Answer Man

He left his heart in San Francisco and his desire to fight in Germany

Tony Bennett during World War II. His real name is Anthony Dominick Benedetto.
Tony Bennett during World War II. His real name is Anthony Dominick Benedetto.

Q: While training for the Army Air Corps during World War II at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss., I met another trainee named Alphonse Benedetto, which I think is singer Tony Bennett’s real name. I will turn 90 next month, and Tony turned 90 last August so I’m wondering if this is who I met.

A: He may have left his heart in San Francisco, but he never made it to Biloxi — at least in the early 1940s. His real name is Anthony (not Alphonse) Dominick Benedetto, and he was drafted into the U.S. Army in November 1944. He underwent training as an infantry rifleman at Fort Dix, N.J., and Fort Robinson, Neb., where, according to his autobiography, he wound up spending many unhappy hours on KP duty or cleaning rifles.

Two months later, he was sent to Europe to help bolster Allied forces after the heavy losses suffered during the Battle of the Bulge. For the next five months, Bennett found himself on the front line marching through Germany, which he would call “a front-row seat in hell.” Even as the German army retreated, Bennett and his company came under heavy fire in the cold winter conditions, often having to hunker down in foxholes as 88mm guns pounded them. At the end, he helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp near Landsberg, where some American POWS had been held.

After the war, Bennett was assigned to a Special Services band that entertained American forces, but after dining with a black friend from high school, he was demoted and reassigned to the Graves Registration Service, according to an interview on the Tavis Smiley show in 2006. (Even after again saving the world for democracy, the military was still strictly segregated.) Still, he managed to sing with the band using the stage name of Joe Bari (a partial anagram of his family’s roots in the Calabria region of southern Italy).

Decades later he told an interviewer that the war experience had made him a pacifist, writing in his memoir:

“The main thing I got out of my military experience was the realization that I am completely opposed to war. Every war is insane, no matter where it is or what it’s about. Fighting is the lowest form of human behavior. It’s amazing to me that with all the great teachers of literature and art, and all the contributions that have been made on this very precious planet, we still haven’t evolved a more humane approach to the way we work out our conflicts.”

Today’s trivia

If O is the chemical symbol for oxygen and N stands for nitrogen, why in the world is Pb the chemical symbol for lead?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: Lizzie Borden wasn’t the only person to gain eternal infamy for an ax murder. On March 29, 1889, William Kemmler, known for his drinking binges, picked up a hatchet and killed his common-law wife, Matilda “Tillie” Ziegler. Justice was superswift. On May 10 — just six weeks later —the 30-year-old Buffalo, N.Y., man was convicted of murder. Three days after that, he became the first person in history to be put to death in an electric chair during an execution that would have death-penalty opponents screaming today. After he reportedly said, “Take it easy and do it properly, I’m in no hurry,” he was given 1,000 volts for 17 seconds and declared dead. But when someone noticed he was still breathing, they shocked him with 2,000 volts until, as the New York Times reported, the hair around the electrodes singed. “The stench was unbearable,” the Times said after the eight-minute execution. “They would have done better using an axe,” said George Westinghouse, whose company supplied the generator.

Answer to Nov. 30 trivia: (This was inadvertently omitted from my column last Friday.) What famous lawman once published a newspaper in Dodge City, Kan.? Before he went on to write columns in the New York Morning Telegraph for the final 20 years of his life, gunfighter-lawman Bat Masterson published the Vox Populi in Dodge City, Kan., in 1884. Its first issue received a favorable review from another Dodge City paper, but Masterson folded his publication before he printed his second issue.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer