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Recognition of Army dentist's heroism 'rights a wrong'
By Karen Fox
Fifty-eight years after he gave his life for his country, U.S. Army Capt. Ben L. Salomon finally received the recognition that was denied him because of a misinterpretation of the Geneva Convention's rules of war.
The dentist, Army medic and former infantryman died July 7, 1944, while valiantly defending wounded soldiers under attack by enemy forces in the Marianas Islands in the South Pacific.
On May 1, President Bush posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to Capt. Salomon in a White House Rose Garden ceremony — making him the first Army dental officer to receive the Medal of Honor.
That the award was presented so long after his heroics in battle is as remarkable as the story of how it came to be, and a group of dentists and military personnel who refused to forget "Capt. Ben."
"If you have heard the story of Ben Salomon," said Maj. Gen. Patrick D. Sculley, chief of the Army dental corps, "It shouldn't surprise you that it energizes people who want to make sure that justice is done for this person."
Dr. Robert L. West, a 1952 graduate of the University of Southern California School of Dentistry and a retired general dentist, first heard of Capt. Ben in 1997.
As an editor for the USC dental school's centennial book, Dr. West researched a chapter on veterans and war heroes.
"I couldn't believe it," said Dr. West from his home in Calabasas, Calif. "This man was a hero. He died heroically, and nothing but a military oversight kept him from getting the proper recognition."
Capt. Salomon's story is one of extremes — an extreme situation that led to a misinterpretation of the Geneva Convention's rules of war, and the lengths to which a group of USC dental alumni and fellow Army dental officers went "to right a wrong."
Dr. Salomon graduated from the USC dental school and applied for a commission as an Army dentist in 1937. Without a need for Army dentists at that time, his application was placed on hold, and he returned home to set up a private dental practice in Los Angeles.
In 1940, President Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act, requiring all males age 21 to 35 to register for military training. Dr. Salomon was drafted as a private with the 102nd Infantry at Fort Ord near Monterey, Calif.
"He loved the infantry," said Dr. West. "He was proficient at everything he did."
Fortunately for his platoon, he maintained his dental practice in Los Angeles — frequently loading a group of soldiers into his car on weekends to provide free dental care before reporting for duty on Monday morning.
By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Pvt. Salomon had already become Sgt. Salomon in command of a machine gun section in the heavy weapons company.
His days in the infantry were numbered though.
"We went into World War II understaffed in terms of dentists," said Maj. Gen. Sculley. "Some of the early complaints to soldiers' homes was that there was inadequate dental care, then we started drafting dentists around 1942."
Dr. Salomon's commission to the dental corps came through that year and he promptly turned it down. Even an attempt by his company commander to secure an infantry commission failed.
The infantryman then became Lt. Salomon, the regimental dentist with the 105th Infantry in Hawaii.
Ever true to the infantry, "his career at the 105th was unusual," said Dr. West. "He treated patients in the morning and pursued infantry instruction in the afternoon."
Within a year, he was promoted to captain.
In June 1944, the 105th was under attack on Saipan in the Marianas Islands when the chief medical officer was seriously wounded.
During World War II, dental officers, when required, assumed broader health care duties than dentistry — which gave Capt. Salomon a key leadership opportunity, but one that ultimately sealed his fate.
With the battalion's chief medical officer seriously wounded, Capt. Salomon, now senior Army Medical Department officer, volunteered to replace him.
Japanese forces attacked American troops on the morning of July 7, 1944.
Capt. Salomon tended the wounded until "things came to a head," Dr. West wrote in a paper titled, "Captain Ben, Soldier-Dentist."
"Japanese soldiers attacked the tent wherein his wounded comrades were sheltered," wrote Dr. West. "Several Japanese soldiers tried to crawl under the tent wall, and others boldly entered through the front flap of the tent. Using bayonet, rifle butt and rifle power, Ben dispensed of the invaders."
Later, outside the tent, Capt. Salomon found that all the machine gunners protecting the wounded were dead.
"He was heard to say, 'Everybody's dead out there. I can do these guys more good out there than I can in here.' He then instructed the enlisted medics to get all of the wounded out of the tent and evacuated back to the regiment," wrote Dr. West. "He shouted, 'I'll hold them off until you get them to safety. See you later.' That was the last time anyone saw Ben Salomon alive."
The next day, Capt. Salomon's body was discovered bent over the barrel of a machine gun with his finger still on the trigger. There were 76 bullet holes in his body — 24 suffered before he died.
"He went out there to protect those men," said Dr. West. "He must have known he wouldn't come back. That is an act of heroism."
Capt. Salomon was recommended for a posthumous award of the Medal of Honor. The award was rejected, however, in what Dr. West calls "a travesty of justice."
"He was wearing the Red Cross brassard on his uniform when he died," explains Dr. West. "According to the rules of the Geneva Convention, a medical officer cannot take up arms against the enemy.
"But the general who made this determination misinterpreted the Geneva Convention," he continued. "It turns out that medical personnel cannot take up arms offensively but can do so in defense of wounded, which is exactly what Capt. Salomon was doing."
It was an extreme situation, notes Maj. Gen. Sculley, one that inevitably led to the mistake.
"To have the combination of a medic in a situation where he is required to take up arms to defend his patients is extremely rare," he said. "I am sure the general at the time had never had an experience like this before."
Having become "obsessed with righting a wrong," Dr. West began an intense letterwriting and lobbying campaign on July 7, 1997 — 53 years to the day after Capt. Salomon fought his last battle.
He immediately sought assistance from his congressman, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-24th), who proposed the waiver on the statute of limitations that was later approved by Congress.
With Maj. Gen. Sculley and civilian and military personnel at the Pentagon playing key roles in the process, Dr. West followed all the necessary protocols in securing the Medal of Honor. The work and the waiting consumed the next 4-1/2 years of his life.
"It's a tremendously complicated process," said Maj. Gen. Sculley. "A nomination like this passes through many hands of both military and civilian leaders at the Pentagon and the Department of Defense."
Finally, in 1999, there was a breakthrough. Maj. Gen. Sculley informed Dr. West that the Senior Army Decorations Board had recommended award of the Medal of Honor. Processing and review within the Pentagon and then the Congress consumed the next 2-1/2 years.
It may have been a long time coming, but it was no less than overwhelming to Dr. West.
"I really feel like I know the guy [Capt. Salomon]," said Dr. West. "I can't even think of words to show how pleased I am."
Sadly, there was no widow or children to receive Capt. Salomon's Medal of Honor from President Bush. Capt. Salomon was an only child who never married, and his parents died years ago.
Exhaustive searches for relatives have taken place, notes Dr. Harold Slavkin, dean of the USC dental school.
In place of family, Dr. West and Dr. John Ingle, dean of the USC dental school from 1964-72 whose early efforts launched the campaign to have the Medal of Honor bestowed, accepted the award from the president May 1.
"I am so impressed that John Ingle, Bob West, [and additional USC dental alumni who fought for the award's presentation] Bill Ridgeway and Bill Dahlberg were caught up with the idea of 'doing the right thing,' " commented Dr. Slavkin. "It became a moral imperative, that this man who was so brave, valiant and wouldn't be around for this recognition should receive this award. They invested thousands and thousands of their personal hours into accomplishing this."
Capt. Salomon's Medal of Honor will reside at the Army Medical Department Museum in San Antonio, Texas, on display with remembrances of other great heroes in the department, and his name will be enshrined in the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon.
A replica of the medal will go to the USC dental school. Dr. Slavkin said they already have a place for it in the Learning Center.
Plans are under way to develop educational tools on Capt. Salomon for future generations of students.
"There are some very important issues that we'd like very much to amplify through Ben Salomon's memory," said Dr. Slavkin. "There are core values to propagate, such as character and doing the right thing. Educational tools will enable people to look at this through the prism of a young student who doesn't have the intellectual or emotional connection to the Depression or World War II."
Maj. Gen. Sculley, who retires this month, is gratified to have had the award presented on his watch.
"When I first heard of Ben Salomon, I was captivated by the story," he said. "When I became chief of the Corps [in 1999], I resolved I was going to do something about it."
A dental clinic was dedicated to Capt. Salomon's memory at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1978. Maj. Gen. Sculley said the clinic will be rededicated next month to mark Capt. Salomon's receipt of the Medal of Honor."We always talk about Army dental officers having a dual career," he said. "That of dentist and officer. I think that Ben Salomon, more than any other officer, epitomizes that dual profession. He was a great dentist and he was a great soldier. He was a healer and peacemaker, but he was also an awesome warrior when the nefarious deeds of his enemy caused him to take up arms."
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