Thursday, March 25, 2010

Medal of Honor Day

Capt (Dr.) Benjamin Salomon, 1914-44, the only military dental officer to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor (photo from

Unless you visit the U.S. Army website, or outlets like the Mudville Gazette, you probably didn't know that March 25th is Medal of Honor Day, a time to honor the nation's greatest military heroes.

Since the first medals were presented in 1863, only 3,446 individuals have been awarded America's highest decoration for military valor. Many recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor were recognized posthumously; today, there are just 91 living recipients and their numbers dwindle with each passing year.

Still, their exploits remain inspiring, despite the passage of time. Among the millions who have worn the nation's uniform, their exploits represent the best of our military and the nation it serves. It is indeed unfortunate that few Americans can name a single Medal of Honor recipient, or the deeds that were celebrated with that distinctive honor.

And that's too bad, since all of their stories are remarkable. In other cases, the awarding of the MOH is also a testament to perseverance of other troops who pressed the case for a colleague. Some worked for years to convince the military that the actions of a fellow soldier, airman, sailor or Marine was deserving of the nation's highest military honor.

Consider the case of Dr. Ben L. Salomon, the only military dentist to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. After graduating from dental school at the University of Southern California, Salomon was drafted into the Army (as an infantry private) in 1940. Learning of his medical skills, the service commissioned him as an officer in the dental corps in 1942.

Two years later, Salomon was a Captain, assigned to the 105th Regiment of the 27th Infantry Division, participating in the invasion of Saipain in the south Pacific. With little dental work to do in combat, dentists typically served as assistants to surgeons and other physicians at aid stations and field hospitals, usually in rear areas.

But when the surgeon assigned to the regiment's 2nd Battalion was wounded, Salomon volunteered to replace him at a forward aid station. On 7 July 1944, Dr. Salomon was treating wounded soldiers only 50 yards behind the front lines. As he worked, the Japanese launched one of their largest tactical assaults of the Pacific War; as many as 5,000 enemy troops poured into our lines, forcing American soldiers to retreat. Within minutes, enemy troops began attacking the aid station.

Salomon's actions were bold and decisive. From his Medal of Honor citation:

"...As the perimeter began to be overrun, it became increasingly difficult for Captain Salomon to work on the wounded. He then saw a Japanese soldier bayoneting one of the wounded soldiers lying near the tent. Firing from a squatting position, Captain Salomon quickly killed the enemy soldier. Then, as he turned his attention back to the wounded, two more Japanese soldiers appeared in the front entrance of the tent. As these enemy soldiers were killed, four more crawled under the tent walls. Rushing them, Captain Salomon 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 and a wounded comrade then shot and killed the enemy soldier. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Captain Salomon ordered the wounded to make their way as best they could back to the regimental aid station, while he attempted to hold off the enemy until they were clear. Captain Salomon then grabbed a rifle from one of the wounded and rushed out of the tent.

As the wounded soldiers attempted to evacuate the area, Salomon continued his fight. After four men manning a machine gun were killed by the enemy, the medical officer took over their position. His covering fire allowed many of the wounded to escape, sacrificing his life in the process.

When U.S. soldiers retook the area a few hours later, they found 98 dead Japanese in front of Salomon's machine gun position. Medics counted more than 70 different bullet and stab wounds on his body; they calculated that Captain Salomon suffered as many as two dozen wounds before he died.

Learning of his exploits, the division historian immediately submitted Salomon for the Congressional Medal of Honor. But the division commander, Major General George Griner, refused to approve the award, because Captain Salomon was a member of the medical corps, who was not supposed to engage in offensive action against the enemy. Never mind that Japanese troops never respected the Red Cross insignia, or the neutrality of medical personnel. Or, that Army and Navy corpsmen routinely carried weapons to defend themselves on the battlefield. Many analysts believe that Griner rejected the award for Salomon because he was Jewish.

Dr. Salomon was again submitted for the MOH in 1951 and 1969, but those applications were also rejected. In 1998--54 years after Salomon's heroic stand on Saipan--he was against nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor by Dr. Robert West, a fellow USC grad who served as a military corpsman during World War II. In May 2002, President Bush presented Salomon's Medal of Honor to Dr. West. Captain Salomon's parents had died years before and the military could not locate any surviving relatives. Today, his medal is on permanent display at the Army Medical Museum in San Antonio and a replica is displayed at the USC Dental School in Los Angeles.


GA said...

Saw your post on Ben Solomon, one of my favorite "lost" Recipeint.

Thought you would find our program of interest.
Gary Alexander

fmfnavydoc said...

Alexander Gordon Lyle was a Navy Dental Corps Officer that was awarded the Medal of Honor during World War I. His picture and citation is displayed at navy Medical treatment facilities world-wide:

navydentaladmiral said...

With all due respect for Capt. Ben Salomon's belated and well deserved Medal of Honor, he is NOT THE ONLY MILITARY DENTIST ever awarded the MOH. Two Navy Dentists, LCDR Alexander Lyle and LTJG Weeden E. Osborne (posthumous) were awarded the Medal of Honor while serving with the Marine Corps in France during WWI. Osborne was also awarded the Army Distinquished Service Cross - possibly the only military dentist ever awarded the Nation's second highest awarded for bravery (valor). Alexander Lyle went on to be appointed Chief of the Navy Dental Corps during WWII, and achieved the rank of Vice Admiral - the only Navy Dental Officer ever promoted to 3 star rank.