The Dec. 6, 1989 Press-Telegram had an article about a wartime “attack” that stirred Downey. This was an article by columnist Milburn Gibbs, a businessman and Downey resident.
As the story starts, Arvin MacCauley was working the graveyard shift at the South Gate Defense factory when he and his mates ran outside when the noise began. Gordon Madru was a kid and it awakened him from a sound sleep; Grace McCarthy was giving her infant son his 2 a.m. feeding when all hell broke loose.
It was Feb. 25, 1942, the day Downey thought armageddon was unfolding. Anti-aircraft guns blazed away at “unidentified flying objects” — presumably Japanese planes. Following is what really happened on the night Los Angeles became the first -- and only -- mainland U.S. city to be attacked in World War II.
Well, almost attacked.
The Los Angeles Daily News story of Feb. 25 read: “World War II plopped down on Los Angeles’ doorstep today with a reported visit from a score of unidentified planes and a welcoming committee of dozens of anti-aircraft guns in full action…”
The Downey Live-Wire echoed, “Downey and a wide area of the coast area experienced its first general blackout and anti-aircraft action early Wednesday morning on orders from the Army’s western defense command. No bombs were dropped and no airplanes were shot down…”
Folks around Downey were understandably nervous on that February night. Pearl Harbor was only a couple of months before, and one could not know what subterfuge the Japanese might try. There were two batteries of anti-aircraft guns in Downey — one at Sixth Street and Paramount Boulevard, and another at Vultee Aircraft Co., at Lakewood Boulevard and Stewart & Gray Road.
The Paramount Boulevard guns were encased in a house with a retractable roof -- real high tech for the time. They were manned by Battery D, brave New York and New Jersey lads who were to defend us ably.
Jack Cook’s home was only three blocks from this installation and the house rattled during the night of infamy that was to follow. The liquor store beside the gun emplacement is said to have lost much of its virgin nector to the concrete floor that night.
About 2:30 a.m., a plane or planes of unknown origin were reported sighted and guns from San Pedro to Beverly Hills began to blaze. Thousands of rounds pierced the night sky. Tracers lighted the dark and babies clear to Los Angeles cried.
Air raid wardens and block wardens swung immediately into action. They directed traffic away from the gun emplacements, causing a traffic jam of sorts at Lakewood and Firestone boulevards. They diverted traffic away from the likely target: Vultee Aircraft.
In those days, everyone cooperated. Well, most did, and few who didn’t were soon sternly made aware of their patriotic stance and were contrite, the paper said.
News was very much censored during the war. News of great Allied-American victories at Corregidor and Guadalcanal were trumpeted in every paper. The War Department never did admit what really happened the day Downey went to war — one American weather balloon was mistaken for the armada of zeroes.
One other piece of evidence that came out long after the war: there was a Japanese submarine — the I-17 — operating off our coast that night, which did have the capability of launching a float plane. Later we learned that the I-17 went down in the South Pacific in 1943, her crew and logs lost for all time.
The War Department said later there were probably no enemy aircraft within 5,000 miles of Downey or her besieged neighbors that fateful night.
Around dawn, zone and post wardens were given the all clear and a much shaken group of Downeyites tried to re-group and resume their lives.
For more information on this topic, please visit the Downey History Center.
Bobbi Bruce is a docent with the Downey Historical Society.