Days after Pearl Harbor, a convoy carrying more than 700 U.S. soldiers rumbled over the Cahuenga Pass and east on Sunset Boulevard.
The heavily armored, camouflaged trucks cruised at 20 mph, dropping off 12-man teams about five miles apart along Sunset and elsewhere, from Beverly Hills to Arcadia.
Their mission: to protect the City of Angels from Japanese attack.
It was Dec. 16, 1941 — nine days after the date that lives in infamy.
Fear gripped the West Coast. The government warned residents to heed blackouts, prepare for air raids and learn to extinguish incendiary bombs.
Throughout the Southland, anti-aircraft units set up an extensive system of guns, searchlights, aircraft sound locators and radar arrays to guard residents, airfields and the aircraft industry, according to Times stories.
Harold Fatt was a sergeant with the 212th Anti-Aircraft Artillery, a battalion of more than 700 men from New York. Fatt and his unit of 11 men were initially based at Griffith Observatory.
When they saw the Hollywoodland sign — as it read then — "We thought we died and went to heaven," he said in a recent interview. "We were a bunch of schnooks from New York who couldn't believe our luck landing in Hollywood."
Armed with World War I rifles and other obsolete equipment, the men set up camp in the parking lot of the closed observatory. At night, they were on alert to protect the Lockheed plant and a squadron of P-38s at Burbank Airport.
Their job was to identify each incoming aircraft with sound locators and searchlights. If it was an enemy plane, anti-aircraft guns elsewhere would be waiting to shoot it down. But the closest they ever got was teasing local military pilots.
"Our searchlight blinded pilots on training missions flying over the hill and the Hollywoodland sign from Burbank," Fatt said. "It was the best fun we had." That is, until the pilots complained and the high jinks had to stop.
"There wasn't much air traffic flying around, and private planes were grounded," he said. "We did what we were trained to do."
The command headquarters was at Sunset Boulevard and Whittier Drive, just blocks from the Beverly Hills Hotel. That first night, Fatt said, "One of my buddies, Sgt. Jack Sobel, and his men were dropped off behind the Beverly Hills Hotel" and based in actress Ida Lupino's nearby backyard. Lupino liked having protection so close, Fatt said; she donated her chef to cook their meals.
Wartime changed the path of many lives, including Fatt's. Born in 1919 in New York City, he worked as an office boy and attended college at night. He and a bunch of buddies joined the New York National Guard in 1940.
Soon, to their surprise, they were mustered into the U.S. Army and shipped to Georgia for training.
Pearl Harbor cut short their schooling; they were dispersed to guard the nation.
During the day in Los Angeles, Fatt recalls, he and his fellow soldiers swam in neighbors' pools and rode horseback through the hills. Housewives cooked them meals, and Paulette Goddard and other stars delivered doughnuts, he said.
"We really did work hard under the circumstances, although [we were] a little undisciplined because of lack of training," Fatt said. "We weren't just a bunch of stumblebums."
A day or two before Christmas, his unit was moved to the Fern Dell section of Griffith Park. Officials feared the observatory would be mistaken for a fort and targeted by enemy bombers.
The elegant mansions of Los Feliz camouflaged the Fern Dell unit's barracks. Neighbors gave the men Christmas gifts of toothpaste, razor blades and after-shave lotion. Others cooked waffles, pancakes, enchiladas and tamales.
"I didn't cotton-up to the tamales, but was polite," Fatt said. "On the other hand, the waffles, which I'd never tasted before, were fabulous."
A Los Angeles dentist whose office was across from Pershing Square checked the men's teeth, Fatt said. "Most of us had never been to a dentist. He saved all the teeth I've got left."
Fern Dell neighbor Solomon Laykin owned the jewelry salon at the I. Magnin store on Wilshire Boulevard, counting film stars Mae West, Merle Oberon and Sonja Henie among his customers. Laykin took Fatt and buddy Sobel to dinner at the now-defunct Tail o' the Cock restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard.
"Ben, the maitre d', made us feel like kings," Fatt said. "We ordered prime rib and real Caesar salad made at the table. Boy, it was an eye opener for us" on how the other half lived.
Elsewhere along the coast, the war intruded. For months in late 1941 and 1942, Japanese submarines torpedoed, sank and damaged merchant ships and tankers.
The first attack on the U.S. mainland came Feb. 23, 1942, when a Japanese submarine shelled an oil storage facility in Goleta near Santa Barbara.
Two days later, at 2:25 a.m., coastal radar stations picked up an unidentified object over Santa Monica Bay. Searchlights near the coast and anti-aircraft artillery stations went into action, blindly firing almost 1,500 rounds into the sky.
Fatt's unit, too far away to participate, watched the eerily lighted heavens with their binoculars.
The Times' morning headline screamed "L.A. AREA RAIDED."
Secretary of War Henry Stimson first claimed that there had been 15 planes operated by enemy agents. A week later, he amended that to "three to five light planes launched from Japanese submarines." He never explained how these launches were accomplished.
Although some plane spotters would insist that they had seen an enemy plane, others blamed jittery nerves, a wayward weather balloon and aging radar equipment.
"The Battle of Los Angeles" was immortalized in Steven Spielberg's comedy of errors movie "1941" — although the incident took place in 1942.
"Most people have forgotten that the war was actually that close," Fatt said.
His unit spent three months at Fern Dell before headquarters decided that it, too, was a poor location. The unit moved to an empty lot in Glendale, near the intersection of Cumberland Road and Virginia and Hillcrest avenues, and used neighborhood mansions as cover for their big equipment.
Excitement during their stay came from a miscue. "Pvt. Jack Friedlander was off guard duty and emptying his rifle when it accidentally went off," Fatt said. "A bullet flew through the tent and into the roof and dining room ceiling of a neighbor's house."
It was the home of Vernon O. Underwood Sr., a salesman for Young's Market — the Los Angeles-based wholesaler of wines and spirits. Underwood would become chief executive of Young's and, later, Hollywood Park.
"It was the only shot we ever fired," Fatt said. The neighborhood took the accident in stride.
In mid-1942, Fatt was sent to officer training school in Texas. Later, he was assigned to the 233rd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion in Fiji and New Guinea. As the war was winding down, with less need for anti-aircraft units, Fatt and others set up prisoner of war camps in the Philippines.
After the war he returned to New York, but his heart was in Hollywood. The first call he made was to Laykin, who promised him a job in the jewelry business.
Fatt moved to Los Angeles and, among other tasks, delivered diamond earrings to the wife of chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. at their Pasadena residence — the current home of the Tournament of Roses.
Fatt, now 86, is a retired marketing consultant living in Laguna Woods — about 50 miles from the sign where he first fell in love with Los Angeles.