Culture

The Astonishing Heroism of Ben Salomon

(Cardiae/Dreamstime; portrait via Defense Health Agency)
On Saipan in 1944, a dentist turned soldier singlehandedly held off scores of Japanese.

Seventy-five years ago, on September 16, 1940, FDR signed the Selective Training and Service Act, creating a draft for the world war, which was already raging in Europe and the Far East. In the first round of STSA draftees was an unassuming, 26-year-old Jewish dentist named Benjamin Salomon. Salomon would go on to do something so astonishingly heroic, its retelling is more suited to Beowulf than National Review. It was a feat of courage that far exceeds (as they say) my poor power to add or detract; nonetheless, every American should know about it.

Salomon was born in Milwaukee on September 1, 1914; in the mid 1930s, he moved to California to attend USC, first as an undergrad, then as a dental student. After he got his degree, he applied for a commission as an Army dentist. It took three years for the Army to get back to him; in 1940, he was drafted into the 102nd Regiment of the 27th Infantry Division, as a private.

Salomon was a natural leader and a superb marksman; his commanding officer called him the regiment’s “best all-around soldier.” On the weekends, Salomon would pile soldiers into his car and drive them to his practice in Los Angeles for free dental work. Within a year of being drafted, Salomon had been promoted three times, to sergeant, and put in command of a machine-gun section.

By 1942, the Army realized it didn’t have enough dentists, and offered Sergeant Salomon a lieutenant’s commission in the Dental Corps. Salomon declined, preferring to remain an infantry non-com. The Army replaced its offer with an order, and in August of 1942, Lieutenant Salomon was sent to Hawaii to fix the 105th Infantry’s teeth.

By that time, Salomon had become so proficient a soldier that he fell into a routine of treating dental patients in the morning and teaching infantry tactics in the afternoon; according to the 105th’s commander, “Ben Salomon was the best instructor we ever had. He gave everybody who ever met him a real lift. . . . [Salomon] was the most vital man most of us ever met.” Within a year, he had been promoted again, to captain.

By 1944, the 105th Infantry had helped turn the tide against Japan’s rape of the Pacific; in June of ’44, the 105th arrived on Saipan, to take part in one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War. The 2nd Battalion’s surgeon was wounded in the fighting, and Salomon volunteered to take over for him. By July 7, 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.” In the early morning of July 7, one of the largest Japanese attacks of the war began.

Salomon was running a field hospital 50 yards behind the front line. Injured men poured in for treatment; Salomon and his staff were tending to dozens of men when a Japanese soldier burst out of the surrounding brush and began bayonetting sick and dying Americans lying on the ground. Salomon grabbed a rifle, shot the depraved son of a bitch, and returned to his patients. Two more Japanese soldiers rushed into Salomon’s hospital tent; Salomon shot them. Four Japanese soldiers crawled in under the tent’s sides. Salomon rushed them, and — according to his Medal of Honor citation — “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,” giving one of Salomon’s patients time to retrieve a rifle and finish the Japanese soldier off.

Salomon realized that the lines had broken and the hospital would soon be overrun. He ordered his staff to evacuate the wounded; his last words were, “I’ll hold them off until you get [the wounded men] to safety.”

The Japanese attack lasted 15 hours. The next day, when the island was secure, Ben Salomon’s body was discovered lying beside a machine gun.

The Japanese attack lasted 15 hours. The next day, when the island was secure, Ben Salomon’s body was discovered lying beside a machine gun. He had been bayonetted, and shot 76 times. 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.

It’s impossible to know how many men Salomon saved. Captain Edmund Love, who was serving as the 27th Infantry Division’s historian, said that he had never encountered a man “more richly deserving” of the Medal of Honor. But because Salomon was a medical officer, it was initially unclear if he was eligible for the medal: The Geneva Convention prohibits doctors from bearing arms. Of course, that’s irrelevant to Salomon’s case; he was defending defenseless casualties. But soon, the 27th was fighting on Okinawa, and Salomon’s citation was forgotten — until 2002, when it was finally promulgated by George W. Bush.

Tell your children.

— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard. He is a founder of the tech startup Dittach.  

 

Josh GelernterJosh Gelernter is a former columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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