Memorial Day and Sgt. Joseph L. Kauffman (1895-1918)

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On 26 September 1918, amidst heavy fighting in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, Sgt. Joseph Leon Kauffman of Company C, 91st Division, 364th Infantry of the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) was killed by a shell and buried where he lay.  Kauffman was about two weeks shy of his 23rd birthday.  Less than a year after his death, a memorial shaft, purportedly the first of its kind in the region and state, was dedicated to him by Walter P. Temple and his three sons and placed on the oil lease owned by Temple at Montebello.  In summer 1921, Kauffman’s body was disinterred and shipped home, where it was reinterred at the Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles.

In what has largely been a forgotten, or at least neglected, war in American memory, the story of Joseph Kauffman was essentially unknown until this article by Edmon Rodman from Memorial Day last year told much of the story.

Joseph Kauffman photo
From the San Francisco Emanuel, 6 December 1918 and posted on

Kauffman was born 8 October 1895 to Isidor (later known as Isaac) Kauffman and Ernestine Laventhal.  Kauffman’s mother was a native of Los Angeles and a daughter of Bertha Rich and Elias Laventhal, the latter a dry goods merchant, one of many Jews working in that occupation in the city.  By 1880, however, the Laventhals followed the news of a mining boom to the Arizona Territory and settled in the infamous town of Tombstone.

There, Teany, as she was known, met Isidor (Isaac) Kauffman.  Born in 1850 in Buswiller, France, about 150 miles east of where Joseph was killed during the war and in the heavily contested Alsace region fought over constantly by Prussia and France during the period, Isidor migrated by ship from Havre to New York in fall 1867.

He then headed along a common immigrant’s path along the Ohio River Valley and settled in Cincinnati, where he was naturalized as an American citizen in 1872.  Continuing his journey, Isidor came to California and worked as a merchant in Redding in northern California for a time before he, too, was lured to Tombstone by 1881.  He and Tina Laventhal married there and welcomed their first two children, sons Milton and Jules.

Joseph Kauffman 1900 census
Milton and Joseph Kauffman, as listed in 1900 census when the family owned a prosperous store at El Monte.  This is where Milton met Walter P. Temple and later became his business manager.

The Kauffmans then came to California and were in San Diego in the late 1880s before moving to Los Angeles County within several years. Isaac then opened a mercantile business in El Monte.  In the years after Joseph was born (the second son Jules died earlier in 1895), the Kauffman store was a bustling, thriving institution with Milton assisting his father in the management.  One of their regular customers was farmer Walter P. Temple, who inherited fifty acres with his brother Charles, from their mother, Antonia Margarita Workman, south of town.

Milton Kauffman also worked in real estate and, after Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin died in 1909 and his estate was settled, large tracts of the former Workman half of Rancho La Puente, which Baldwin acquired by the 1879 foreclosure of his loan to the failed Temple and Workman bank, came up for sale.  Kauffman worked with partners to create the town of Baldwin Park, his first major project.

Keenly aware of ongoing oil prospecting in northern Orange County and Whittier, Kauffman worked with Walter Temple to acquire former Temple owned property in the Montebello Hills, held by Baldwin’s daughters.  Selling off his inherited land, Temple purchased 60 acres in the hills and flat lands below from the Baldwin estate, though he lacked the cash to buy the land outright and made a deal with Baldwin’s nephew and executor for financing.

Joseph Kauffman 1910 census
The Kauffman household of Isaac, Ernestine and Joseph in what is now the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles west of downtown.

In spring 1914, Temple’s 9-year old son, Thomas, stumbled upon oil indications after a rain and Standard Oil Company executed a lease with Temple to drill.  The first well, which came in late June 1917, ushered in a series of successes that brought great wealth to Temple, who hired Kauffman as his business manager.  More on Milton Kauffman, his work with Walter Temple, and later endeavors in a subsequent post.

As for Joseph, his father sold the El Monte store before 1910 and moved to Los Angeles to be an automobile dealer and dabbler in real estate.  Joseph graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1913 and studied the University of California at Berkeley, but left school to work with his brother Milton and with the W.J. Hollingsworth Company in real estate.

With the onset of World War I, however, Joseph enlisted and it was said a clerical error kept him out of the officer’s training program.  Entering the service as a private, Joseph moved his way up to sergeant in his company and shipped out for France with the A.E.F. under the command General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing.

Joseph Kauffman WWI Reg Card
Joseph Kauffman’s World War I Registration Card, showing him as employed for the Los Angeles realty firm of W.J. Hollingsworth and Company.

In a letter written two days before his death and published in the Los Angeles Times of 1 December 1918, Joseph wrote his family:

We are camping close to the front.  The shells are whizzing over our heads all the time.  We have had a lot of long, hard marches and camping out—all the real hard doses of army life, but we are all here and still “a-going.”  We are all anxious to get into the fight; we have been training so long that we are tired and want some real action.  Even now the noise of the big guns is music to our ears.  I expect to write a lot of thrilling experiences soon, but cannot tell when.

A long January 1919 letter in the Homestead’s collection to Mrs. Kauffman by a representative of the American Red Cross added detail to the typically terse missives next of kin received from the military, noting that on the morning of 26 September

A fog lay over the wood for some time and the men scattered, particularly after some heavy shell fire at 7:30 in the morning.

The fog had raised and the company was in the woods with no chance to dig in or to fight as there were no Germans in sight.  The tremendous artillery fire the night before had driven them nearly all out of the wood.  An aeroplace with French markings had been flying overhead and Lt. A.T. Lee, of Co. C, thought it a German plane is disguise.  He felt sure that this plane signalled the location of the company for the German artillery for at once a second period of shelling began.

Sgt. Kauffman and Sgt. McKinnon were moving the 4th platoon up out of the woods when both were killed instantly by shell fire.  This was near Mount des Alieux, an eminence in the Foret de Hesse.

As noted at the beginning of this post, Kauffman was buried on the spot and then his remains were removed to the Jewish cemetery in East Los Angeles where they’ve remained along with those of his brother Jules and parents.  In addition to the Temple memorial, Kauffman was one of twenty Los Angeles High graduates honored with a stained glass window paid for school alumni in a Los Angeles Public Library branch in west Los Angeles that opened in 1930.  This is where Edmon Rodman saw Kauffman’s name and went in search of his story.

This 29 January 1919 letter from the Homestead’s collection from the American Red Cross to Ernestine Kauffman gave details about the death of her son, Joseph, in the Battle of the Argonne Forest on 26 September 1918.

You can hear Edmon tell about his “Searching for Sgt. Kauffman” as he and I present as part of the museum’s World War I-themed lecture series, “Grappling with the Great War.”  The talk will be on Sunday, 9 July at 2 p.m. at the Homestead Museum Gallery and reservations started a couple of days ago, so contact the museum to save your seat.  More information is avilable on this flyer.

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