When people think of a Medal of Honor winner, they often envisage a fantastically brave hero or a distinguished war leader. Thanks to movies, TV shows, and other forms of media it’s all too easy to imagine one of these individuals as a daring fighter, battling on the front line or shooting down enemy planes in aerial dogfights – rather than, say, as a dentist.
Ben Salomon was a Medal of Honor recipient – recognized as someone who acted, not under orders, but totally on his own accord, selflessly, to protect his country and his fellow servicemen.
A Dentist Turned Hero
Salomon was born on September 1, 1914, into a Jewish family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He graduated from the University of Southern California School of Dentistry in 1937 and began his career.
He was drafted for military training in 1940 and entered the Army as a private in the infantry where he excelled at rifle and pistol shooting. He spent almost all his spare time giving his fellow servicemen free dental treatment.
Salomon was known not only for his excellent dental skills but also for being one of the best instructors in infantry tactics. In 1942 he was promoted to First Lieutenant and joined the Army Dental Corp. He took on his role with gusto and was greatly admired by many of his comrades. In May 1943 he joined the 105th Infantry Regiment, and in 1944 he was again promoted – to Captain.
In June 1944, Salomon went with his regiment to Saipan, where he witnessed his first combat action. On July 7, he was working close to the front line as a surgeon as casualties were extremely high.
However, his efforts to save the wounded we halted by a ferocious Japanese attack. Some enemy soldiers entered the first aid tent, and Salomon successfully killed them, but he knew others were following.
He ordered the injured to be evacuated while he held off the enemy, as the wounded withdrew.
When the Army returned the next day, they found Salomon slumped over a machine- gun with his finger on the trigger. He had 76 bullet holes in his body, and 24 bayonet wounds. It is believed he was severely injured but continued to fire until he was overrun. Salomon successfully killed 96 Japanese soldiers before succumbing.
A Much Delayed Recognition
Salomon was recommended for a Medal of Honor, but the recommendation was denied. As a medical officer, Salomon was not allowed to bear weapons against the enemy, according to the Geneva Convention.
Decades later a researcher discovered that while the Geneva Convention does state medical personnel cannot be on the offensive against an enemy, they can act in self-defense and can defend the wounded.
The researcher campaigned for a posthumous recognition of Salomon, along with some of the individuals who had first recommended him. The dental community especially came together to promote Salomon’s story and make it known.
Finally, in 2001, President George W. Bush presented Salomon’s Medal of Honor in a ceremony in Washington, D.C. The researcher attended the ceremony, as Salomon never married and as an only child, he had no living relatives. The Medal is on display at the Army Medical Department Museum in San Antonio.
Currently, Salomon is only one of three dental officers to receive the award.
Who are the Others?
The other dentists who received the Medal of Honor are Weedon Osborne and Alexander Gordon Lyle.
Osborne was a Navy officer during WWI. He participated in the Battle of Belle Wood in France when he was killed while carrying an injured officer. He also had a destroyer named in his honor.
Lyle was also a naval officer who participated in WWI. He saved a corporal’s life during combat, using his surgical skills. Lyle was not killed in the war.
In World War II more than 18,000 dentists served. Twenty died in battle, including Salomon.