Being a surgeon is hard enough in the sense that the lives of your patients are literally in your hands. You have to be quick-thinking and, at the same time, very precise. Now, imagine being a surgeon in the front lines of a war where enemies swarm around and crawl under your tent walls as you perform your duty of tending to the wounded. It’s like holding a rifle in one hand and a scalpel in the other. That was exactly what Ben Salomon, the only dentist to ever receive a Medal of Honor, had to deal with during the Battle of Saipan in World War II when the Japanese started overrunning his hospital.
Benjamin Salomon was born into a Jewish family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on September 1, 1914. He finished his High School at Shorewood High School before attending Marquette University. He then fought his way into the University of Southern Carolina Dental School to pursue the dental program that he wanted to take. American universities could only accept a certain number of Jewish applicants at that time, following a cap. He successfully got in and completed his degree and graduated in 1937. Immediately after, he attempted to join both the Canadian and American armies, but both rejected him. Because of that, Ben Salomon decided to instead push through with his dental career. As a young man, he was able to establish a successful dental practice in Beverly Hills.
Destined To Be In The Army
Things were going well that in 1940, Ben Salomon had a small client base that included people who aspired to be Hollywood actors and actresses when he was drafted into the US Army and began his service as an infantry private, where he took the training and became an expert machine-gunner. While at it, Ben also gave free checkups and cleanings to his comrades in the barracks, applying his expertise.
Two years later, he was commissioned into the dental corps by the Army. Ben was not exactly thrilled with the news and tried to refuse, for he wanted to stay in his position as a Sergeant of a machine gun team. The plea was denied, and he was transferred to the 102nd Infantry Regiment, where a commanding officer labeled him as the unit’s “best all-around soldier.”
In May 1943, he was assigned as the regimental dental officer of the 105th Infantry Regiment with the 27th Infantry Division. In 1944, he was commissioned with the rank of captain. During the Marianas Island Campaign, Captain Ben Salomon offered to fill in a wounded battalion surgeon’s position until a new one could be assigned and deployed.
Battle of Saipan
And so he was fulfilling his temporary role for the 2nd Battalion when on July 7, 1944, the Japanese began waves of desperate suicide attacks against the American forces, commanding that each of them should kill 10 Americans before they die.
Around 3,000 to 5,000 Japanese soldiers rushed in and overwhelmed the Regiment’s 1st and 2nd Battalions, one of the largest attacks made in the Pacific Theather during the Second World War. Due to their sheer numbers, the Japanese soldiers successfully penetrated the US troops’ perimeter, all while inflicting damage and casualties. While all that was happening, Captain Salomon was tending to the wounded soldiers who walked, crawled, or were carried into his aid station, which was a small tent. In the first 30 minutes of the battle, his tent was already filled with wounded soldiers.
Here’s the rest of what happened based on his citation:
As the perimeter began to be overrun, it became increasingly difficult for Captain Ben Salomon to work on the wounded. He then saw a Japanese soldier bayoneting one of the wounded soldiers lying near the tent. Firing from a squatting position, Captain Salomon quickly killed the enemy soldier. Then, as he turned his attention back to the wounded, two more Japanese soldiers appeared in the front entrance of the tent. As these enemy soldiers were killed, four more crawled under the tent walls. Rushing them, Captain Salomon kicked the knife out of the hand of one, shot another, and bayoneted a third. Captain Salomon butted the fourth enemy soldier in the stomach and a wounded comrade then shot and killed the enemy soldier. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Captain Salomon ordered the wounded to make their way as best they could back to the regimental aid station, while he attempted to hold off the enemy until they were clear. Captain Salomon then grabbed a rifle from one of the wounded and rushed out of the tent. After four men were killed while manning a machine gun, Captain Salomon took control of it. When his body was later found, 98 dead enemy soldiers were piled in front of his position. Captain Salomon’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
Getting The Medal
It was not immediately that Salomon was awarded the Medal of Honor. Capt. Edmund G. Love, 27th Division historian, gathered eyewitness accounts to prepare a recommendation for the Medal of Honor at the request of the assistant commander of the 27th Division Brig. Gen. Ogden J. Ross. Capt. Love was part of the team that found the dentist’s body. Maj. George Griner, the commanding general of the 27th Division, declined to approve the award because Salomon was in the medical service and was wearing a Red Cross brassard on his arm when he fought. Under the Geneva Convention rules, medical officers should be non-combatants, unless for self-defense or in defense of their patients or staff, and as long as he does not wear the Red Cross. On the other hand, Salomon used the machine gun, which was considered a “crew-served” weapon.
Capt. Love tried again in 1951 and submitted the recommendation through the Office of the Chief of Military, which again did not bear any good result, this time because the time limit for submitting WWII awards was up. The recommendation was resubmitted once more in 1969, this time by Lt. Gen. Hal Jennings, Surgeon General of the United States Army. This was approved and forwarded to the Secretary of Defense, but it bore no action.
It was in 1998 when Dr. Robert West of USC Dental School resubmitted with the help of Congressman Brad Sherman and the support of Maj. Gen. Patrick Sculley, the new chief of the Army Dental Corps. President George Bush finally approved it on May 1, 2002, and the Medal of Honor was presented to Dr. West.
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