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Captain Ben Salomon, a commissioned dental officer, served in the 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Division, during World War II. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in defending wounded soldiers under his care on Saipan on July 7, 1944. Fifty-eight years later, he became the first dentist to receive the award.
Congressman Brad Sherman (left) presents a replica of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Dr. Robert West on behalf of Captain Ben Salomon.
The expression “better late than never” could not be more appropriate than in the case of Captain Ben L. Salomon.
On May 1, 2002, President George W. Bush posthumously presented Salomon’s Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic efforts on Saipan, Marianas Islands, nearly 58 years earlier. Salomon is the first Army dentist ever to receive the prestigious award.
“I was very proud that a dental officer had made this kind of sacrifice for his country,” said retired Major General Patrick Sculley, who was present at the White House ceremony and played a key role in having the Medal awarded. “It was the right thing to do.”
But it almost never happened.
CAREER CUT SHORT
According to Salomon’s online biography, he was born into a Jewish family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1914. After graduating from the University of Southern California Dental School in 1937, Salomon opened his own practice. Three years later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
In 1942, Salomon became an officer in the Army Dental Corps and was commissioned a first lieutenant. By May 1943, he was serving as the regimental dental officer of the 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division, and in 1944 was promoted to the rank of captain. His commanding officer labeled Salomon the unit’s best all-around soldier.
Salomon saw his first combat a year later, going ashore on Saipan with the 105th Infantry Regiment. When the second Battalion’s surgeon became wounded, Salomon volunteered to take his place.
According to documents from the U.S. Army Medical Department, the Japanese army had been significantly reduced in size and possessed limited weapons. Nevertheless, they refused to surrender, and approximately 5,000 Japanese troops advanced on the American soldiers.
Salomon’s aid station was set up in a small tent about 50 yards behind the forward foxholes and 30 yards from the shoreline, and within minutes after the battle began, the station was overwhelmed by more than 30 wounded soldiers.
“Doctors and all medics have an obligation to protect the wounded entrusted to their care,” Sculley explains. “But they also have a right to defend themselves.”
Salomon ordered his assistants to move the less seriously wounded out of the tent to make room for the more grievously injured, but soon Japanese soldiers began to infiltrate the aid station. Captain Salomon fired on and killed the first soldier, but almost immediately four more came crawling under the tent walls.
“Rushing over to them, [Salomon] kicked the knife out of the hand of one, shot another, and bayoneted a third,” his biography says. “The fourth was shot by one of the wounded from his stretcher after Captain Salomon had butted him in the stomach as he lunged across the room to retrieve the knife with which he stabbed its owner to death.”
Salomon then grabbed a rifle from one of the wounded, left the tent and attempted to hold off the enemy as long as possible so the wounded could get to safety. He also manned a machine gun after its previous shooters were killed.
“He’d already taken out some of the enemy in the battalion aid station,” Sculley says. “And when he went outside, he realized they were overwhelmed and that the people who should have been defending [the station] were dead. I think he felt like he had no choice. He did the best he could to hold them off, and he died doing it.”
When the Army returned to the site the following day, Salomon’s body was found slumped over the machine gun. Ninety-eight Japanese bodies were piled in front of the gun position, which had clearly been moved several times in efforts to obtain a new field of fire. Salomon had 76 bullet wounds in his body, but his finger was still on the machine gun’s trigger.
Captain Edmund Love, the 27th Division historian who had surveyed the battle scene, was asked to write a recommendation for the Medal of Honor for Salomon. He later learned that the recommendation had been returned without action with a handwritten note from Major General George Griner, the commanding general of the 27th Division.
“I am deeply sorry that I cannot approve the award of this medal to Captain Salomon, although he richly deserves it. At the time of his death, this officer was in the medical service and wore a Red Cross brassard upon his arm. Under the rules of the Geneva Convention, to which the United States subscribes, no medical officer can bear arms against the enemy,” Griner’s note said.
Love would try again in 1951, resubmitting the recommendation through the Office of the Chief of Military History, but was told the time limit for submitting World War II awards had passed.
“That’s why a lot of the living recipients [of the Medal of Honor] will tell you, ‘I wear this for the guys who should have received it,’” says Laura Jowdy, C.A., an archivist with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Jowdy explains that the Medal of Honor process is extremely detailed. For starters, the recommendation must be accompanied by two eyewitness statements.
“Well, if everybody in a company is wiped out, you don’t know who did what or who had that moment of valor,” Jowdy says. “You don’t have your two eyewitness statements.”
Once a recommendation is made, the review process can take years. In Salomon’s case, Congress would eventually waive the timeline, but the Army still sends the recommendation all the way up the command ladder to ensure that it still meets the level of a Medal of Honor.
“Some of these recommendation packets I see come through, they actually draw diagrams of the battlefield,” Jowdy says. “As a historian that’s wonderful, because you’re trying to understand what was going on, and because so much was happening in this tiny moment in time.”
TAKING UP THE FIGHT
In 1969, the USC School of Dentistry named a clinic after Salomon, and in 1973, a dental clinic at Fort Benning, Georgia was dedicated in Salomon’s memory.
But there was still no Medal of Honor.
Then in the mid-1990s, Robert West, an alumnus of the USC School of Dentistry, came across Salomon’s story while working on a book to commemorate the school’s centennial anniversary. West began a dogged effort to have Salomon considered for a posthumous Medal of Honor, which included the assistance of Congressman Brad Sherman to have the statute of limitations waived.
That was when West received a letter from Sculley, who had recently become the new chief of the Army Dental Corps and was interested in Salomon’s story since first learning of it in the 1970s.
“I thought it was incumbent upon us to keep this alive,” Sculley says. “So, I kept an eye on it.”
Sculley was able to report back to West when it cleared the Army’s Senior Decorations Board, a group of senior army officers who look at the merits of the narrative and the action that took place before awarding a Medal of Honor.
“What you don’t want is to have it get sidelined, get in somebody’s in-basket and not move forward, because there’s a timeliness to this,” Sculley says. “Even though we no longer have the statute of limitations, you have a congressman who’s going to be up for election every two years in the House of Representatives. You know, he can get voted out of office, and then you have to find another champion.”
But there was another element of time sensitivity at work. Sculley was scheduled to retire in June 2002, and while the posthumous award looked eminent, Sculley very much wanted it to be presented before he retired.
“You want to see the right thing happen,” Sculley says. “You want to see virtue be rewarded. [Salomon] made an amazing sacrifice.”
In a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House, just days before Sculley retired, virtue and perseverance were rewarded. West received the Medal on behalf of Salomon, who was an only child and had no living relatives and then presented it to Sculley for permanent placement in the Army Medical Department Museum in San Antonio, Texas. A replica is housed at the USC School of Dentistry.
“I was very proud that Dr. West was entrusting that medal to me to present to the Army Medical Museum,” Sculley recalls. “He knew it was going to its real home, where we have the images of 50 medics who have earned the Medal of Honor.”
Days later, when Sculley ceremoniously retired, he recalled it as the most memorable day in his life, with the ultimate event being the presentation of Salomon’s Medal to the museum.
“I knew that the medal would be well cared for and there for everybody to see and honor the sacrifice that Ben Salomon made,” Sculley said.
Salomon’s ashes, together with those of his parents, are interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.