Dr. Benjamin Salomon was a dentist by profession. But when the Second World War broke out, he ended up in Saipan catering for wounded American soldiers as a frontline medical surgeon.
However, when push came to shove, this dentist turned surgeon of the U.S. Army held guns and single-handedly defeated ninety-eight Japanese soldiers who attacked his clinic.
Salomon was only one of the forgotten heroes of World War Two, and this is his story.
Salomon was born into a Jewish family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on September 1, 1914. He graduated from Shorewood High School and attended Marquette University before transferring to the University of Southern California (USC) for his dental degree.
Salomon fought for entry into the USC’s dental program even though many American universities at the time had a cap on how many Jewish applicants they would accept. When he graduated in 1937, he immediately tried to join both the Canadian and American armies, possibly because of how his brethren were being treated in Europe at the time when Nazis’ anti-Semitism had been growing.
Both armies rejected him, but as a young dentist, he was a successful one with his clients in Beverly Hills, which were mostly aspiring Hollywood actors.
The all-around soldier
In 1940, Salomon was officially drafted into the U.S. Army and began his military service as an infantry private. While it may seem odd that a man with a doctorate of dental medicine was an infantryman, Salomon reportedly took the training and became a top-tier machine gunner, a qualifying expert in rifle and pistol.
During his time as a private, he gave free dental checkups and cleanings to his friends in the barracks.
The Army acknowledged Salomon’s unique skills and had decided to put his training to good use by offering him a commission in the Dental Corps. But Salomon declined; he preferred to remain as an infantry non-commissioned officer. Eventually, the Army replaced its offer with an order, and made Salomon a first lieutenant, and was sent to Hawaii to cater to the 105th Infantry's dental needs. He was then dubbed as the “best all-around soldier” in his unit.
Salomon was a proficient dentist and soldier. He fell into a routine of treating his dental patients in the morning while teaching infantry tactics in the afternoon. Within a year, Salomon got promoted again to captain.
The battle of Saipan
In 1944, Imperial Japan's forces nearly occupied the Asia Pacific. The U.S. Army sent the 105th Infantry Regiment in Saipan, in the Mariana Islands.
The Battle of Saipan is one of the bloodiest encounters between the Allied and Axis forces in the Pacific Theater. The frontline surgeon of the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Division, got wounded in the battle. And Salomon volunteered to replace him.
During the battle, the Army and Marines had killed nearly 30,000 Japanese soldiers and had about 5,000 more pinned down in the island’s northwest. Knowing that defeat was imminent, the Japanese commander, General Yoshitsugu Saito, issued the order for a suicide charge: “We will advance to attack the American forces and will all die an honorable death. Each man will kill ten Americans.”
The Banzai charge
On July 7, 1944, around 3,000 - 5,000 Japanese soldiers attacked the U.S. Army's 1st and 2nd Battalion. 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.
Salomon was running a field hospital 50 yards behind the front line. In the first minutes of the Banzai attack, approximately 30 wounded soldiers walked, crawled, or were carried into Salomon's aid station, and the small tent soon filled with wounded men.
Salomon and his staff were tending to dozens of men. But as the perimeter began to be overrun, it became increasingly difficult for Salomon to work on the wounded. A Japanese soldier burst out of the surrounding brush and began bayonetting sick and dying Americans lying on the ground. Salomon immediately grabbed a rifle and fired the enemy, then continued to tend to his patient.
Two more Japanese soldiers rushed into Salomon’s hospital tent; he shot them. Four Japanese soldiers crawled in under the tent’s sides.
"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." - Congressional Medal of Honor
Salomon realized the severity of the situation, and the hospital will be overrun. He then ordered his staff to evacuate all the wounded soldiers, and this was his final words to them:
“I’ll hold them off until you get [the wounded men] to safety.” - Capt. Benjamin L. Salomon
Salomon then grabbed a rifle from one of the wounded and rushed out of the tent. After four men were killed, he then operated a machine gun, killing all the Japanese soldiers charging on his way.
The Banzai charge lasted for 15 hours. The next day, when the island was secured, Salomon’s body was discovered lying beside a machine gun. He had been bayonetted and shot 76 times. His cadaver was too mutilated and almost unrecognizable.
In front of him were the bodies of 98 Japanese soldiers. Following the blood trail leading from Salomon’s body, the doctor who examined him worked out that Salomon had moved his machine-gun position four times to meet oncoming Japanese charges, despite being mortally wounded.
The neglected hero
Capt. Edmund G. Love, the 27th Division historian, was a part of the team that found Salomon's body. He gathered eyewitnesses' accounts and prepared a recommendation for Salomon's Medal of Honor.
The recommendation was returned by Maj. Gen. George W. Griner, the commanding general of the 27th Division. Officially, Griner declined to approve the award because Salomon was "in the medical service and wore a Red Cross brassard upon his arm."
Under the Geneva Convention rules, to which the United States supports, "no medical officer can bear arms against the enemy." Hence, medical and non-combatants personnel should not hold weapons (e.g., rifles and pistols) to kill enemies in an offensive action. But if it was for defense purposes to save patients and staff, it is considered honorable, as long as the medical soldier does not bear the Red Cross. Unfortunately, the problem with Salomon's case, he used a machine gun to destroy the Japanese troops, which was considered a "crew-served" weapon and not an individual gun.
In 1951, Love again resubmitted the recommendation through the Office of the Chief of Military History. The recommendation was returned without action. In 1969, another Medal of Honor recommendation was submitted by Lt. Gen. Hal B. Jennings, the Surgeon General of the United States Army, and another one in 1970 and 1998, respectively. But all submissions for Salomon's to be recognized as an official World War Two hero were ignored.
Finally, on May 1, 2002, President George W. Bush recognized the Jewish-American hero from Wisconsin, Captain Benjamin L. Salomon, by awarding him a Medal of Honor.
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. - Congressional Medal of Honor Society
A replica of Salomon's Medal of Honor is displayed at the USC Dental School.
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