World War II

CITY OF SHADOWS

As the sun set over the Pacific on the evening of Tuesday, February 24, 1942, Los Angeles was on edge. Ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor, people in every city along the West Coast had feared they were next, but that night nerves were especially frayed. Only 24 hours had passed since a Japanese submarine had surfaced off the California coast and had proceeded to lob more than a dozen 140mm shells into Ellwood oil refinery, just eight miles from Santa Barbara and fewer than 100 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Since December, Japanese submarines had rampaged up and down the coast, attacking nearly a dozen merchant ships and sinking two within sight of shore, but these were the first cannon shells of an enemy from across the seas to fall in anger upon the continental United States since the War of 1812.

There was something in the air. People feared the worst when the radio stations carried an official “yellow alert” at 7:18 p.m., warning that attacking aircraft were only 100 miles—or 20 minutes—from the City of Angels. Beginning with yellow, the color-coded alert nomenclature progressed to blue, which triggered a public warning such as a siren; red, which signified that the enemy was between 25 and 40 miles away; and green, which meant that the antiaircraft batteries should be ready to open fire. They had heard it before. The air raid warnings seemed to come several times each week. So far, the alerts had always been false alarms, but it was hard to get used to reports of enemy aircraft in California skies. And it was hard to grow accustomed to the mandatory blackout orders that came with each of these warnings. The blackouts—which extended to streetlights, headlights, shop windows, and even cigarettes—were never as complete as the civil defense authorities would have liked, but grew more comprehensive over time as compliance expanded, cloaking the landscape in an ever-more-gloomy mood of had coined the term “City of Shadows,” and the city would once again be in darkness that night. At 10:33 p.m., an “all clear” sounded and people turned on their lights just in time to turn them back off to go to bed. It was not until the wary and weary of Los Angeles had finally drifted off to sleep that the real fireworks began.

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