Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Exceptional American of the day: Benjamin Lewis Salomon
The Japanese were storming through the makeshift battlefront aid station. Captain Benjamin Lewis Salomon -- a dentist who took the medical unit when the regiment's surgeon became a casualty -- had set it up. One crazy Japanese began bayoneting the wounded, Captain Salomon took a rifle and shot him. Salomon ordered an evacuation.
“I’ll hold them off until you get them to safety,” he said.
Those were the last words he said. And he kept them. Boy, did he ever. In an act of courage and self-sacrifice rare even for World War II, Ben Salomon took charge of a machine gun and protected his men -- his battalion -- his regiment -- from a pack of wild, suicidal Japanese soldiers.
Over the next 58 years, the nation wrestled with giving him a Medal of Honor.
Born on September 1, 1914, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Salomon was the only son of Jewish parents. He was a good student, and a good son. He became an Eagle Scout. He graduated from Shorewood High School, and at a time when only the best went to college, he attended Marquette University. But he moved to the West Coast while in college, transferring to the University of Southern California, where he attended dental school upon graduation. He applied for the Army Dental Corps, but his paperwork was lost. In August 1940, the Army drafted him.
Salomon entered the infantry as a private but quickly showed his skills as a soldier and as a leader. He earned expert badges for rifle and pistol. Officer's selected him as "the best all-around soldier" in his battalion in 1941.
In 1942, the Army figured out he was a dentist, which the military needed. Caries were a major problem among the 12 million men who were drafted or enlisted in the military. But he wanted to be in the infantry, having earned his sergeant's stripes. He was an expert with the machine gun. His commanding officer ordered him into the Dental Corps, where he became a first lieutenant.
Assigned to the 105th Infantry Regiment in Hawaii in May 1943, Salomon worked on soldier's teeth in the morning, and instructed them on combat in the afternoon. The next year, the unit went into combat the next year as pat of the 27th Infantry Division. In Saipan, the soldiers saw a bloody battle. The Japanese knew theirs was a lost cause, but they went on a suicide mission to kill as many Americans as possible. When his regimental surgeon went down on June 22, 1944, Salomon -- now a captain -- took over.
On July 7, 1944, he set up a makeshift aid station. As the Japanese prepared to overrun it, he ordered the evacuation and began fighting back. Four men died operating a machine gun. He took over.
The next day the Americans found his body. Captain Edmund Love, the division's historian, was one of the men to recover Salomon's body
"We had been walking through piles of dead men when the general gave a sudden start, and then stepped over to the figure of a man who was bent over the barrel of a heavy machine gun. Very quickly, almost before I saw what he was doing, the general took out a knife and cut the Red Cross brassard from Ben Salomon's arm. Then he straightened up and looked around. There were ninety-eight Japanese bodies piled up in front of that gun position. Salomon had killed so many men that he had been forced to move the gun four different times in order to get a clear field of fire. There was something else that we noted, too. There were seventy-six bullet holes in Salomon's body. When we called a doctor over to examine him, we were told that twenty-four of the wounds had been suffered before Salomon died. There were no witnesses, but it wasn't hard to put the story together. One could easily visualize Ben Salomon, wounded and bleeding, trying to drag that gun a few more feet so that he would have a new field of fire. The blood was on the ground, and the marks plainly indicated how hard it must have been for him, especially in that last move," Love wrote.
There was no question that he deserved the Medal of Honor. However, his division's commander, Major General George W. Griner, wrote, "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."
This was not a technicality. There are rules of war and the Red Cross must be respected. That explained why, upon seeing the brassard, the general confiscated it. Medical officers can carry weapons to defend themselves. It was a matter of interpretation.
As the division historian, Love wrote of Salomon's sacrifice after the war. He had searched for witnesses to help make the case for a resubmission for the medal, but only 30 men from that battalion. In the summer of 1951, he resubmitted the papers, but he had missed a final deadline for such submissions. America was in a new war in Korea. But Judge Robert Patterson, the Secretary of War, asked Love to share his work with Salomon's father. Love flew to Los Angeles and told the father the true story. He was grateful. The Army had only sent a telegram saying his son died and was awarded a Purple Heart.
In 1968, during the Vietnam War, John I. Ingle, dean of the University of Southern California School of Dentistry, took up the cause, and contacted Major General Robert Shira, chief of the Army Dental Corps, and urged him to reopen the case. On July 21, 1970, Stanley Resor, the Secretary of the Army, recommended approval of the Medal of Honor. Melvin Laird, Secretary of Defense, turned the request down, again citing the Geneva Conventions of 1929.
That should have ended it.
However, another dentist who never met Captain Salomon, Robert West, learned about Salomon's heroics while doing alumni work at USC, where he graduated from dental school in 1952 -- 15 years after Salomon. West had served in the Navy in the Pacific. In the 1990s, West began writing and pestering the Army brass on Salomon's behalf. The military had honored Salomon in other ways, including naming the dental clinic at Fort Benning, Georgia, after him.
West contacted Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman, who took up the cause.
On May 1, 2002, President George Walker Bush, awarded Salomon the Medal of Honor. With no family members to receive it, West did.
The citation read, "Captain Ben L. Salomon was serving at Saipan, in the Marianas Islands on July 7, 1944, as the Surgeon for the 2nd Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division. The Regiment’s 1st and 2d Battalions were attacked by an overwhelming force estimated between 3,000 and 5,000 Japanese soldiers. It was one of the largest attacks attempted in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Although both units fought furiously, the enemy soon penetrated the Battalions’ combined perimeter and inflicted overwhelming casualties. In the first minutes of the attack, approximately 30 wounded soldiers walked, crawled, or were carried into Captain Salomon’s aid station, and the small tent soon filled with wounded men. As the perimeter began to be overrun, it became increasingly difficult for Captain 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."
The Geneva Conventions are important. But if one side does not respect them -- and the Japanese ignored the Red Cross -- why the hell should we?
Benjamin Lewis Salomon was an exceptional American who thrust into war and thrust into a position as a surgeon gave his all to save his patients.
He was one of only three Dental Corps officers to receive a Medal of Honor in World War II, and one of two Jewish soldiers, the other being the uncle of singer Lenny Kravitz, Leonard Kravitz.
Josh Geltener wrote about this case in the National Review on September 11, 2015.
I am publishing collections of the best in this series of Exceptional Americans, with the second volume published on September 1. Here are the links to both "Exceptional Americans 1" and "Exceptional Americans 2."