Every head would be held up high
There’d be sunshine in everyone’s sky
If the day ever dawned when I ruled the world
— If I Ruled The World, recorded by Tony Bennett in 1965
19-year-old Corporal Anthony Dominick Benedetto stood in shock as an enraged Army officer howled at him, took a razor blade to his stripes, cut them off, and threw them on the floor.
Benedetto’s crime: fraternizing with a Black serviceman, a grievous offense in the segregated army of May 1945, bearing worse penalties than had he been friendly with an enemy soldier. Never mind that the two men had been friends for years and had chanced to bump into one another in Mannheim, Germany, as part of the occupying American army. Never mind that the two had sung together in a quartet in Manhattan as children and were excited to see each other again.
Benedetto—later known around the world as Tony Bennett—was reassigned from Special Services where he had toured the European theater entertaining troops with that magical singing voice of his—to Graves Registration, charged with the task of exhuming fallen soldiers for reburial in military cemeteries. It was, he recalled, “just as bad as it sounds.”
For the young soldier, World War II was a swift and brutal education in hatred. From the very beginning, in basic training, Bennet said, “Our sergeant was an old-fashioned southern bigot, and he had it in for me right from the start because I was an Italian from New York City. I wasn’t the only one who experienced prejudice—it was just as bad for other ethnic groups, especially the Blacks and Jews.”
Thrust into the front lines during the Battle of the Bulge, his was the regiment that liberated a subcamp of Dachau in Landsberg, Germany. The Nazis had already slaughtered the women and children and fled, having shot half the mostly sick and emaciated men the day before the Americans arrived.
The sight sickened him. “I’ll never forget the desperate faces and empty stares of the prisoners as they wandered aimlessly around the campgrounds,” Bennett wrote, adding that they “had been brutalized for so long that at first they couldn’t believe we were there to help them and not to kill them.”
His experiences during the war left a lasting impression, prompting a life-long commitment to fighting bigotry and hate wherever it was and whatever form it took. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and his friend and fellow performer Harry Belafonte in Selma. He remembered being “terrified by the violence,” echoing his experiences in the army 20 years earlier. “It felt the same way down in Selma: the white state troopers were really hostile, and they were not shy about showing it.”
Bennett practiced what he preached, speaking out against religious and racial prejudice throughout his career, often performing with African American entertainers at a time when the practice was frowned upon.
Tony Bennett achieved iconic stature in his lifetime as a performer. Not to be forgotten, however, is that along with his many awards and accolades as a singer, he also received the Citizen of the World Award and Humanitarian Award from the United Nations in 2007 for his tireless support of civil rights.
The young corporal took his experiences in the war and converted what he had witnessed and experienced into a force for humanity and tolerance.
Next time you marvel at a Tony Bennett song, listen carefully and you’ll hear it in his voice—the message that is the magic of his artistry: the gentle, yet insistent plea that we love one another.
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