Life in Laguna during ‘the War’


by Regina Hartley, Special to the Independent

The story of Bill Hartley begins in Ontario, Calif., where his father, William Hartley Sr., managed what became the Sunkist packing plant, but from 1911 was the West Ontario Citrus Association.2_laguna home companion New_History_logo

In 1925,William St. was sent to the east coast by the association of 190 growers to sell the idea of shipping oranges across the country via refrigerated (icebox) cars. It was a risky plan, but the California oranges were a big hit in 18 cities, and William’s state-of-the-art packing operation worked non-stop. Under his management, volume soared from 246 carloads to 800. Young Bill learned everything about the trade, even lighting the smudge pots in the orange groves when there was a danger of frost. More importantly, he learned how to work hard and how to sell a product you believe in.

The view from the Hartley home on Alta Vista Way, 1943.
The view from the Hartley home on Alta Vista Way, 1943.

Bill brushed with many young starlets during his time. He attended Chaffey Junior College and then Claremont’s Pomona College. Classmates includes Robert Taylor, not yet then a matinee idol, and Will Roger’s son. Unlike them, he had to work three jobs to pay for his education after his father passed away. Bill worked on the Grand Coulee Dam to pay his tuition for University of Washington, where he graduated in the winter of 1938. He began a lifelong career with the then fledgling Eastman Kodak Company, selling product to stores in his territory of Northern California and Nevada. In retirement, this dynamo developed another 25 year career, importing and selling sheepskin products to big box stores in Sacramento.

Looking back on his early days in Laguna Beach, Bill writes:

“During the ’30’s and early ’40’s, Balboa, the beach and the Rendezvous Ballroom was the place to go during spring breaks and weekends. But it had developed a bad reputation and Laguna Beach, which had a better beach and also a ballroom, was fast catching on.

“After Dad died, Mother sold the Ontario property and moved to Laguna for good.  Her new location was at 2698 Coast Boulevard South, but access was off Solana Way near Alta Vista Way.  Between 1937 and 1941, I spent many hours on Victoria Beach, fishing and abaloning off Goff Island. When Jean and I were married on 24 July 1942, this place was our honeymoon cottage, and it’s still there on Solana.

“As a Kodak trainee in Rochester, N.Y., with a low draft number, I was returned to southern California and applied and was accepted for pilot training. At Major Mosley’s Primary Civilian Flight School in Oxnard there were a few weekends off, and it was only a short drive down the coast for a day on the beach. It was such a day on Dec. 7, returning from Laguna Beach, when I stopped for gas in Malibu and heard about Pearl Harbor.  My car radio was out and all the news of the attack and the Army’s call for servicemen to immediately return to stations was missed.

“We were now in uniform for the duration. There were no more “wash outs” for Pilot Class 42 D.

“After being commissioned in the U.S. Army Air Corps and receiving my wings on 24 April 1942 at Stockton Field a bunch of us were sent to Mather Air Field ‘s Flight Instructors School (Jimmy Stewart was there at the time) and then on to Gardner Field in Taft for training new pilots. To combat “pilot fatigue,” caused by long hours sitting in the back seat of a BT 13 Vultee Vibrator with a student in front, we would take the two and a half hour drive from Taft to Laguna, when we had enough gas.  We continued to use my mother’s house and the guest cottage for many of our friends in the service. A good many of our class were from the Midwest and they really enjoyed the mild year-round climate in Laguna. Many settled in California after the war.

Bill Hartley on Victoria Beach, 1940
Bill Hartley on Victoria Beach, 1940

“We fully expected to be shipped out for combat duty at any time. But when Anne Bartlett,the realtor who handled my mother’s purchase, found the house for sale on Alta Vista Way we took it. We thought the $4,500 price was exorbitant, but Jean needed a place to stay if I went overseas. So we put together loans to obtain a mortgage from Laguna Federal and two more for the down payment, including one from Anne. But we now had a great week end place in Laguna.

“The Air Corps encouraged cross country flights (navigation training) for their officers as long as it wasn’t to the same place every time.  So we used the Orange County Airport on Mac Arthur and Long Beach Airport, alternately. We sometimes flew over the house to let our wives know we were there so they could pick us up. Or we just jumped the fence on to Mac Arthur after landing and hitchhiked down to Laguna.

“The good life finally ended.  I moved on to twin engine training at Victorville where my navigation bombardier instructor was Tim Holt, who later co-starred with Humphrey Bogart in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” B17 training took place at Roswell before the aliens crash-landed. B17 gunnery missions were based in Yuma and a crew for B29 training at Pyote, Tex., when the war ended. We rented Alta Vista out to help make payments and bought a house trailer to travel between Air Corps moves with our new daughter, Jeanine. She was photographed for her first birthday by William Mortensen at the Babbs Building before we left.”

Bill and Jean, now 90 and 92, respectively, are living in Sacramento, still own their little Laguna nest and have many Christmas vacation and holiday memories of their children, Jeanine and Roger, and grandchildren, on Victoria Beach.

Their original house was completely devastated by fire in 1962, but Bill rebuilt it by June 1964 on weekend trips from Sacramento.They no longer have the only house on Alta Vista, but it is surely one of the oldest and they still visit to enjoy old Laguna.


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