(Left) Cpl. Barney Ross and his mother on March 11, 1943, after the battle of Guadalcanal. (Right) Lt. Frederic P. Gehring (Chicago Tribune/Harold Revoir , FindAGrave.com/PL)
Often when I hear carolers singing, my inner ear segues into "My Yiddishe Mamma." A schmaltz pop song of the 1920s, it was part of a Christmas Eve service on a World War II battlefield.
Unlikely as that might now seem, it was a perfect musical metaphor for the values our GIs were defending. America was far from perfect; black people were second-class citizens. But it was a beacon of brotherhood compared with the totalitarian countries we were fighting. Japanese soldiers were drilled in the idea that Westerners were barbarians. Germans were taught that Jews were a pestilence that had to be eradicated at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
But on Dec. 24, 1942, a Catholic priest from Brooklyn, New York, and a Jewish boxer from Chicago put together a midnight Mass for U.S. Marines of various hues and creeds. The service was held amid the foxholes of Guadalcanal, a South Pacific island.