Tagged: CPT Ben Salomon
April 5, 2018 at 2:43 pm #8373Ronald J. LambertParticipant
At the Intersection of Character and Circumstance
Heroism occurs at the intersection of character and circumstance. That was certainly the case for CPT Ben Salomon who sacrificed his own life to save the lives of the wounded entrusted to his care during the horrific battle for Saipan on 7 July 1944. It was also circumstance that caused it to take 58 years for his sacrifice to be recognized with award of the Medal of Honor. Thus, there are two stories here – the story of CPT Salomon and the story of “The Medal”.
Ben was born in Milwaukee on Sept. 1, 1914. He was an only child whose childhood was mostly remarkable for his athletic ability, personal charm, and innate leadership skills. He attended Marquette University but ultimately transferred to USC to complete his undergraduate studies and dental school that followed. He graduated with his dental degree in 1937 and was practicing in Los Angeles when the selective service administration called his draft number in the autumn of 1940.
Ben was one of approximately one hundred dentists drafted as enlisted men, not as dental officers. He completed his infantry basic training and was assigned to the 102nd Infantry regiment. This regiment was an orphan, unassigned to a division, but rather, serving as a place to put manpower to be used where needed. In January 1942, less than two months after Pearl Harbor, Ben and elements of the regiment were shipped to the middle of the South Pacific to defend the small islands that were of strategic importance as waypoints for flights on the way to Australia.
On his island there was little to do but build defensive fortifications and train with the various weapons systems used by infantryman. The Regiment devised competitions to keep the training interesting. Irrespective of the weapon system – rifle, pistol, bayonet, and machine gun – Ben was the winner. He was good at anything he attempted. Soon he had been promoted to Sergeant and placed in charge of a machine gun section in the heavy weapons company. But decisions back at the War department regarding dental support for the burgeoning forces would soon change everything.
In 1940 the War department had determined that the combination of dentists in the regular army, reserves, and federalized National Guard would be sufficient for the “emergency”. They were wrong. By spring 1941 the enlisted dentists were being encouraged to accept commissions and serve as dental officers. By autumn 1941 encouragement became directives. Soon the Army began a draft for dentists ultimately conscripting nearly 13,000. Ben received a letter from the War Department indicating that he was to be commissioned a 1st LT in the dental corps. He first tried to resist and one of his commanders even suggested that he be commissioned as an Infantry Officer. But the War department prevailed and he was commissioned in August 1942 and transferred to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii to serve as the regimental dentist for the 105th regiment of the 27th Infantry division.
Apparently his dental skills came back quickly. He was well liked and admired as a dentist, but his practice was highly unusual. He would see patients in the morning but in the afternoon he returned to the field to instruct infantry tactics. His commander recognized him as the best instructor that they had. Within the year he was promoted to Captain.
On May 31st 1944 the time had come to put those skills to work. The Division was deployed to Saipan to join the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions to dislodge from the island a well-entrenched enemy force of 30,000. They arrived on 15 June. First the regiment was held in reserve but soon it was in the fight for real. On the 22nd of June the 2nd Battalion medical surgeon was wounded by mortar fire and Ben stepped in to fill that role. Over the next several days his unit helped clear the Nafutan Peninsula in some very difficult fighting. On the evening of July 6th they were north of the village of Tanapag on the northwest coast. The 2nd Battalion established its defensive perimeter near the ocean with the 1st Battalion to their right. Ben established his Battalion aid station tent about 50 meters to the rear and 30 meters from the shore.
To their North, Japanese LTG Saito issued final orders to the remaining Japanese force of 6000-7000 combatants. He lauded them for the fight they had given, but they were short of supplies, ammunition, and weapons. He ordered one last bonsai charge where every Japanese soldier was to fulfill his duty to the Emperor –to not surrender or be taken captive, but to take ten enemies lives for every Japanese death. LTG Saito issued his order and then joined Admiral Nagumi, leader of the Pearl Harbor attack, in committing suicide.
The attack kicked off about midnight with probing advances to fix American defensive positions. Soon Ben’s aid station was filled with the wounded. About 0445 the attack struck with full fury, directly upon the 1st and 2nd Battalions. It was described as a human tsunami. As Ben was working on one of the wounded he heard another cry out. He turned to see a Japanese soldier bayoneting the casualty. He grabbed a rifle and shot the enemy. Almost immediately, two more enemies appeared at the door of the tent. He clubbed them with the stock of his rifle and then shot one and bayoneted the other. Four more crawled in under the flap. He shot one bayoneted another, head butted a third, and kicked the knife out of the hand of a fourth before dispatching him with the same knife.
Realizing the gravity of the situation he stepped outside to see that they were being overrun. He ordered the Medics to get the wounded to the rear and he would try to hold the enemy off. It was the last time anyone saw Ben alive.
The attack finally burned out by afternoon of the 7th of July. The next morning the Division Commander, MG George Griner, accompanied by CPT Edmund Love, the Division Historian, and several other soldiers came upon the carnage of the battle. They found Ben slumped over a machine gun with his finger still on the trigger. He had suffered numerous wounds. There were four piles of enemy totaling 98 dead in front of his position, From the tracks in the sand and the trail of blood, it was clear that he had repeatedly moved that machine gun to keep a field of fire. Edmund Love described the General’s actions. “Almost immediately the General bent over Ben and cut the Red Cross Brassard from Ben’s arm.
In the weeks after the battle, Love assembled documents and wrote narratives for numerous awards. Two individuals – the commander of the 1st Battalion, LTC William O’Brien, and his A Company commander, Sgt Thomas Baker ultimately received the Medal of Honor, posthumously. But Ben’s Medal of Honor recommendation was returned to the 2nd Battalion with a handwritten note from Gen Griner to the effect that Ben was a Medic and not permitted to bear arms against the enemy. This was a clear misinterpretation of the Geneva Convention. Medics have a right to defend themselves and a duty to defend those in their care. So General Griner did not forward the recommendation to the War Department as was Army policy, and thus, the first attempt to recognize Ben failed. It would take three more efforts and 58 years to achieve the recognition he deserved.
After the War, Edmund Love returned to the Pentagon as an historian. He wrote extensively on the Battle for Saipan and awards policy in the Pacific theater. One of his articles came to the attention of Ben’s father. Mr. Salomon contacted the secretary of War who dispatched Love to meet with Ben’s father and to write another narrative for the Medal of Honor. Mr. Salomon finally learned of the heroic nature of his son’s death. Sadly not even a Purple Heart had been presented.
Recreating the award recommendation was a difficult enterprise. The original recommendation had been lost and there were precious few survivors from the Saipan battle and the units’ follow on campaign in the battle for Okinawa was also bloody. It was 1951 before new affidavits could be gathered by traveling to various regimental and division reunions. Unfortunately, it was outside the statute of limitations for such awards and the recommendation was simply not processed.
By the 1960s, Public Law had been enacted to allow waiver to the statute of limitations when supported by congress. Another effort on Ben’s behalf was made in 1969, championed by Dr. John Ingle of the USC Dental School and MG Robert Shira, Chief of the Army Dental Corps. They engaged Edmund Love who helped put together the affidavits. The recommendation was signed by the Army Surgeon General. It was accompanied by a legal opinion affirming that Ben’s actions were, indeed, in keeping with the law of war. The senior Army Decorations Board recommended approval and the Secretary of the Army concurred. However, the Secretary of Defense and the White House demurred and the third effort ended in 1972.
The Army Medical Department still wished to honor Ben and named a new dental clinic at Ft Benning in his memory in 1973. In March of 1979, I visited my mentor, Col Clement Eagan, who was now the chief of the Salomon clinic. He gave me a tour of the clinic and I was acquainted with Ben’s story and the efforts to recognize his sacrifice. I remember thinking that if I ever had an opportunity to support his recognition I would. That opportunity came nearly two decades later. I had been selected as Chief of the Army Dental Corps, promotion to Major General, and assigned to the Office of the Surgeon General as Deputy Surgeon General. Shortly after I arrived, I inquired of our historian Mr. John Greenwood the status of the Salomon files. I was delighted to hear that Dr. Robert West of USC was engaged with Congressman Brad Sherman to resurrect the award recommendation. West received help from the Military Awards Branch and Dental Corps Historian, COL John King who shared the 1960s award files. A new recommendation was submitted using much of the language from Love’s narrative. In December 1999 I was able to notify Dr. West that the Senior Army Decorations Board had recommended approval.
Now my job was to keep the staffing of the award moving through the Pentagon. The Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, the Honorable P.T. Henry is a good friend of Army dentistry and helped me keep the staffing process on track. On January 20, 2001, as his last act in office, Mr. Henry hand carried the completed staffing action to the Secretary of the Army, the Honorable Louis Caldera who signed his approval. Over the next several months it was processed through the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In September 2001 staffing was complete and we received the good news that the award was in the NDAA for 2002 that was finally passed on December 28, 2001. When Pres. Bush signed the law the award was confirmed. Now there was the long wait for presentation. I had a retirement date in May 2002 and was fearful that I would be gone from office when the award was finally presented. In early spring 2002, I received the good news that the award would be presented in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 1. Since Ben’s family had passed on, USC and the Dental Corps proudly assumed the role of family.
On May 1st, Dr West accepted Ben’s Medal of Honor from Pres. George W. Bush. Many of those who had championed the award over the years were in attendance including Dr. Shira, Dr. Ingle, Mr. Henry, General Eric Shinseki and others including several Medal of Honor recipients. The next day was the Hall of Hero’s ceremony at the Pentagon. Ben’s image and award citation was enshrined and the Secretary of the Army, Thomas White, presented Dr. West the Purple Heart that Ben’s father had never received. That medal went to USC. After the ceremony, Dr. West presented the Medal of Honor to me. The next week, immediately following my retirement parade, as my last official act, I presented the Medal to the AMEDD Museum, where it resides today. And simultaneously, across the country at Ft. Benning, the Salomon Clinic was rededicated and a new sign hung: “In Memory of CPT Ben Salomon Medal of Honor Recipient”.
So what are the takeaways from this saga? First, in this chaotic world we need heroes like Ben Salomon, whose sacrifice inspires and guides us. Second, there must never be a statute of limitations on doing the right thing. Even if it takes decades or an eternity, virtue must be honored. And third, great character like that of Ben Salomon evokes the best of character in others. I think now of the many who supported his recognition, all of whom who had never met Ben in life: Love, Shira, Ingle, West, Sherman, Henry, Caldera, Shinseki, King, Greenwood, Eagan, and others who revealed the virtue in their own character by ensuring that Ben’s devotion to duty, selfless sacrifice, and personal courage would never be forgotten.
Thank you for your kind attention.
MG (Ret.) Patrick D. Sculley
22 August 2017
You must be logged in to reply to this topic.