The fighting was fierce throughout 7 July 1944 on the northern end of the island of Saipan. Desperate, cornered Japanese soldiers hurled themselves at American positions. On the hills overlooking the coastal plain and the village of Tanapag, soldiers of the 27th Infantry Division repelled several banzai attacks. Their position was strong, and gradually as the day wore on the Japanese assaults weakened. The story was different on the beach below. Occasionally looking down, they saw that their fellow soldiers in the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 105th Infantry Regiment were in a much more precarious position. The initial enemy attacks coming out of the night had struck full force at the battalions' initial positions next to the ocean. Despite furious resistance, the survivors were eventually pushed back to the village of Tanapag where they continued to fight. The soldiers on the hills above readily recognized the bravery of their comrades below, but they could not foresee that out of this action would come a Distinguished Unit Citation, two Medals of Honor, and a fifty-seven year struggle for another Medal of Honor for an Army dentist. In combat, the courage and fearlessness shown by some soldiers is frequently astounding and inexplicable. Such a fighter was Captain Ben Salomon, the Army dentist killed in battle defending his aid station on 7 July 1944. Almost as amazing as Ben Salomon's exploits is the story of how his heroism was finally recognized by the award of the nation's highest medal for valor.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on 1 September 1914, Ben Salomon grew up in the city, graduated from Shorewood High School, and attended Marquette University before moving to Los Angeles, California, to finish his undergraduate education at the University of Southern California. He then went on to graduate from the University of Southern California Dental College in 1937, and began practicing dentistry. As with most young men in the United States on the eve of World War II, Ben's civilian plans quickly took second place to the military needs of the country. He was smart, good-looking, and popular, with a bright future in front of him. Soon after the National Selective Service Act became effective in the fall of 1940, Ben's draft board ordered him to report for induction into the Army. Dr. Ben Salomon became an infantry private.
After basic training Ben joined the 102d Infantry Regiment and quickly proved to be a natural soldier and leader. He won awards as an expert rifle and pistol marksman, and his commanding officer stated that he was "the best all-around soldier" in the regiment. Within a year he had risen to the rank of sergeant and was in charge of a machine gun section. In 1942 Salomon received notification that he was to become an officer in the Dental Corps. At first Ben attempted to remain in the infantry, and his commanding officer requested that he be commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry. The request was denied, and Salomon reported to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, where he was commissioned a first lieutenant on 14 August 1942. After several months of work in a hospital, Lieutenant Salomon was assigned in May 1943 as the regimental dental officer of the 105th Infantry Regiment, part of the 27th Infantry Division.
Characteristically, Ben jumped into his new duties with enthusiasm and skill. Despite not having practiced dentistry for two years, Lieutenant Salomon was quickly recognized as an excellent dentist by his patients and his fellow dentists. He developed a routine of handling dental appointments in the morning and joining his regiment in the field for training in the afternoon. Ben was not just a staff observer, but also an active participant in all activities from hot, dusty hikes and range firing to crawling through the mud of the obstacle courses. He won all of the regimental competitions. Later, his regimental commander described the uniqueness of his dental officer:
Ben Salomon was the best instructor in infantry tactics we ever had. He gave everybody who ever met him a real lift. He had a way of inspiring people to do things that they might not have done otherwise. I think it was because he himself was the most vital man most of us ever met.
In June 1944, newly promoted Captain Salomon went ashore on Saipan with the 105th Infantry Regiment for his first taste of battle. In active combat operations there was little work for the regimental dentist, so Ben immediately volunteered to replace the 2nd Battalion's surgeon who had been wounded in a mortar attack on 22 June. The day before, the unbloodied 2d Battalion had been thrown into a fight to clear the Nafutan peninsula in the southeast corner of the island while the remainder of the 27th Division and the 4th Marine Division pushed north. The 2d Battalion struggled and eventually at great expense, through trial and error, began to learn the techniques of properly executed combined arms attacks. There was plenty of work to keep acting surgeon Salomon busy as the effective strength of his battalion dropped to about fifty percent of its authorized strength. On 27 June the 2d Battalion finally secured the Nafutan peninsula, but the cost had been high, not only in personnel losses, but also in its reputation. The Marine commander on Saipan, Lt. Gen. Holland Smith, complained about the poorly performing unit, which he claimed had been stopped by a handful of disorganized enemy soldiers. General Smith's doubts about the leadership of the 2d Battalion, and indeed of most Army units on Saipan, contributed to his relief of Army Maj. Gen. Ralph Smith, commander of the 27th Infantry Division. As the 2d Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment moved north to rejoin the rest of the 27th Division, there might have been a cloud over its head in the eyes of the Marines, but the battalion itself was a much wiser and combat hardened unit.
The final drive to the north to clear the remainder of Saipan moved forward rapidly with the 27th Infantry Division on the left and the 4th Marine Division on the right. On 4 July the 2d Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment was inserted into the far left of the line on the coastal plain next to the ocean near the village of Tanapag. Although the 2nd Battalion advanced almost 800 yards on the 5th, it bogged down the next day against increasingly desperate Japanese resistance. Late on 6 July the regimental reserve, the 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry, was committed on the right of the 2d Battalion thus allowing the two battalions to drive forward 600 yards along the coast before dark. With reports of a planned Japanese night counterattack circulating, the 1st and 2d Battalions established a tight perimeter defense of foxholes well supported by infantry heavy weapons and artillery.
The reports were correct. Of the original thirty thousand Japanese soldiers, only a few thousand remained, and those were disorganized and short of food and weapons. General Saito, the Japanese army commander, ordered all remaining Japanese soldiers, sailors, and civilians, possibly as many as five or six thousand men, to gather about a mile in front of the 1st and 2nd Battalion positions the evening of 6 July. Saito addressed his men and issued the following order: "We will advance to attack the American forces and will all die an honorable death. Each man will kill ten Americans." Then Saito committed suicide along with the naval commander on Saipan, Admiral Chichi Nagumi. Saito's men followed his orders and moved resolutely forward against the 1st and 2d Battalions despite heavy American artillery fire.
The Americans were vigilant and quickly detected the Japanese advance. Flares added to the natural illumination of a bright moon, but the Japanese approach was somewhat concealed by heavy brush which began about 400 yards from the American position. About 0500 hours the tidal wave of the Japanese banzai attack burst out of the brush and rolled forward in waves. The Americans opened fire inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy, but still the Japanese advanced and soon were inside the foxhole perimeter.
Ben Salomon had set up his aid station in a small tent about fifty yards behind the forward foxholes and thirty yards from the shoreline. Within ten minutes of the beginning of the attack, his aid station was overwhelmed with over thirty wounded. Salomon was working steadily on the most serious cases inside the tent when Japanese soldiers began to enter. Ben shot the first one who had bayoneted a wounded American lying on a stretcher. Two more charged through the tent entrance. Ben clubbed them both with a rifle, then shot one and bayoneted the other. Four more began to crawl under the sides of the tent. He shot one, bayoneted one, stabbed another with a knife, and head butted the fourth. Ben ran out of the tent to get help to defend the aid station. He quickly saw that the situation was hopeless. The Japanese suicide masses had overwhelmed the two under strength American battalions. Pockets of resistance fought on inside the perimeter, but the bulk of the survivors were being pushed back toward Tanapag village. Salomon returned to the tent and ordered his aid men to evacuate the wounded while he stayed behind to hold off the enemy and cover their withdrawal. Salomon then grabbed a rifle and fought on with the few Americans still resisting inside the perimeter. Eventually he manned a machine gun after its gunner was killed. That was the last time anyone saw Ben Salomon alive.
The fighting continued throughout 7 July as the Japanese attacked other American units. As the day wore on, it was obvious that the assaulting force had spent itself. Late on the 7th, the Americans counterattacked, and on 9 July the island was secured as most of the remaining Japanese committed suicide. Early on 8 July the positions of the 1st and 2d Battalions, 105th Infantry Regiment had been regained. These units had withstood the worst of the assault. At the beginning of the banzai attack, the two battalions had 1,108 men present for duty; at the end 919 were either dead or seriously wounded, an 83 percent casualty rate.
The 27th Division historian, Capt. Edmund G. Love, accompanied the team that went back to the overrun battalions' position. Love later described what they found:
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.
Over the next several weeks, Captain Love carefully reconstructed the fighting on 7 July. All unit records of the 1st and 2nd Battalions had been destroyed. Love moved through hospitals and unit assembly areas and camps all over the Pacific interviewing the survivors of the attack. It became increasingly clear that there were many heroes, most of whom would remain unrecognized because there were no survivors to tell their stories. Eventually recommendations for Medals of Honor for two soldiers killed in the fighting, Lt. Col. William J. O'Brien, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, and Sgt. Thomas A. Baker of Company A, were prepared. Brig. Gen. Ogden J. Ross, the assistant commander of the 27th Division, asked Love to prepare one for Captain Salomon. Love wrote the recommendation for the Medal of Honor and assembled the supporting eyewitness accounts. He secured statements from the 2nd Battalion commander, Maj. Edward McCarthy, from the Company A commander, Capt. Louis Ackerman, and from one of Salomon's enlisted aid men. The recommendations were forwarded through official channels for approval.
When Captain Love rejoined the 27th Infantry Division in early 1945 to provide historical coverage for the invasion of Okinawa, he inquired about the award recommendations. The awards for Colonel O'Brien and Sergeant Baker had been approved. The award recommendation for Captain Salomon had been returned without action to the 2d Battalion with a handwritten note from Maj. Gen. George W. 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.
Captain Love attempted without success to persuade General Griner to reconsider his decision. The commanders of the 105th Infantry Regiment and the 2d Battalion were new, were unaware of Salomon's heroic actions, and offered little support for Love's efforts. As the 27th Division entered the fighting on Okinawa the matter was dropped.
After the war, Captain Love returned to the United States where he went to work as a civilian historian at the Office of the Chief of Military History in Washington preparing written accounts of the various battles in the Pacific. In 1946 he wrote an article for The Infantry Journal that described the fighting on 7 July 1944 and specifically mentioned Ben Salomon's heroics. Ben Salomon's father heard the article read over the radio and wrote a letter of inquiry to the War Department. The Secretary of War, Judge Robert Patterson, learned the details of the Salomon case from Edmund Love. Judge Patterson asked Love to give Salomon's father the details of how his son had died and to prepare another award recommendation for resubmission. Love carried out his instructions. He flew to Los Angeles and met with Mr. Salomon. Ben's father learned for the first time how his son had died. Previously he had only a routine telegram informing him of the death; there were no other details or posthumous awards, not even a Purple Heart.
Resubmitting the award recommendation was more difficult. The original award recommendation had been returned to the 2nd Battalion, 105th Infantry by General Griner and could not be located. Most of the notes that Love had collected during the war had been sent to the Adjutant General's office in the Pentagon and were now lost. Of the three eyewitnesses for the original Medal of Honor recommendation, Captain Ackerman was killed on Okinawa and the medical aid man could not be located. Only Major McCarthy was available. He provided an affidavit and indicated other veterans that might have knowledge of Salomon's actions. In recognition of the bravery and sacrifice of the 1st and 2d Battalions, 105th Infantry Regiment, in the fighting on 7 July 1944, the two units were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation in 1948. In addition to the losses on Saipan, the heavy casualties suffered by the 2nd Battalion on Okinawa hampered Love's search for witnesses; only about thirty soldiers survived the war. In the summer of 1951, Love, with the help of Major McCarthy, finally secured all of the necessary statements and submitted the recommendation through the Office of the Chief of Military History since Secretary of War Patterson's successors knew nothing of the action. Love left government service soon after and was later informed that the recommendation was returned without action because the time limit on submitting World War II awards had expired. There the matter rested for several years.
In the late 1960s another attempt was begun to win approval of a Medal of Honor for Ben Salomon. Dr. John I. Ingle, Dean of the University of Southern California School of Dentistry, learned from his friend, Ben's father, the story of his son's heroics. In 1968 Ingle contacted Maj. Gen. Robert B. Shira, chief of the Army Dental Corps, and urged him to reopen the case. Over the next year the award recommendation was reconstructed. This effort was even more difficult than the one in the late 1940s and early 1950s. None of the previous award recommendations could be located. Major McCarthy had committed suicide in 1953, and no one even remembered the names of the other eyewitnesses who had submitted statements for the 1951 submission. The services of Edmund Love were called upon, and he attended a 27th Division reunion but could only find one soldier from the 2nd Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment. This veteran remembered Salomon, but was wounded and knocked unconscious early in the action. Some items of interest were found in Ben Salomon's personnel file at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Extensive correspondence was conducted with veterans of the 27th Division. Two of the individuals with Love when Salomon's body was found were located, and they willingly provided sworn statements. Another officer, who remembered the wounded coming back from the overrun battalions talking about Salomon's exploits, provided a statement. Edmund Love wrote an extensive account of the events not only surrounding the fighting on 7 July 1944, but also the previous attempts to have the Medal of Honor awarded to Salomon. Research indicated that the passage of congressional legislation in 1960 had removed the legal restrictions on time limits for submission of awards. On 29 October 1969 the Army Surgeon General, Lt. Gen. Hal B. Jennings, signed the third Medal of Honor recommendation for Captain Salomon.
A legal review by the Judge Advocate General's office stated that the 1929 Geneva Convention allowed medical personnel to bear arms in self-defense and in defense of the wounded and sick. With the previous reasons for disapproval, namely the time limitation on submission of awards and the assumption that Salomon's actions violated the Geneva Convention, now eliminated, the recommendation was quickly processed by the Senior Army Decorations Board and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of which recommended approval. On 21 July 1970 the Secretary of the Army, Stanley R. Resor, recommended approval of the Medal of Honor for Ben Salomon and forwarded the papers to the Secretary of Defense for final approval.
From the beginning the Office of the Secretary of Defense took a critical view of the recommendation. At first the papers were returned to the Army citing an unfavorable Department of Defense legal opinion. After considerable research and argument, all lawyers agreed that according to regulations Salomon was eligible for consideration of an award. The recommendation still languished. In 1972 it was returned to the Army for another review by the new Secretary of the Army, Robert F. Froehlke. On 28 March Froehlke returned it to the Secretary of Defense stating in part:
After a careful review of the 1944 Medal of Honor case involving Captain Ben Salomon, I'm convinced that the Army is absolutely right in trying to redress a 27-year old error of judgment. The case has been painstakingly reconstructed. It has been endorsed unanimously for approval by the Army Senior Decorations Board and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and my predecessor, Stan Resor....this one deserves to be approved.
It was all to no avail. On 10 June 1972 the Office of the Secretary of Defense returned Salomon's Medal of Honor recommendation to the Army without acting on it, merely stating that it was based on circumstantial information.
The heroism of Ben Salomon in giving his life for his patients was not immediately forgotten. In 1973 a dental clinic at Fort Benning, Georgia was dedicated to his memory. His fellow alumnae of the U.S.C. School of Dentistry kept him in their thoughts; in the mid-1960s a new major clinic at the U.S.C. School of Dentistry had been named in his honor. The Army largely forgot him until the mid-1990s when an Army Dentist, Col. John E. King, while conducting research for a history of the Dental Corps during Vietnam, came across the story of Ben Salomon in neglected files in the office of the Chief of the Dental Corps. Coincidentally, about the same time, Dr. Robert West, an alumnus of the U.S.C. School of Dentistry, who was working on a book to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the school, also became interested in Ben Salomon. He contacted Dr. Ingle, who put him in touch with former acquaintances from the office of the Chief of the Dental Corps; in turn they referred Dr. West to Colonel King. When called by West, King readily agreed to send him the documents used in the 1969 recommendation for Salomon's Medal of Honor.
With advice and assistance from the Army's Military Awards Branch and his Congressman, Dr. West assembled the required documents and submitted them to the Army in April 1998 through his Congressman, Representative Brad Sherman, as required by law. In September 1998 the recommendation went forward to the Senior Army Decorations Board for processing. As the nomination moved through the lengthy review process, Major General Patrick D. Sculley, Deputy Surgeon General, U.S. Army, and Chief of the Dental Corps, maintained close contact with Mr. Patrick T. Henry, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, to make sure that CPT Salomon’s package remained on track. After recommendations for approval by the Army and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, legislation was introduced to waive the time limitation for awarding the Medal of Honor to Captain Salomon. With the signing into law of the FY 2002 Defense Authorization Act, the protracted struggle for Ben Salomon to receive his long overdue recognition finally ended. On 1 May 2002, President George W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor to Dr. Robert West, representing the U.S.C. School of Dentistry. The presentation of Captain Ben Salomon's Medal of Honor verifies Edmund Love's words of many years ago:
During the war in the Pacific, as a historian, in seven battles with four different divisions, I studied the individual actions of thousands of men. I personally prepared, at the request of various division and regimental commanders, the papers which resulted in the award of seven Congressional Medals of Honor and countless lesser decorations. I do not know of a man more richly deserving of this high honor than Captain Salomon, whom I never met in life.
William T. Bowers
COL, U.S. Army, Retired
Office of Medical History
Directorate of Health Care Operations