Is alien invasion movie "Battle: Los Angeles" actually based in fact?

In next month's Battle: Los Angeles, invading aliens go to war with the American military. It's science fiction...except that a panel of UFO experts claims it's factual. At a recent Sony Pictures press conference, the studio emphasized the movie's "based in fact" premise by giving us a chance to chat with a pair of ufologists and two retired military officers who both claim to have had encounters with UFOs during their service.

UFO Magazine publisher and UFO Hunters star William J. Birnes began by matter-of-factly announcing that UFOs are real and that they are a "matter of historical record", proclaiming it a scientific fact. (It should be noted right now that there were no skeptics on the panel.)

The reason this panel had been assembled at all is because Battle: Los Angeles is, very loosely, based on historical events. There was a real-life Battle of Los Angeles during World War II that happened exactly sixty-nine years ago last night, and rumors still persist that it involved a UFO. On the night of February 24, 1942 - less than three months since Pearl Harbor and at the height of American fears of a Japanese invasion of the west coast - reports came in that an unknown aircraft was headed towards Los Angeles County from the Pacific.

For an hour, Los Angeles was in complete chaos. A total blackout was called, thousands of air raid wardens were mobilized, and the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade began firing nearly 1,500 shells at the supposed target. The next day, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox admitted the entire incident had been a false alarm and that, in all likelihood, it was just a product of the tremendous anxiety felt by those stationed on the west coast that the Japanese would soon invade.

Of course, if it was mass hysteria, there was at least some reason for it. Beyond the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had undertaken some limited attacks on the west coast. In fact, on February 23, just one day before, a Japanese submarine had shelled the Ellwood Oil Field near Santa Barbara. It was a pretty piffling attack, causing at most $1000 worth of damage to a pumphouse and a catwalk.

The response to this attack was overblown on both sides - Japanese submarine commander Nishino Kozo radioed Tokyo that Santa Barbara was now in flames, and the American public was now convinced a full-scale Japanese invasion could happen at any moment.

In that sort of atmosphere, the mass hysteria that apparently gripped Los Angeles the next night is pretty understandable, and indeed a 1983 investigation of the Office of Air Force History concluded that, in all likelihood, it was just a lost weather balloon that the already panicked military mistook for something more sinister. And it's hardly a unique phenomenon - just look at last November, in which Los Angeles (and the national media) panicked over a supposed mystery missile launch that was, in fact, nothing.

Still, some ufologists, as is their wont, insist this actually was an unknown aircraft, and it quite possibly was of extraterrestrial origin. Birnes suggested this was the opening contact between UFOs and the US military, and that UFOs did next make an attempt to contact the White House with their 1952 appearance over Washington DC. But this incident was largely left aside in favor of the stories of the two military officers who had joined him on the panel.

First, there was retired Captain Robert Salas, who had been one of the seven military officers to hold a press conference last year in which they proclaimed their belief that UFOs had visited several US nuclear weapons bases.

In 1967, Salas was stationed as a missile launch officer at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. His duty was to remain in a sealed underground chamber where, in the event of war, he would be able to launch the base's nuclear missiles. On March 24 of that year, the guards above ground reported a huge oval-shaped object hovering in the sky, about thirty feet long and glowing red.

Salas admits he never saw the UFO - he was locked in and could not leave the command center - but all ten missiles suddenly failed mysteriously, becoming non-operational. Somehow, the logic couplers for the various missiles had been remotely shut down, which required the ability to penetrate sixty-five feet of stone and triple shielding around the coupling. All ten missiles were independent of one another, so it would require ten different strikes to deactivate them. Salas stressed that the guards had no control over the missiles, so they could not have been playing a prank, and in his entire time as a missile launch officer he never had even one other missile fail, let alone all ten.

It's a strange story, and admittedly one where there really isn't a compelling explanation. (For more on the incident, check out Salas's account here.) Indeed, it was not an isolated incident, as other bases also experienced strange objects and mysteriously non-operational missiles. Whether this then means aliens have been tampering with our nukes - and, if it's not clear, I'm highly skeptical on this point - it fair to concede at least one point.

The Air Force has definitively stated that UFOs have never affected national security. Whether those UFOs have got aliens in them or not, the Air Force's stance seems difficult to support, as it would appear at least some unexplained phenomenon is capable of affecting missiles. It might be an entirely natural phenomenon...but if these deactivation incidents really did occur - and the Air Force itself seems to admit they did, based on documents that have since been released - then it would be good to know just what that phenomenon might be.

The other account of UFOs and the military was given by retired Colonel Charles Halt, who told of his time as Deputy Base Commander at RAF Bentwaters, an English base that served as a Tactical Fighter Wing for the US Air Force during the Cold War. In the wee hours of the morning after Christmas 1980, there were reports of strange red, green, blue, and white lights - like those of a downed plane, although no planes were thought to be in the area - in the woods near the base.

Three airmen were sent to investigate. Here the story gets pretty murky. Halt claims the airmen went missing for over an hour near the craft, and it's still unknown what happened to them. The men were found and, in later years, some underwent regression therapy under hypnosis - which, it should be pointed out, has been demonstrated to implant false memories. There were claims of abduction, and one of the airmen even claimed under hypnosis that the pilots of the craft revealed themselves to be human time travelers, not extraterrestrials.

In any event, that whole part of the story, while sensational, was something Colonel Halt could only relate to us secondhand, and even the supposed eyewitnesses offer at best garbled accounts of what might have happened. However, two nights later, the lights were spotted once again, and this time Colonel Halt led a team into the woods to figure out just what was going on.

He reports seeing lights in the forest, as well as a tiny object flying around the woods. This strange, baseball-sized object then disappeared, but he reports seeing two far larger objects that changed from elliptical to circular. One of these, he says, dropped a laser beam onto the ground for just a moment, and then the two objects flew off. At the time, radar operators reported no craft in the area, although he says he later found out that there were weird streaks on the radar, but the operators refused to admit this for fear of ruining their career.

Halt had tape recorded the entire incident, and this documentary evidence ultimately attracted the attention of his superiors. In what came to be known as the Halt memo, he detailed the strange sights that he had seen. At the panel, Colonel Halt insisted the objects had been under intelligent control. Halt believes that these objects were indeed extraterrestrial in origin, and that the US and UK governments have not taken the events seriously.

However, there are definitely alternative explanations that do not involve UFOs. The most obvious explanation for the mysterious light is the nearby Orford Ness Lighthouse, which would have created lights that, where the airmen were standing, could have looked seriously strange. Tellingly, one of the airmen is heard saying in Halt's tape that the light keeps appearing and disappearing every five seconds, which is precisely the timing of the rotating lighthouse. For more on this, check out this 1985 Guardian article by Ian Ridpath.

Still, just assuming for a moment that aliens really are flying about temporarily deactivating our nukes, what happens when they decide to launch a full-on invasion? When asked about this, Colonel Halt speculated that the government probably does have contingency plans for an alien attack, if only because the government prepares contingency attacks for everything. That said, he's doubtful any of those plans would actually work, considering the assumed vast technological advantage of beings who can cross vast stellar distances to get to Earth in the first place.

Captain Salas was slightly more optimistic, saying humanity's best chance would be the fifty to sixty years of prep time we have had, assuming government and military officials have treated this as a serious threat since sightings first began. In particular, if we have recovered any alien technology - the supposed UFO crash in Roswell back in 1947 is the obvious example here - then we have had possibly decades' worth of time to reverse engineer the alien technology.

For much of the presentation, the panel took great pains to stress that they were not necessarily talking about aliens. Bill Birnes stressed the term "unidentified flying object" demands that we don't jump to conclusions, and it simply means we're dealing with, by definition, an object that is in the air and is currently unknown. Terms like "flying saucer" or the supposition of aliens is, he says, jumping to conclusions, and they don't mean to do that.

That said, it was pretty clear that the panel was convinced the UFOs are indeed extraterrestrial, and their ambiguity on this point pretty much disappeared completely as we got to the end of the panel. At one point, Captain Salas asserted quite casually that aliens have been visiting us for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

But that's nothing compared to Bill Birnes's theories on the ultimate alien invasion. He suggested that the aliens would not bother with a full-on invasion, and he suggested the best way he could think of to take over a planet is to inject it with DNA for your own race. This would turn the planet into a de facto colony world, he asserted, and he felt that this is the pattern that several previous human colonization attempts have taken. I'll just be honest - I'm not entirely sure what he was driving at here, as he didn't expand upon the point, but I'm guessing these are some...unique takes on history and biology.

Whatever has happened in reality, the fictional aliens are definitely invading when Battle: Los Angeles comes out this March 11.

Top image from the historical "Battle of Los Angeles" incident.