On December 24, 1942, U.S. Marine Barney Ross, who just a few years earlier had been the world welterweight boxing champion, played the organ as he accompanied Father Frederic Gehring in leading 700 marines in Christmas Eve singing at Guadalcanal.
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At the time, Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, was the venue of one of the fiercest battles of World War II. It lasted from August 1942 until February 1943, when the Japanese yielded and then evacuated the strategically placed island.
As U.S. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey said, about the battle, “Before Guadalcanal the enemy advanced at his pleasure. After Guadalcanal, he retreated at ours.”
In those years, Barney Ross was one of the most well-known and admired Jews in the United States. Born Dov-Ber Rosofsky, on December 23, 1909, Ross grew up the son of immigrant parents from Brest-Litovsk, in the Russian Empire (today in Belarus). His father, Isidore Rosofsky, was a rabbi who made a living in the United States by operating a small greengrocer’s in the Maxwell Street Jewish ghetto of Chicago.
Isidore groomed Dov-Ber, who was also known as Beryl, to become a rabbinic scholar, and would beat him on occasions when he got into fights in the neighborhood. When the boy was 14, however, his father was shot dead during a robbery at his shop. In the wake of that tragedy, Dov-Ber gave up his studies and started working to help support the family: One of his employers was the mobster Al Capone.
My son, the boxer
Dov-Ber also began boxing, and had such success that by the age of 18, he was fighting professionally.
So as to avoid humiliating his mother, he fought under the name “Barney Ross,” although he proudly and publicly embraced his Judaism. In return, he became a hero for millions of American Jews, during a period when in Germany their brethren were facing the tightening noose of Nazism.
Ross’s pro career lasted less than nine years, from September 1929 until May 1938, during which he fought 81 fights and won 72 of them. He had the rare distinction of winning the championship in the lightweight, light welterweight and welterweight divisions, and he earned the reputation of being a smart and courageous fighter who never gave up.
After retirement, Ross invested in a cocktail lounge before enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps following Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, though he was already two years above the maximum age normally permitted in the corps. What’s more, Ross insisted on combat duty, which is how he ended up in Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942.
Night in a foxhole
On November 19, while out on patrol, Ross was caught in a firefight, and spent the night in a foxhole with three wounded comrades. During the night he held off the Japanese foe, firing 400 rounds and lobbing 22 grenades, eventually killing 22 of the enemy. By morning, two of the others in his hole were dead, but Ross, who was himself injured, carried the survivor, who was heavier than him by 60 kilograms, back to safety. For his heroism, Barney Ross was awarded a Silver Star.
A month later, Ross was recruited by Marine chaplain Father Frederic Gehring to play the organ on Christmas Eve.
Gehring, a Roman Catholic priest, was himself something of a legend, as he risked his life repeatedly to be present with soldiers in battle, and had rescued several missionaries from behind enemy lines, for which he was awarded the Presidential Legion of Merit. He also saved the life of a 6-year-old Chinese girl who turned up on Guadalcanal, wounded and suffering from malaria, and eventually arranged for her to come to the U.S.
Supposedly, Ross was the only one on the island who could play Gehring’s small pump organ, and the priest had him learn the music for a full program of Christmas carols, including “Silent Night.” Father Gehring himself played the violin that night, as 700 troops crowded into the chapel tent. Once they had run through the Christmas repertoire, Gehring asked Ross to play a Jewish song. He obliged by performing “My Yiddishe Momma,” which had been his theme song during his years in the ring.
This too was an amazing feat of bravery for Corp. Barney Ross, considering the injuries he had suffered just a month earlier, and the fact that he returned to the United States two months later suffering from malaria and addicted to morphine, which he had been given freely for pain while hospitalized.
Ross later wrote a book, which was adapted for the screen in a film called “Monkey on My Back,” about his successful battle against addiction. In the 1960s, he was a character witness at the murder trial of his childhood friend Jack Ruby, who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President Kennedy.
Barney Ross died of cancer at age 57, on January 17, 1967.