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Forensic Psychology

Eyewitness Processes at the Battle of Los Angeles

An epic case of eyewitness error and misinterpretation.

Key points

  • Eyewitness testimony is frequently inaccurate, especially under stressful conditions.
  • An excellent example of this phenomenon is found in the World War II "Battle of Los Angeles."
  • Erroneous accounts of Japanese air attacks, and five deaths, resulted from the eyewitness errors involved.
Source: Matthew Sharps
Source: Matthew Sharps

The Forensic View has frequently presented examples of influences that can alter eyewitness processes. Such influences are often strongly highlighted by real-world events outside the courtroom.

The Battle of Los Angeles, on February 24-25, 1942, presents us with just such an event; and this one was epic.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an attack on the U.S. West Coast was strongly anticipated. As a direct result, the “Battle of Los Angeles” yielded a very uncomfortable night—a night which proved lethal in at least five cases.

Californians had blacked out their windows, to prevent Japanese bombers from zeroing in. Los Angeles hosted several antiaircraft batteries, accompanied by eye-searing batteries of aerial searchlights over the cities. Air-raid wardens roamed the city; an attack was anticipated at any moment.

Then it all began.

In and around Los Angeles, firing against an attacking Japanese air armada on the night of February 24-25, American anti-aircraft batteries allegedly shot nearly 18,000 pounds of shrapnel into the air, all of which of course came screaming back down in white-hot fury on the property of the American taxpayers who’d paid for it. Yet this seemed entirely justified.

Relatively precise military estimates of enemy aircraft speeds and altitudes were reported. Single death-dealing aircraft were observed peeling off in individual attacks. Some aircraft were seen crashing into the city, doing untold damage. Military observers saw entire squadrons, between 12 and 25 bombers strong, flying in close formation to drop flaming death on the City of Angels.

People on the ground were terrified; driving like hell for the edge of town through panic-driven traffic gridlocks, three Americans died in auto accidents. Two others died of heart attacks. But with all of this, not a single Japanese plane had crashed; and no Japanese aircraft had actually attacked the continental United States in the first place.

So, what happened?

Eyewitnesses to the attack were simply wrong, and this wasn’t the first time that interpretive eyewitness processes had produced similar effects. Brigadier General Frank Dorn tells us that after Pearl Harbor, many Californians saw “Japanese” aircraft flying overhead—but the planes weren’t Japanese. They were in fact products of a local aircraft plant, flown East out of the potential combat zone. To avoid bureaucratic complications, the plant supervisor hadn’t reported this to anybody (Dorn, 1971). Many people misinterpreted these completely undocumented aircraft as Japanese invaders.

But what was in the sky later, in February? What were the antiaircraft batteries actually shooting at?

The usual theories regarding unexplained aerial phenomena surfaced, and continue to surface. The Navy said there wasn’t anything up there at all, but the Army, since they’d done the firing, said there was too, so there. At the time, an extensive search was made for nonexistent enemy airfields, especially in Mexico.

Since then, the usual paranormal advocates have turned up, with the usual claims of space aliens in UFOs. A news photograph of what might be a flying saucer, illuminated by searchlight beams, is often interpreted as evidence of alien shenanigans, until we realize that the actual photo was touched up dramatically; the spaceship in the original picture turns out to be a camera-created blob of lens flare.

A more reasonable explanation lay in actual Japanese balloons that were flown over the United States to drop incendiary explosives; one such balloon did in fact wind up killing a minister’s wife and a group of church kids on a picnic. The problem is that those balloons weren’t actually used until a couple of years after the Battle of Los Angeles.

Yet don’t discard the balloon idea too quickly. Antiaircraft batteries often launch weather balloons themselves, to ascertain firing conditions; and it turns out that several such had been launched, by specific batteries, without their telling anybody else. It is certain that some of these balloons were mistaken for enemy aircraft; one battery that launched them immediately saw other artillery firing directly at the illuminated balloons.

There was also another batch of balloons up there, literally children’s toys towing reflective strips, intended to test radar. Apparently, radar picked them up. Then people shot at them with cannons.

So, there were balloons, at which several hundred people fired several tons of expensive, flaming hot steel. A somewhat disproportionate response: how could such a thing happen?

Bransford and Johnson (1973), in a seminal research paper, demonstrated that accurate prior frameworks for understanding resulted in dramatically improved cognitive performance on tasks requiring understanding and interpretation. The problem is that there is a corollary. The power of accurate prior frameworks indicates that inaccurate frameworks may be correspondingly powerful- but in the wrong direction.

Californians had been subjected to multiple air-raid and black-out drills, plus continuous expectations of imminent attack in the press. On February 23, a genuine Japanese submarine had ineffectually shelled oil fields near Santa Barbara, and on February 24, Naval Intelligence had actually issued an alert in expectation of a Japanese attack sometime before 5:00 AM on the 25th.

Everyone knew they had been under attack on the 23rd (that submarine), and that they were to be attacked before dawn on the 25th. Can you imagine a more powerful, if completely inaccurate, prior framework than that?

As summarized elsewhere (Sharps, 2022) in the forensic eyewitness realm, interpretation, often depending on frameworks for understanding, has been shown to turn blondes into brunettes, women into men, ordinary tools into guns, and practically anything into a UFO in the elastic minds of eyewitnesses. It is therefore no surprise that the powerful invasion-oriented cognitive framework of the Battle of Los Angeles could turn an aerial phenomenon, dimly-observed illuminated balloons in the dark, into the aerial menace of an armada of enemy aircraft.

The Battle of Los Angeles is a clear example of the power of cognitive frameworks and interpretation on eyewitness processing; but it's also a good example of why we shouldn't present inaccurate scary information to people in the first place. Such information may influence cognitive frameworks in correspondingly inaccurate and potentially lethal directions.


Bransford, J.D., and Johnson, M.K. 1973. Considerations of Some Problems of Comprehension. In W.G. Chase (Ed.), Visual Information Processing. Orlando: Academic Press.

Dorn, F. (1971). Walkout: With Stilwell in Burma. New York: Pyramid.

Sharps, M.J. 2022. Processing Under Pressure: Stress, Memory, and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement (3rd ed.). Park City, Utah: Blue 360 Media.

More from Matthew J. Sharps Ph.D.
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