Before He Was a Jazz Legend, Tony Bennett Stormed Europe and Liberated a Concentration Camp

Photo Credit: 1. Lester Cohen / Getty Images 2. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Tony Bennett is a jazz legend, with a career spanning over half a century. His music transcends generations, and has made him a household name across the world. Before entering the music business, he served in the United States Army, through which he was sent to Europe to participate in the final months of the Second World War.

Bennett’s early life and entry into the military

Anthony Dominick Benedetto, later known as Tony Bennett, was born on August 3, 1926 and raised in Astoria, Queens, New York. He was introduced to music at an early age through the radio, and by the time he was a teenager, he was working as a singing waiter at local restaurants.

Portrait of Tony Bennett
Bennett, 1970. (Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

In November 1944, Bennett was drafted into the US Army, just three months after turning 18. While initially interested in joining the Navy, he was placed in the Army, and completed basic training at Forts Dix and Robinson to become an infantry rifleman.

While training, Bennett ran afoul of a sergeant from the South who disliked his Italian heritage. As such, he was punished with KP Duty and BAR cleaning.

Service in Europe during World War II

In March 1945, after six weeks of training, Bennett was assigned to the 255th Infantry Regiment of the 63rd Infantry Division, known as the “Blood and Fire” Division. The regiment was sent to Europe to bolster the number of Allied troops after severe losses during the Battle of the Bulge.

Bennett and his fellow troops marched through the front lines in France and Germany, and half of them fell during the first three days. They had to contend with sleeping in foxholes and were faced with heavy fire, despite the German retreat. By the end of March, they’d crossed the Rhine into Germany, where they fought to clear towns of German soldiers.

Aerial view of the barracks of Kaufering concentration camp
Kaufering concentration camp. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The unit crossed the Kocher River during the first week of April, and by the end of the month they had reached the Danube. They also liberated Kaufering concentration camp in the town of Landsberg, where American prisoners of war from the 63rd Infantry Division were being held. It was an experience Bennett says changed his life.

Postwar service in Europe

After the German surrender in May 1945, Bennett was ordered to serve in the postwar occupation of Europe. He was stationed in Mannheim, Germany, where an officer encouraged him to join the band the 255th Regiment was forming. He was then assigned to Special Services, where he rose to the rank of corporal and tasked with entertaining the troops.

During Thanksgiving of 1945, Bennett invited friend and former classmate Frank Smith to dine with him. This caused an uproar, as Smith was African American and soldiers were still officially segregated. According to Bennett, a bigoted officer promptly demoted him to private, cutting off his corporal stripes with a razor, spitting on them and throwing them to the floor.

Tony Bennett leaning against a cement wall
Bennett during World War II. (Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)

Following his demotion, Bennett was reassigned to a unit tasked with exhuming mass graves and preparing bodies for transport back to the United States. He was able to leave the assignment after a major pulled some strings and assigned him to the 314th Army Special Services Band, where he performed under the name “Joe Bari.”

It was around this time Bennett became acquainted with the new jazz music coming out of the US, thanks to the Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast.

A successful music career followed Bennett’s service

What Bennett saw and experienced in Europe has stuck with him throughout his life. When he returned to America in August 1946, he vowed to live a life of pacifism and pursue his love of music. He attended the American Theatre Wing via the GI Bill, where he studied voice training, and later auditioned for Broadway, but to no avail. He eventually tried singing in nightclubs, which allowed him to gain exposure.

In 1949, he was invited by Pearl Bailey to open for her at a club in Greenwich Village, where he met actor and singer Bob Hope. Hope is credited with giving him the stage name “Tony Bennett” and encouraging him to go on tour.

Tony Bennett with his arms outstretched
Bennett, 2013. (Photo Credit: Anthony Pidgeon / Getty Images)

Bennett signed with Columbia Records in 1950, under which he has released such hits as “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and “Because of You”. To date, he has released over 100 albums and won 20 GRAMMY Awards, including the Recording Academy’s prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.