Introducing Lawrence Kay

Contributed by Jahna Auerbach, Assistant Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

Lawrence Lew Kay found his way into our archives through his wife Richenda’s (wife of John Rhoden) papers. Lawrence was Richenda’s first husband, and through letters and newspaper clippings, we were able to understand his life.

Lawrence was born in 1914 and lived in Seattle, Washington with his family. It is unclear through records if he was born in America or in Tangshan, China, where his family originated. Lawrence was a highly educated man; he received his B.A from Lingan University, China in 1937 and graduated from Harvard University in 1941 with a degree in Business Administration. Lawrence and Richenda Phillips met at the University of Washington in Seattle. They married each other soon afterward, just mere weeks before Lawrence was enlisted in the Air Force and sent to China as an American representative. Kay’s journey to China included a ship to Northern Africa, where he spent roughly a month. Unfortunately, Lawrence would never arrive in China.

While processing the papers, I was deeply enthralled by the many letters that Richenda received from Shan Yan Leung, nicknamed ‘Bird,’ who was a friend of Lawrence’s. Through these letters, we can understand Richenda and Lawrence a little better. It seems that Richenda and Lawrence married only a few days before he was deployed. It appears that Richenda did not know Lawrence’s family very well. It was Shan Yan Leung who gave her their address, and he asked Richenda to inform them of Lawrence’s status as missing in action.

Lawrence writes to Richenda in detail in several letters while he is away. In these letters, he tells her about his travels to Northern Africa. What is most notable is the lack of food on the ship–Lawrence discusses in great detail how there was always a shortage of meals.

Even on land, Lawrence writes about hunting for food and locals offering him food. Lawrence tells Richenda about teaching fellow officers Mandarin and giving lectures about China. In his last letter to Richenda, Lawrence describes meeting locals and a young girl who is an artist. He asks Richenda to send him supplies for her. His last words to Richenda, “As for my future letters, it might be sometime before you hear from me again. In the meantime, remember that I love you so very much, and I think of you whenever I see anything I like or do anything. Take good care of yourself and keep well, my dearest. With all my love to my Dearest, My lovely sweetheart. – Lawrence” (MS_2019_01_1006i)

Kay’s last letter to Richenda Rhoden from November of 1943.

Lawrence died on November 27, 1943, at the age of 29 on the Rohna, a British troopship, which was attacked and sunk by a fleet of German planes in a coordinated surprise attack. The Rohna was scheduled to arrive in China where Lawrence would begin his service. Lawrence Kay was one of 1,015 America and British soldiers who died in this surprise attack. The attack on the Rohna marks the highest amount of America casualties in a naval attack in WWII, taking months for the American government to receive accurate information about the attack.

With the lack of constant contact, Richenda was left to wonder what happened to Lawrence. She began to hunt for answers, setting out to contact survivors of the Rohna. Through letters, Richenda learned that Lawrence escaped the initial barrage of missile fire with only minor injuries, but he was ultimately reported missing. For months she hoped he survived and was in an Allied hospital, unable to contact her due to his convalescence. As the months went on, it became clear that Lawrence had not survived the attack, and it is assumed that he tragically drowned after escaping the brunt of the German attack. Lawrence Lew Kay’s name was inscribed in a memorial for fallen Chinese American soldiers of World War II, located north of Hing Hay Park in Seattle, Washington.

Correspondence from Kay to Richenda Rhoden from October of 1943.

Lawrence Lew Kay had a fascinating life, regardless of how short it was. It is clear from his accolades and accomplishments that he would have made a significant impact on both the domestic and international stage. While there are still many unanswered questions about his life and death, we hope to continue uncovering more about his life in the Rhoden papers.

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.


Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at:

6 Replies to “Introducing Lawrence Kay”

  1. Hello, Kelin. thank you for publishing this wonderful archive about Lawrence Lew Kay and his wife, Richendra. I am Lawrence’s niece and would be very interested in learning more about his life and death as documented by the letters Richendra had received and anything else you are able to uncover. If possible, please reply to me privately if you are able to share more information with me.
    This would mean a lot to our family. Thank you.

    1. Hello Patti! It is so lovely to hear from you and we are so glad that you enjoyed this piece! Our Assistant Archivist, Jahna, did the research and writing on Lawrence Kay, so I will be sure to put you in touch so that she can pass along her external research and findings about Kay from the John Rhoden papers.Thank you for reaching out!

  2. Thanks for this article. It helped immensely in filling in some missing information with regard to a Lew family tree project I’m working on. Lawrence Lew Kay was the oldest son of Lew Geate Kay and Rosalind Goon and the grandson of Lew King and Lee-Shee How of Seattle, WA. Most importantly, the identity of his wife had been lost to the family genealogists until recently, with the discovery of this detailed biography. BTW: do you have any documents that verify the spelling of Mrs. Rhoden’s first name? Other online writings show her name as Richanda.

    1. Hello Laurence! Thank you so much for your comment! We are glad to hear the post was of use.

      The spelling of Richenda’s name is very inconsistent in news articles and in online resources, however, we have her passports which show her name to be spelled “Richenda”. We also have several of her college essays which she signed “Richenda” as well. With that said, the spelling of her name in official documents and from papers she produced when she was young is “Richenda”. “Richanda” seemed to be used later (mostly after she met John Rhoden). It is not clear what her preference was or why there was a shift in the spelling she used. Also, if it helps, according to her earliest passport, her maiden name was Richenda Phillips.

      We are working on a project to digitize these documents and put them online, so I will be sure to notify you when they are available.

      I hope this helps!

  3. Thank you so much, PAFA folks! I am working on a research project with the Chinese librarians in Lingnan University, Canton China, where Lawrence studied with his sister and cousins by the summer of 1937. We hope to include the Lingnan alumni stories and will need your help. The current students and scholars at this University are very proud of Lawrence Lew. Thank you for your excellent work.

    Lawrence was born in Tangshan, northern China. His parents made a registration and had his certificate from the American Consulate in Tianjin a month after he was born.

    1. Jing Liu,

      You’re very welcome. We’re very happy to know that our work on these under-recognized people in history are finally getting more attention and closer examination.

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