Tony Bennett’s Nazi Hunting Past Is Just One Reason He’s the Greatest Living American
Only one man can say that he has both recorded a jazz album with Lady Gaga and liberated a Nazi death camp, and that man’s name is Tony Bennett.
On Tuesday, the legendary 88-year-old singer released his new album Cheek to Cheek, a collection of jazz and big-band covers. “The collaboration has been so wonderful. It’s so natural singing with Tony,” Gaga said. “I just learn so much from him every day. I’m so happy.”
Here’s the two of them duetting on the 1937 showtune “The Lady Is a Tramp” for one of Bennett’s previous albums:
Bennett has been singing for over six decades, scoring his first Billboard No. 1 in 1951. Collaborating with much younger pop and rock stars nowadays isn’t all that unusual for him; he’s recorded songs with Amy Winehouse, Mariah Carey, and Bono, to name a few.
But his long, awards-heavy career in music is hardly the most fascinating—or admirable—thing about him. In his younger days, Bennett killed fascists, became a hardcore anti-war liberal, and fought for civil rights.
In 1944, Bennett (then Anthony Benedetto) was drafted as a teenager into the Army in the closing year of World War II. He was assigned to the Seventh Army, 63rd Infantry Division of the 255th Regiment, G Company, and was deployed to France in the harsh winter of 1945. By March, he and his fellow servicemen had reached Germany, where they were sent to the front lines and where Bennett witnessed a hell of a lot of death and destruction.
“Nighttime was the worst,” Bennett wrote in his autobiography. “We couldn’t light any fires to keep warm; we couldn’t even light a cigarette, because the glow would be detected by the Germans and give away our position.”
The final official mission of the 255th Regiment was the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp in Landsberg, a town just 30 miles south of Dachau. “I’ll never forget the desperate faces and empty stares of the prisoners as they wandered aimlessly around the campgrounds,” Bennett wrote. “Once we took possession of the camp, we immediately got food and water to the survivors, but they had been brutalized for so long that at first they couldn’t believe that we were there to help them and not to kill them…To our horror we discovered that all of the women and children had been killed long before our arrival and that just the day before, half the remaining survivors had been shot…The whole thing was beyond comprehension.”
Bennett’s service turned him into the ultimate peacenik. “The first time I saw a dead German, that’s when I became a pacifist,” he told Howard Stern in 2011.
“Anybody who thinks that war is romantic obviously hasn’t gone through one,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Actually the war comedies like M*A*S*H and Catch-22 are probably a more accurate depiction of war than the ‘guts and glory’ films, because they show how pathetic the whole enterprise is…Every war is insane, no matter where it is or what it’s about. Fighting is the lowest form of human behavior…No human being should have to go to war, especially an eighteen-year-old boy.”
After Germany surrendered, Bennett was stationed there as part of the Allied occupying force. It was during this period that he was caught fraternizing with a black soldier—at a time when the U.S. Armed Forces were racially segregated. As a result, an Army captain literally spat on Bennett’s corporal stripes and assigned him to Graves Registration, where he had to dig up the bodies of deceased military personnel.
This brush with institutionalized racism changed Bennett’s life, and informed his decision to sign up with the Civil Rights Movement. He participated in the historic 50-mile Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. To rally the crowd, Bennett sang on a makeshift stage constructed out of dozens of empty coffins.
“I didn’t want to do it, but then [fellow singer and social activist] Harry Belafonte told me what went down…how some blacks were burned, had gasoline thrown on them,” Bennett told CNN last year. “When I heard that, I said, ‘I’ll go with you.’”
In 2007, he stopped by The Colbert Report to discuss his marathon career, and marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I thought everybody should,” he said. Check out the segment:
For his strong support for civil rights, the Martin Luther King Center gave him their “Salute to Greatness Award,” and the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame added his footprint to their array of heroes and icons.
From helping to defeat fascism in the ’40s to crooning with Lady Gaga today, he’s led a uniquely remarkable life. And if someone wanted to bestow upon Bennett the official title of “Greatest Living American,” they would certainly have a strong case for doing so.