Wisconsin dentist Ben Salomon had assumed the role of surgeon in the brutal World War II Battle of Saipan in June and July 1944. The 29-year-old captain’s make-shift medical post was a simple tent erected just 50 yards from the front line. And the enemy ranks of the Empire of Japan’s army were pressing hard upon the vulnerable postion. The American fighting force was being overwhelmed and Salomon’s tent was soon overflowing with casualties. Worse still, there was no sign of any let up from the ruthless Japanese who were fast approaching the tent. Consequently, the outlook for Salomon and his wounded charges was exceedingly bleak. But cometh the hour, cometh the man… and the dentist-turned-surgeon turned war hero.
Benjamin Lewis Salomon was born in 1914 in Milwaukee, WI, to a Jewish family. He attended the city’s Shorewood High School and from there enrolled at the downtown Marquette University. Salomon then successfully transferred across the country to the University of Southern California. And he was all smiles when he graduated from that institution’s dental school in 1937.
Salomon now started a private practice in Beverly Hills, CA, and enjoyed a degree of success attending to the dental needs of various Hollywood hopefuls. But then normal life in America came to an abrupt halt in December 1941 with Japan’s shock attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. entered World War II in response to the atrocity.
But President Franklin D. Roosevelt had already signed the Selective Training and Service Act – better known as the draft – into law in September 1940. Indeed, Salomon had been called up by the army in that year and enrolled as a private in the infantry. After he had completed his basic training, Salomon was attached to the 102nd Infantry Regiment and by all accounts thrived in his new life as a soldier.
Indeed, Salomon’s expertise at both pistol and rifle marksmanship won accolades, and he was named as the “best all-round soldier” in his regiment by the officer in command of his section. Within 12 months, the Milwaukee man had been promoted to sergeant and was given responsibility as the head of a machine-gun unit. And it appeared that Salomon’s popularity among his men was cemented by his willingness to give free dental check-ups.
However, there soon came an unwelcome change in direction for Salomon. In recognition of his particular peacetime skills, he was ordered to join the Dental Corps. But the sergeant was far from happy with the prospect of leaving his infantry buddies. His senior officer put in an appeal for his machine gunner to be commissioned as an infantry officer, only to see the request denied.
In August 1941, Salomon was posted to the Schofield Barracks in Honolulu, Hawaii, and commissioned as an officer with the rank of first lieutenant. After a spell practicing in a local hospital, Salomon was made the regimental dental officer of the 27th Infantry Division’s 105th Infantry Regiment in May 1943.
Although Salomon was now officially an army dentist, that did not mean that he neglected other military pursuits. The lieutenant created his own schedule, whereby he cleared up all his dental work in the mornings and joined his infantry compatriots for training in the afternoons. He kept up his marksmanship, joined arduous hikes and clambered across obstacle courses with the best of the other grunts.
The identity of Salomon’s superior officer in the 105th has been lost to time, but his words have been saved for posterity on the U.S. Army Medical Department’s Office of Medical History website. “Ben Salomon was the best instructor in infantry tactics we ever had,” his citation reads. “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.”
But Salomon – who had recently been promoted to captain – was soon to meet the enemy. In June 1944, he was with his regiment when the 105th was deployed in the invasion of Saipan in the Pacific. Saipan is the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands and it lies about 1,500 miles to the south-east of Japan. In fact, the imperial empire had ruled over the island since 1914.
The Japanese regarded Saipan as a key strategic stronghold which was vital for the defense of the mother country. To this end, the island’s coast was peppered with artillery batteries, which were overlooked by deeply dug in fortifications, and it also boasted an airfield. By mid-1944, the Japanese garrison on the island numbered almost 30,000 men.
But the American high military command also viewed Saipan as vital. Seizing the island from Japan would cut communications between the empire’s presence in the Marianas and its forces in the south and west Pacific. And what’s more, Saipan could be used as a base for the newly introduced B-29 Superfortress to mount operations against the Japanese mainland.
The invasion of Saipan was preceded by two days of heavy cannon fire from the U.S. Navy. A flotilla of 15 ships unleashed some 165,000 shells on to the island. The beach landings started early in the morning of June 15, 1944, with an initial 8,000 marines coming ashore on Saipan’s west coast. The bombing campaign had caused great damage but, nevertheless, the landing troops faced more than three weeks of the most ferociously bitter fighting.
Understandably, there was not exactly a great deal for a dentist to do during an active operation, but nonetheless Salomon found a useful role for himself. One of the regiment’s surgical team had been wounded so the captain stepped forward, volunteering to take his place as a surgeon for the 2nd Battalion. The 105th was sustaining heavy casualties in the grinding ground battle for Saipan so there was plenty of surgical work to go around.
On July 6, the 2nd Battalion pressed northwards in an operation to clear out the final lines of resisting Japanese fighters. The offensive had seen U.S. forces gain some 600 yards that day as darkness fell. But the stubborn Japanese defenders were by no means finished and mounted a night-time counterattack.
The 2nd Battalion was well dug-in to its hard-won position with foxholes around the perimeter. By this point, the original Japanese force of 30,000 on Saipan was now estimated to have been reduced to about 5,000 or 6,000 men. These soldiers were now ordered to mount a desperate rearguard action on the 2nd Battalion and the 1st Battalion on its flank. General Yoshitsugu Saitō, Japan’s commander on the island, ordered his men to fight to the death, with the additional objective of taking ten Americans for every Japanese life.
The attack started at 5:00 a.m. on July 7. Despite taking numerous casualties, the Japanese pressed on. Salomon now found himself just 50 yards from the frontline in the small tent he was using as an impromptu treatment center for the wounded. Within ten minutes of the commencement of the Japanese onslaught, Salomon’s aid post was packed with more than 30 casualties.
As Salomon toiled to attend to the wounded and dying, the Japanese overran his tent. One invading soldier bayoneted a injured man lying on a stretcher, at which point marksman Salomon shot the aggressor. Another pair of Japanese troops entered, only to be confronted by Salomon who clubbed both of them with a rifle. The captain then shot one of the interlopers before bayoneting his comrade. More and more enemy soldiers infiltrated the tent, keeping Salomon busy shooting, stabbing and even head butting his foe. But despite his spirited attempts, Salomon could see that the medical position was on the point of being totally overwhelmed.
Consequently, Salomon instructed his orderlies to evacuate the injured G.I.s as best they could. Whereupon, the heroic dentist grabbed a machine gun and started spraying fire to cover their retreat. When the Japanese were repelled the following day, the 105th found Salomon’s lifeless body still hunched over the machine gun. The courageous captain’s corpse was riddled with 76 bullet wounds. But even more astonishing was the pile of no fewer than 98 dead Japanese who lay in front of him. It was clear that something truly remarkable had taken place in the tent. Indeed, a senior officer promptly nominated Salomon for the highest U.S. military bravery decoration. But there was a snag…
Amazingly enough, the call for the captain to be awarded the Medal of Honor was initially turned down. It seems that, because Salomon had been wearing a Red Cross armband, his nomination was viewed as controversial. Under Geneva Convention rules, army medics are not supposed to engage in actual fighting. After decades of argument and bureaucracy, Captain Ben Salomon was eventually awarded his richly deserved Medal of Honor in 2002. Finally, recognition for the hero who had made the ultimate sacrifice rather than see his patients get slaughtered some six decades earlier.