No one living locally in 1942 could forget the night when Japanese aircraft attacked Southern California in the “Battle of Los Angeles.”
More than 1,400 anti-aircraft rounds were fired at marauding planes the night of Feb. 25, every one missing their targets. The invading “planes” turned out to be just so much thin air – the panicked firing caused by edgy military and civilians fearful of a Japanese attack. And once the shooting started, it was hard to hold them back.
What is far less remembered – in fact, forgotten completely – was the night in 1933 when two Army planes shot down a Japanese aircraft believed to be photographing Riverside’s March Field – today’s March Air Reserve Base.
In truth, looking back at this event – almost nine years to the day before the “Battle of Los Angeles” – you might figure it may have been our first UFO sighting.
Somebody – we never knew who – saw something somewhere between March Field and Lake Elsinore one night and immediately got on their party line to raise the alarm. Word spread quickly, undoubtedly getting more menacing and preposterous each time it passed from caller to caller.
But despite the magnitude of these reports, what happened just never happened.
The account of this air battle was published on the front page of the Elsinore Leader-Press at Lake Elsinore on Feb. 23, 1933. The paper called it “Fantastic tales of a Japanese plane being shot down over Elsinore after the asserted Nippon airman had attempted to take aerial views of March Field.” The article also included adamant denials by Army officials that nothing of that sort happened.
The tale claimed a Japanese plane was seen taking photos over the field that night. That should have been the first clue about the unlikely nature of the sighting. Who knew what a Japanese plane looked like in 1933, and besides how could someone on the ground determine what a pilot was really doing that night?
The report also said that two Army planes shot down the plane, killing the pilot. But no wreckage was ever found, and the Army said no March Field planes were sent for such a purpose.
The newspaper quoted a spokesman for the military: “It is just another of the lies that do nothing but cause hard feelings between two great nations.” The military also pointed out how foolish it would be for any nation to pull such a stunt, which would have serious diplomatic repercussions.
After things quieted down, March Field two months later found itself highlighted in a Los Angeles Times article: “Flyers ‘Bomb’ March Field, Enemy Planes Penetrate Defense in Raid.” This May 16 story detailed war games being held there.
Imagine if this happened today – social media conspiracy theories would spread faster than a speeding bullet claiming the suspicious scheduling of the war games so close to the Feb. 25 “incident” would prove that shooting down the Japanese plane probably really happened. You just never know.
School show biz
Another rather odd – and equally hard to explain – event occurred in Ontario in 1928 when a motion picture cameraman started filming students at Chaffey High School and Chaffey College.
A week later, Ontario’s California Theater advertised the product of the filming: a movie, “The Rose of Ontario,” was set to debut starring students from the two schools.
And to give more importance to the production, the movie also starred John Lowell, a fairly well-known silent movie star. Don’t bother looking up “Rose” in your movie histories – the film aired three times at the California Theater and was apparently never seen again.
On Jan. 12, 1928, the filming of the movie – initially called “The Reporter” – was done on the campus and other parts of the city, by the Pacific Motion Picture Producing Co., said the Sun newspaper.
It’s a bit hard to figure why a noted actor such as Lowell would come to Ontario to appear in a short silent movie with a bunch of students. The paper said Jack Anderson, owner of the California Theater and a future Ontario councilman, arranged for it to be filmed.
The plot revolved around a young man – played by Chaffey student Stanley Reeder – who came to Ontario seeking a job at the local newspaper. He fell in love with the daughter of the newspaper owner – played by student Betty Hill. Stanley got the job, and everything ended happily. More than 50 students were in the movie. About the only adults in major roles were Lowell and Ruth Hill, Betty’s mother who appropriately played her film mother.
I suspect the story had a few more twists and turns, but it was only two reels long, about 15 to 25 minutes.
Advertisements for the “The Rose of Ontario” may provide a clue as to why all this came about. The ads promoting “Rose” said it was also being shown with one of Lowell’s own movies each night from Jan. 18 to 20.
Things were not going terribly well at that time for Lowell – whose real name was John Lowell Russell. He apparently was one of those actors who had difficulty making the transition from silent to the newly arrived talking movies.
A suspicious mind might conclude he may have worked a deal with Anderson to make the Chaffey film if the California also agreed to show three of Lowell’s older films.
The Ontario Daily Report enthusiastically declared Jan. 19 that “Rose” was a “wow.” A large turnout jammed the theater and applauded as the cast was introduced by David Ballou, who wrote the screenplay for the film company. The paper offered no comment on Lowell’s films.
My thanks for the help given by Amanda Michael, then an intern with the Ontario Museum of History & Art, who originally uncovered this odd bit of movie goings-on.
The Historical Society of the Pomona Valley will hold its “Summer Adobe Barbecue” on Aug. 13 at an event that will include the dedication of its Vejar Exhibit at the Palomares Adobe, 491 E. Arrow Highway, Pomona.
The 5 p.m. dinner, followed by tours of the 1854 adobe, costs $10 for society members and $20 for non-members. Youngsters 5 and under are free. Information: pomonahistorical.org.
Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history. He can be reached at email@example.com or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out columns of the past at Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IEHistory.