When WWII broke out, Barney Ross could have gotten himself a cushy PR gig with any of the services, but he wasn’t buying any. He retired from boxing at the ripe old age of ’32 and enlisted, volunteering for the USMC. Early in his service, his military career hit a major bump: some ill-intentioned Marine NCO had the temerity to make a nasty anti-Semitic remark to Ross’ face. Ross cold-cocked him. He was in danger of being court-martialed when a member of the board pointed out to his colleagues that this could give the Marines a public relations black eye. Ross was given the choice of either facing a court martial or shipping out with the first marine division. He eagerly volunteered for the latter.
By the end of 1942, he was seeing combat on Guadacanal. In one instance, he and his section of three other marines were ambushed, and all four of them were hit. Ross was the only one still capable of fighting back, and fight back he did. He used both his own weapons and the weapons of his fallen comrades until enemy fire ceased, then dragged his one surviving companion back to American lines for treatment (though the fellow outweighed him by 90 lbs).
The next day, a Marine patrol sent out to investigate discovered the bodies of Ross’ two other squad mates along with about two dozen dead Japanese. For his actions that day, Barney Ross received the Silver Star, the US Military’s 3rd highest decoration.
However, before he was medically evacuated from Guada Canal, Ross became part of Marine Corps legend. While on Guada Canal, he had become good friends with a Catholic priest, Father Frederick Gehring, who asked him to help out with the Christmas show he was putting on for the marines. This is a story which no Hollywood screenwriter would dare make up. Amongst his inventory of chaplain supplies, Fr Gehring discovered he’d been shipped a pipe organ, and he soon learned that the only competent organist on the island was none other than Barney Ross. So, striking a blow for American ecumenicalism, a Jew was the featured entertainer at the 1942 Guadacanal Christmas pageant.
This really makes me wonder what was going on at the Rosofsky house. Would he come home bloody from a street fight and then his mom would make him practiced the organ, or did the local boys taunt him so much about playing the organ that he demonstrated he could play with his fists as well?
In another note Hollywood would not dare imagine, after Ross had played his full repertoire of Christmas songs, Fr Gehring prevailed upon him to play one from his own tradition. Sp Barney Ross played his personal favorite, “My Yiddish Mama.” The US Marines have a thoroughly well-deserved reputation as extremely tough customers. However, guys there said years later that by the time Ross finished playing, there was not a dry eye in the house.
After returning to the States and being decorated personally by President Roosevelt, Ross found he had to face an even tougher opponent than he’d faced either in the ring or the battlefield: his wounds were so severe that he became addicted to morphine, which led to heroin addiction. He managed to make it to a rehab center, which saved his life.
Barney Ross only lived to be 57. In the last years of his life, he was a speaker to high schools about the dangers of drug addiction. To me it seems Ross got not just a second act in life, but a third one as well.