By Gregg S. Philipson JWV Austin Texas Post 757
NAME: Barney Ross
TIMEFRAME: World War II
Throughout my years of collecting Jewish memorabilia, I have come across thousands of artifacts. Among these artifacts are items that relate to Jewish sports legends as well as items that pertain to Jewish veterans from across the globe. However, it is not so common to find someone who fits perfectly into both of these categories. For me, acquiring material regarding a Jewish world champion boxer as well as a decorated Jewish US Marine from World War II was a golden find. Barney Ross was this remarkable person. But who was he, exactly?
Barney Ross was born Dovber “Beryl” David Rosofsky on December 23, 1909 in New York City. When Barney was two, the family moved to Chicago and his father operated a small vegetable store in a neighborhood similar to the Lower East Side. Barney was well on his way to joining his father as a Torah scholar and teacher until he was 14 when tragedy hit the family hard. Barney’s father was killed by gangsters who came to rob his store. The mother was unable to support all five children on her own, so some of the siblings were split between relatives and a children’s home.
Desperate to earn enough money to reunite the family, Barney became a street fighter and money runner, and even found himself doing errands for the famous mobster Al Capone. Eventually the street fighting brought Barney into the world of boxing. He took the last name Ross so his mother wouldn’t hear about his fighting, but also so as not to “tarnish” the family name.
Ross quickly won the “Chicago Golden Gloves Champion,” a prestigious boxing title. According to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, Ross was the World Lightweight and Junior Welterweight Champion from 1933 to 1935 and also the World Welterweight Champion in 1934 and 1935 to 1938. He was the first professional boxer to hold the Lightweight and Welterweight crowns simultaneously, and the first boxer to hold three World titles at the same time. Ross was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1956 and to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
After retiring from the ring, Ross was restless for action. Then in 1942 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the US into World War II. Barney Ross immediately joined the US Marines and soon found himself proclaimed a hero in Guadalcanal during a battle that took place some miles northwest of Henderson Field. An incident from November 20, 1942, reported by war correspondent Victor Wayne, is what earned Ross his Silver Star:
The true facts have just been released by the Office of War Information and they read like something out of a Hollywood thriller. Above all else, it refutes the skeptics who said years ago that Barney was definitely through with the fight racket. One glance at the citation and you’ll realize that capturing the triple crown—the lightweight championship, the junior welterweight title, and the welterweight belt—was mere child’s play. Today Barney is fighting for keeps and it seems that he has only just begun to fight.
It all happened the night of November 20. Barney was on patrol with a detachment of men when they ran smack into the advance units of a Japanese scouting party. Less than 10 yards separated the men when the bullets began digging up the dirt. One of Barney’s pals fell with a wound in his leg. Another was dropped with a bullet in his stomach. By the time Barney reached a foxhole, the third man in the quartet had been incapacitated with a bullet that drilled him through the knee.
Barney helped all the wounded into his foxhole and then began fighting off the entire contingent of Japanese himself. It was machine guns against Barney’s rifle. Barney threw everything he could find at the Nipponese and when his own ammunition ran out, the wounded lads helped him load theirs. But even this gave out after a while. Only a log separated them from perdition and the deep blue sea.
After running out of ammunition, the little group prayed for a miracle. Finally, in the early morning, a stretcher bearer crawled up and with Barney’s help, got the wounded back to safety. That return trek was no picnic. Every five to six yards they would drop to the earth. Finally, they managed to drag themselves back to the Marines. The article continued:
Of course, Barney’s CO made him a corporal, and the citation for the Silver Star was delivered immediately. But Barney was much too sick to hear all those nice things. It’s a bit over a year ago that Barney Ross stepped up to the recruiting sergeant in Chicago and said, “I want to get into the Marines.” That was a day after Pearl Harbor.
Barney was graying at the temples. He was an old man as fighters go—he was 33. His fighting days were over, said the boxing experts… Over? Good gosh, folks, Barney’s just begun to fight.
After standing guard over three wounded members of their unit, Ross killed seven to ten Japanese snipers. Ross was awarded the Silver Star for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action.”
On another occasion, Ross and three stretcher bearers were carrying a wounded service member out of a battlefield when Japanese troops surrounded them and cut off all possible escape routes. The small American group took shelter in two shell holes and fought the Japanese all night long. Later that night, two more soldiers managed to sneak in to join the little group. The Japanese fired with machine guns and mortars while Ross and co responded with rifles and hand grenades. Ross killed at least 22 Japanese enemy soldiers in that incident. He and his comrades were wounded but made it out alive when their unit came to rescue them in the morning.
For his actions, Barney Ross received the Distinguished Service Cross and Presidential Unit Citation from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
While recovering in the hospital from his wounds, Ross became addicted to the painkillers he was prescribed. After struggling for a long time he eventually overcame his addiction, and was invited to speak at many schools around the country to warn students about the dangers of drugs.
As a fascinating aside, Ross was friends with Jack Ruby, the man who was later convicted for killing JFK’s killer Lee Harvey Oswald. The two were old friends and had trained together in the boxing ring. At Ruby’s trial, Ross served as a character witness for his friend.
Toward the end of his life, Ross used his status as a celebrity to promote casinos and other businesses. He also wrote a book about his experiences called No Man Stands Alone. After being diagnosed with cancer, Barney Ross passed away at age 57 on January 17, 1967.
Originally published in the Shavous 5782 Jewish-American Warrior