John H. Lauten dies at 96; Army captain helped plan invasion of Normandy

John H. Lauten, in Europe during World War II, developed a management philosophy based on his wartime experiences.

John H. Lauten, a lawyer who helped plan the invasion of Normandy as an Army captain during World War II and later became the first non-engineer to oversee the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, has died. He was 96.

Lauten died of natural causes March 22 at an assisted-living facility in Simi Valley, his family said.

As general manager of the MWD from 1974 to 1977, Lauten “provided aggressive leadership” as he diligently worked to develop critical energy sources and educate the public on the need for water conservation during a time of drought, Jeffrey Kightlinger, the district’s current general manager, said in a statement.

“By all accounts, Mr. Lauten was a distinctive leader” whose management style was influenced by his years preparing for battle in World War II, Kightlinger said.


In “A Water Odyssey,” a 1991 history of the MWD, Lauten is called “a believer in planning for the worst in order to make the best of whatever happened.”

It was a philosophy developed during combat while he served with the “Fighting First,” a nickname for the storied 1st Infantry Division.

When the war broke out, he left his job as a deputy city attorney for Glendale to join the Army and trained as an intelligence officer.

With another lieutenant, Lauten led the first U.S. troops into battle, and on to victory, in Gafsa, Tunisia, The Times reported on March 19, 1943.


That June, Lauten helped plan the invasion of Sicily and the next year mapped out a military exercise that was a rehearsal for the invasion of Normandy, said Andrew Woods, a research historian at the First Division Museum in Illinois.

For heroism during the D-day invasion, Lauten was awarded a Silver Star. He already had received a Bronze Star for heroic action in Algeria in 1942.

In a commendation letter he wrote for Samuel Fuller, who made the 1980 war film “The Big Red One” -- as the 1st Infantry Division also was known -- Lauten described the scene as the 16th Infantry Regiment invaded the coast of France in 1944:

“The massed men on the beach were raked by intense mortar, artillery, sniper and machine gun fire. The continued accurate enemy fire inflicted tremendous casualties on the thousands of men . . . rendering them a confused, leaderless mass,” Lauten wrote as he praised Fuller for stepping into the void.


Promoted to major in spring 1945, Lauten returned home that fall. He remained largely silent about his wartime experiences for the next 45 years.

When he started opening up about the war, his family said they realized that he stoically viewed his involvement in nearly 20 battles “as a job that had to be done.”

John Hilands Lauten was born Aug. 17, 1913, in Pittsburgh, the eldest of three children of Wallace Lauten and the former Evelyn Garber.

The year he turned 14, Lauten moved with his family to Glendale, where his father opened Lauten’s coffee shop, which was a local fixture for decades.


After earning his bachelor’s degree at UCLA, Lauten earned a law degree at UC Berkeley, where he met Virginia Brady, who was a hostess in a local coffee shop. They had been married almost 60 years when she died in 1997.

After the war, he spent 13 years as an assistant city attorney in Glendale and in 1958 became Fresno’s city attorney.

In 1963, he joined the Metropolitan Water District as a legal counsel and retired in 1977 as general manager.

Known as a no-nonsense leader, Lauten championed a water reuse study in 1977 that laid the groundwork for the MWD’s current water recycling program.


At 91, he joined a reunion of the Fighting First that toured European battlegrounds. The day before he died, Lauten was trying to figure out a way to attend the group’s August gathering in Texas.

Lauten is survived by two daughters, Linda Spellman of Thousand Oaks and Sandra Collier of Sun Valley; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.