John Lewis Kay was born in Munich, September 13, 1919, as Hans Ludwig Kaumheimer, to a prosperous Jewish family. He was the second of four children, including his older brother Fritz and two younger twins, Margaret and Ruth. He was chubby as a youngster and his nickname was “Wackel” which roughly translates as “wobble”.
Fritz (l) and younger brother Hans (aka Wackel)
His maternal side of the family, the Landauer clan, trace their German ancestry back to the mid-18th century when a local nobleman allowed a handful of Jews to settle in Buttenhausen, a village approximately 60 kilometers south of Stuttgart. His maternal grandfather, Louis Landauer, born in Buttenhausen, was a founder of Brüder Landauer, a department store chain in with stores in Stuttgart, Mannheim, Cologne, Heilbronn, Reutlingen, Augsburg and Frankfurt.
The Landauers prominence transcended their wealth. The most famous early 20th century family member was Gustav Landauer, a noted philosopher and activist who was murdered in 1919 by right wing paramilitary thugs, while serving as Commissioner of Enlightenment and Public Instruction of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. (The most well-known modern day Landauer, was Mike Nichols, the legendary film director and grandson of Gustav). As a young child, the family moved to a palatial home in Stuttgart and enjoyed amenities such as a nanny, a chauffeur and a boxing coach. In addition to his immediate family, the home was shared by an assortment of relatives.
Kaumheimer Family with Hans (center) followed by Selma, Fritz, and Julius
Hans did his schooling Stuttgart until the beginning of high school, when the family relocated to Merano, a resort town in the province of Bolzano or South Tyrol, Italy, located near the Austrian border. The move was precipitated by the rise of National Socialism and the concomitant growth of antisemitism.
According to a January 25, 2011, article in the Augsburger Allgemeine, the family “recognized the disastrous consequences of the ‘new era’ and sold their Augsburg store in 1934.”
Sixteen-year-old Hans on the ski slopes of Linthal, Switzerland. He took up skiing after moving to Italy and excelled at it., March 17, 1936
The shift to Merano in 1936 was a logical choice. Merano was formerly part of Austro-Hungarian Empire prior the First World War, and the population was bi-lingual (Italian and German) which made it easy for the family to assimilate. In addition, there were other German-Jewish refugees in town.
The Kaumheimer children were placed in Italian schools. Hans had a facility for languages and quickly learned Italian while also becoming conversant in French. Clearly Italy suited young Hans. He developed an interest in opera, learned how to ski, and took up photography. Over the course of a couple of years chubby “Wackel” morphed into a handsome, athletic “Giovanni”.
“Giovanni” (in a young fascist uniform) with his mother, Selma, March 1937 in Merano
However, Fascist Italy once a haven of safety for Jewish refugees, proved only a temporary respite. As the years in exile went by, Mussolini instituted racist policies to placate Hitler and the family prepared to move once again.
A visa to Belgium was denied but in 1939, the United States opened its doors to the family at a time when entry was closed for Jewish refugees. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios and a family friend, had provided an affidavit for the family to enter the US (Laemmle provided affidavits for about 300 families).
They came to America unsure of where to settle and decided on San Francisco. They moved into a home on 378 Arguello St. on the fringe of the Richmond District. The family changed their name to Kay and enrolled their school age children, Margaret and Ruth into Roosevelt Junior High School down the block.
Giovanni Kaumheimer thus became John Kay. He enrolled at San Francisco Junior College (now City College of San Francisco) in its well-regarded hotel and restaurant management program. John or Johnny, as he was called, thrived in his new school but as an immigrant, and by nature introverted, had a cultural and linguistic learning curve to overcome.
John's best friend, Henri (aka Hank) Carbonell who died in 1943 shortly after takeoff in Curacao
This equation changed after he befriended another immigrant Henri (aka Hank) Carbonell, at San Francisco Junior College. Hank, who came to San Francisco at age 3, with his parents, Salvador, and Jeanne, from Catalonia on the French/Spanish frontier had empathy for Johnny, who was clearly a fish out of water. From comments by John Kay, Hank was a great help in Johnny’s transformation as a newly minted American.
The two attended classes together, partaking in field trips mentoring activities associated with their course of study such as a state-wide tour of hotel properties in 1940 sponsored by the California Northern Hotel Association. John worked long hours during the summers of 1940 and 1941 in the dining car of the Santa Fe Railroad’s Super Chief and as a hotel clerk at the Mark Hopkins Hotel.
John, at right, Camp Richards, Dec 1941
Although the conflict in Europe was an ocean way, America was drafting young men into the service even before the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. John, although still classified as a German alien, was drafted into the Army on September 26, 1941. He received his basic training at Camp Roberts (along with former Secretary of Defense, Cap Weinberger) and on June 5, 1942, was naturalized as an American citizen in San Bernadino, California.
John Kay opted for Officer Candidate school. Photos dated January 1942 in San Francisco
Following basic training he opted for Officer Candidate School and trained as a Quartermaster. He received the rank of 2nd Lieutenant (ASN: 01584444) at Camp Lee, Virginia on December 11, 1942 (Class 11). He eventually was posted back to San Francisco at the Presidio’s School for Bakers and Cooks.
On January 19, 1943, he applied to the Commandant of Camp Ritchie, requesting “assignment to the Military Intelligence Training Center”, explaining in a memo that his “familiarity with the customs and traditions” of Germany and Italy “should be of great value to the War Department”.
Application to Camp Ritchie, January 19, 1943
On April 15, 1943, his enrollment in Section 15 (Italian) at Camp Ritchie began. Why study Italian instead of German, his native tongue? He confided, many years after the war that his preference was “to be in Italy”. His superiors didn’t seem to mind or consider this decision. “They could have easily figured out that German was my first language,” he said.
In the end, it was of no academic consequence. In a class of 26 students, he received the second highest final grade (88 vs 94 for Ernest H. Bloch). On June 12, 1943, he graduated from the Camp Ritchie course and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant.
In accordance with Special Order 163 dated 8 July 1943, John Kay along with 64 other officers, was sent to Hampton Roads VA awaiting shipment to Algiers on September 9, 1943, in preparation for the invasion of Italy.
Letter to Hank Carbonell, returned "addressee reported deceased" , February 22, 1944
While in North Africa he attended Military Government School in Tizi Ouzou, in north central Algeria where he learned the basics to be a Civilian Affairs Officer.
In a V-Mail letter to his friend, Hank Carbonell, he described his time in Algeria:
“Life is not bad at all. We have an old school building as quarters, food decent, treatment good, a bar with wine and the weather not bad at all. The other day on a hike we marched in a French garrison where a band was about to play. We listened and they then played “The Marseillaise”, while we saluted it was very impressive and created good will on both sides. Those boys are really soldiers, touch and well disciplined. We get along very well…
His job title as CAO (Civilian Affairs Officer), officially began on September 1, 1943, following his graduation from Military Government School. It was a daunting vacation.
In the forward to Civil Affairs: When Soldiers Become Governors Chief of Military History, Brig. Gen William H. Harris opined, “the Army was called on to occupy, to govern, and to help rehabilitate complex, war-torn countries and economies.” Few of its tasks “turned out to be as difficult and challenging as these civil affairs missions.”
John’s two-year journey up the boot of Italy commenced on September 9, 1943, with his participation in the Naples Foggia campaign which began with the Salerno landing (where he was attached to the 56th British Infantry Division).
John far left, Police Station Anzio, April 44
This was followed by the Rome Arno Campaign beginning with the landing on Anzio on February 2, 1944. His final campaign in the Italian theater was the Spring offensive in Po Valley.According to the many reports he filed to IV Corps headquarters, his activities as a Civilian Affairs Officer gained distinction in the village of Torre del Padiglione, where he was tasked with evacuating the community of over 1000 inhabitants, caught between the opposing German and American forces. For this action he was decorated with a Bronze Star by General Mark Clark, Commanding General of the 5th Army.
The citation, dated Oct 31, 1944, stated:
Learning that civilians in the village were in close proximity to the enemy lines and in grave personal danger thus constituting a hindrance to military operations, First Lieutenant KAY, at imminent risk of his life, made his way on foot to the village through heavy artillery and mortar fire. After crossing a large field which was heavily mined, he reached the village and assumed command of the disorganized and demoralized civilians. Exercising initiative and foresight, First Lieutenant KAY formulated a plan for the systematic evacuation of the Italians. The dauntless courage and efficient actions of First Lieutenant KAY resulted in the safe removal of more than a thousand people...
Decorated with Bronze Star by Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, November 16, 1944, Montecatini area
Shortly after his decoration, 1st lt. Kay received a promotion to Captain. His typical activities as CAO weren’t quite as “eventful” but were nonetheless important in helping to restore a sense of normalcy after liberation. Sometimes communities were utterly devastated by aerial bombings, artillery fire, and ground combat. The infrastructure might be decimated--no water, no electricity, no food, or perhaps an epidemic at hand.
Above Cernobbio, June, 27 1945
Upon entering a town, a CAO might find the city hall looted, tax receipts destroyed, ration cards ripped up. There may be corpses and German prisoners to deal with not to mention local partisans who may be blowing up bridges that the allies might need or blackmailing local inhabitants. In short, his responsibilities were to act as an interlocuter between the US Army, the local police and the civilian population. This could range from interrogating prisoners to interpreting for a general to assisting the local inhabitants get their “comune” operating again.
The CAO in many circumstances was the new sheriff in town. They had to be judicious, resourceful, and practical. John Kay went into numerous villages and towns (communes) writing reports, settling disputes and investigating wrongdoing. Not only misconduct between Italians but by US troops who might decide to butcher a local farmer’s calf--or worse.
Drinking Moscato, Monte Bisbino, June 27, 1945
His reports began in late March of 1944 and continued up the boot, to Verona in April of 1945. Ironically one of his last postings after hostilities had ceased was Merano, where he went to high school. This was a poignant moment. In a letter to his family he wrote:"I saw our old landlord and our old villa. The cherry tree in our backyard was ripe with cherries. My old teacher, Mrs. Lubatti, was there and the stenography teacher, who had lost an arm. The town wasn’t damaged but was full of German soldiers and that spoiled everything. “
Article in Hotel & Restaurant trade association journal, 1945
In his report dated May 9. 1945 he wrote:
May 9* To MERANO, Prov. Bolzano as CAO, Found town in complete German control. Sindaco (mayor) afraid to take orders without first consulting the German Platzkomandent.
Food situation good, town undamaged, but about 15.000 German troops living within Comune. Had to request clearance to occupy billet from German Hqs. Conference with Gen. Ruffner, 10th Mt. Arty, and enemy CG Seuffert, resulting in prohibiting enemy troops to ride street cars, eat food in restaurants, buy food stuffs from civ. sources, buy any other objects or items from civ. sources; made 15 German vehicles plus drivers available for Comune use at any time on AMG orders. Prohibited Platzkomandant to deal directly with civ. agencies without AMG permission. Located German Luftwaffe liquor dump and took appropriate action.
* The campaign ended when Army Group C surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on May 2, 1945
This proclamation was posted by the Allied Military Government after Capt. Kay insisted that Gen. Ruffner of the of US Army with German Gen. Seuffert regarding the conduct of German army personnel in Merano.
Captain Kay declined an offer by the US State Department to work in post war Italy and was mustered out of the army between 10/25/45 and 2/15/46. He was promoted to the rank of Major on Feb 15, 1946 and returned to civilian life in California. He married Carla Magnus in 1949, also a German-Jewish émigré, whose entire family perished in the death camps.
Carla Kay (left) meeting with the former Kaumheimer family nanny and her husband in Germany (circa 1965)
John worked in hotel-restaurant management in Fresno, Modesto, and San Francisco, where he settled close to his parents. They had four children and a home in San Francisco’s Lake Merced neighborhood. He ended his career as a partner in a successful food import business. He was able to use his multiple languages in the delicatessens and gift shops owned by Europeans and sold many of the foods that he ate growing up.
John in Hawaii January 2, 1964
John never spoke much about the war and was usually reluctant to discuss it when asked. He disliked war movies, and any type of glorification of war or violence.
He was proud of his service and said so in a Story Corps interview with his oldest son, Robert, in 2013. His bronze star case was exhibited among other family treasures, in a living room cabinet. Several years later Robert arranged a dinner with several of his friends and set up a video camera. John felt comfortable enough to talk about his childhood and the war years.
On occasion, when his oldest son showed him a WWII era video clip of military personnel walking down a sunny street in Waikiki, he became upset and said something to the effect of “we didn’t have it so easy in Italy”.
Later in life, if a documentary about Anzio or Casino appeared on cable TV, he would watch for a few minutes and then change the channel. He said if he continued to watch, it would give him nightmares. At his funeral in 2015, his second son, Richard, related that in a trip to Italy with his father, the two drove past the famous monastery atop Monte Casino, which was clearly visible in the distance on the passenger’s side. Richard pointed it out, but John declined to turn his head lest it bring back unwelcome memories.
Visiting his son, Robert in Hawaii, 2004
About two years before his passing, when rummaging through his files, he plucked out a letter stamped, “return to sender, addressee deceased”. It was a letter he’d written to his best friend, Hank Carbonell, whose P40 fighter plane crashed after a mechanical failure, in Curacao in 1943. He was a man who rarely cried but 75 years later, was close to tears remembering his friend. John L. Kay died on September 14, 2015, one day after his 96th birthday.
Reading a Nazi era German Newspaper. He stored his souvenirs in an Italian army dynamite (Tritolo) box 2014