it. But 1942, the Battle of LA was a real battle with what was probably a UFO over Santa Monica Bay.
"Now, throughout the course of WWII," he continued, "with foo fighters [the name given to a series of UFOs sighted around the world during the Second World War] over in Europe, orange balls of light in the South Pacific interacting with our bombers, Roswell in 1947...Folks might say, 'gee, if UFOs are real' - this is the question everybody here in this audience is [asking] - 'if UFOs are real, why don't they just show up on the White House lawn, say hello to President Obama?'
"Well, the answer is they did, in 1952 over Washington D.C., covered by most of the newspapers in the United States, especially the 'New York Times' and the 'Washington Post', [and] in Movietone newsreels," he insisted with obvious conviction. "And the Air Force said, 'you don't know what you're looking at, it's simply a temperature inversion'. And the single largest UFO invasion of all time, in 1952, over Washington, Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, was completely denied in the media, and we swallowed it."
Sound like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo? Well, you're certainly not alone (this reporter happens to agree with you), but the fact remains that a large percentage of Americans (in most recent polls it's somewhere in the range of 30-40%) are believers in the existence of UFOs. For his part, Mark Easter thinks it might be a lot higher if we all just took some time to peer up at the sky every once in awhile.
"I'm happy when movies like this come out, [because] it does increase sightings and reports, and the main reason is because people walk out of the theater and they look up in the sky," said Easter, whose organization allows anyone from the general public to anonymously report a UFO sighting on their website. "Most people, they go about their daily lives, they never look up in the sky to be able to see what is actually up there. I'm not saying there's UFOs in the sky all the time, but the key is, you go about your daily life writing your news stories, looking at the cracks on the sidewalk, and people never look up to be able to see and do what's called ground observation to see what is in the sky.
"So when movies like this come out, 'Independence Day', now this movie, 'War of the Worlds', we do get an increase in sighting reports, because people are excited about it and they step out of the theater...not literally, but they want to see for themselves at that point, it's generated their interest. And they look up in the sky and do see things."
Salas and Halt, two men tasked specifically with monitoring the skies in their prior capacity as Air Force officers, are among those who believe they have borne witness to genuine UFO phenomena.
Salas, who was stationed at Montana's Malstrom Air Force Base in 1967 when several missiles, housed at two separate weapons compounds, completely "shut down" simultaneous to sightings by other personnel (Salas was stationed underground) of oval-shaped spacecraft hovering nearby, is not only a believer in the existence of UFOs - he's actively campaigning the U.S. government to release what he maintains are secret documents which prove their existence. More urgently, he sees the issue as a matter of national security, given what he saw as a demonstration of the UFOs' power to tamper with the country's nuclear arsenal.
"Last year, on September 28th, Col. Halt and I and five other ex-Air Force went to Washington, D.C., held a press conference for the national press, and...talked about the number of incidents related to nuclear weapons involving UFOs," said Salas. "I've got the press kit here, you're welcome to look at that. And I've also got my analysis of why I think this is a cover-up...we do think that the public has a right to know, because this affects all our lives. And right now this secret is being held somewhere in government circles, and we think the public ought to be a part of the conversation here. So we think the U.S Air Force especially [needs to] come clean on this."
Halt, who unlike Salas claims to have actually witnessed a UFO sighting with his own two eyes - while stationed as a Base Commander at the Bentwaters Royal Air Force base near Woodbridge, England in 1980 - doesn't necessarily believe the UFOs harbor any ill intentions, however.
"Wouldn't you think if they were going to be hostile, they would've been so by now?" he asked rhetorically. "I heard a very interesting quip from a friend here awhile back that said, 'Well, what happens the day after? Let's assume they land...not invade, they land. You're still gonna go to work, you're still gonna have to pay your taxes and pay your bills. So life's probably going to go on. It's gonna be altered drastically, [but] life will go on.'"
In the scheme of the real "Battle of Los Angeles" - i.e., not the fictional Hollywood movie crafted purely for our viewing pleasure - Birnes believes there was definitely something more in the sky that night than what the general public was told. Which isn't to say he doesn't appreciate the reasoning behind not telling them.
"From the military's point of view, the one thing that you don't want is to panic - and you'll see this in the motion picture - the one thing you don't want is to panic a civilian population," he told us. "I mean, the whole point of the military, and I'm sure officers can basically affirm this, is not to panic civilians, because it's like a human cattle stampede. How can you fight a war with hundreds of thousands of civilians running right at your own lines fleeing in terror? So what you do is calm the situation. Well, how do you calm a situation? Easy. 'It's not a flying saucer, it's not a UFO, it's not anything, it was a balloon, and the balloon flew over, and we couldn't see it, and it flew out to sea. No problem! Everybody go home, nothing more to see here.'"
Whatever did go down in the skies over Santa Monica that night remains an intriguing mystery left open to interpretation by rationalists and conspiracy theorists alike, and it is, if anything, a curious thing to ponder - even for a skeptic such as myself. At the very least, it seems to have served as the inspiration behind a big-budget Hollywood film that extrapolates for us what might happen if decidedly less-friendly extraterrestrials were to touch down on our planet...in an alternate, action-packed reality we can view comfortably from the confines of our local movie theater.