Many people worldwide fear to go to a dentist for pretty obvious reasons: pain, the worry of having to get a cavity filled, or just the general discomfort of having someone put their hands in your mouth. For the Japanese forces during the Battle of Saipan, a trip to the dentist proved quite deadly.
Dentist Benjamin Lewis Salomon was a member of the US Army Medical Corps in WWII. When thousands of Japanese were overrunning his field aid-station, he threw down his surgical gloves, picked up a machine gun and told 100 plus Japanese soldiers that the dentist would see them now.
A Slow Start to War
Salomon was born into a Jewish family in 1914 Wisconsin. Growing up like many typical American youths of his day, he was an eagle scout, played sports, and graduated from Shorewood High School in Wisconsin. He then went on to receive his undergraduate degree before graduating from the University of Southern California Dental School. He set up his dental practice and began living the average all-American life.
As the clouds of war began to gather, Salomon was drafted into the infantry in 1940. He proved himself an apt infantryman in peacetime, and then in 1942, he was transferred to the US Army Medical Corps to serve as a dentist.
Given a commission as a First Lieutenant, he appeared to be on track to ride out the war fixing teeth. In May of 1943, he was sent to be the regimental dental officer for the 105th Infantry Regiment and was later promoted to Captain in 1944.
However, in 1944, the 105th was off the shores of Saipan gearing up for one of the bloodiest battles of the war. With very little dental work to be done during active combat, Captain Salomon volunteered to replace the 2nd battalion surgeon who had previously been wounded.
As such, he went ashore to set up a combat aid-station extremely close to the front lines. This is where the story takes a remarkable turn that will prevent anyone from ever looking at their friendly local dentist in the same way.
A Time and Place for Every Season
With the Americans and Japanese in a pitched back and forth battle, this particular aid-station was perhaps no more than 50 yards behind the front line on July 7, 1944, when approximately 3,000 to 5,000 Japanese soldiers attacked the American position.
The aid-station quickly began to fill with the wounded and Captain Salomon was hard at work treating them when he noticed a Japanese soldier bayonetting an injured soldier next to the aid tent. Salomon quickly picked up a rifle and killed the marauding Japanese soldier.
Two more Japanese soldiers entered the tent and were struck down before Salomon was aware four more Japanese were crawling under the tent walls. Captain Salomon immediately rushed them and did what can only be described as going “beast mode.”
He kicked a knife out of one Japanese hand, shot another, bayonetted a third, and then butted the fourth in the stomach before subsequently shooting him. It was clear the position was being overrun, and no more work could be done there.
Salomon then ordered all the wounded to make haste to the regimental aid-station as he sought to cover their retreat. Captain Salomon grabbed a rifle lying among the wounded and headed to work. He made his way to a machine gun position when the soldiers who were manning it had been killed – it was the last time anyone saw Captain Salomon alive.
When his body was found slumped over the machine gun a few days later, 98 dead Japanese soldiers were strewn out in front of his gun position. Salomon’s body had 76 bullet wounds in it, along with multiple bayonet strikes. It appeared that Salomon had taken such a toll on the advancing Japanese that they sought revenge on his fallen body.
Medal of Honor
Such action, surely, warranted the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, it had to wait until 2002. The Army at the time was worried about presenting the Medal of Honor to Captain Salomon due to his status as a medical officer and the fact that he wore a Red Cross on his sleeve.
At the time it was against the Geneva Convention for medical personnel to take up arms against an enemy. In later interpretations, this rule was relaxed to allow medical staff to use individual weapons such as rifles and pistols to protect the wounded. Further complicating Salomon’s case was the fact that a machine gun is technically a crew-served weapon.
Several officers over the years had taken up Captain Salomon’s nomination and pressed it forward with no result. However, in 1998, Dr. Robert West of the USC Dental School pushed the issue with a US Congressman. Captain Benjamin Salomon was finally posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2002 by President George W. Bush.
Some men chase greatness while others simply react when such a moment comes calling. For this particular dentist, that meant getting a kill count in the triple digits.
So next time, when in that dental chair to get a little work done, start off the conversation by asking how many men the dentist killed in the war. You never know.