When the United States entered World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, the Army had 316 active-duty dental officers and a Reserve corps of 2,589. When the war ended, the Navy Dental Corps had 7,026 dental officers and the Army Dental Corps had 15,292 officers, with 7,103 of them stationed overseas. Each Army division had on average about 30 dental officers. Depending on the division (and circumstances, which varied widely), the goal was to have a ratio that averaged from about 1 to 312 (infantry), to 1 to 487 (armor). Once again, the statistics are mind-boggling. From the period of Jan. 1, 1942, to Aug. 31, 1945, the Army’s Dental Corps completed 16,231,264 extractions, 69,546,560 restorations, 579,473 full dentures, and 2,032,684 partial dentures. Twenty-five dental officers were killed in action, with an additional 10 dying in captivity. One of the dental officers killed in action was Capt. Benjamin Lewis Salomon, who would eventually receive a posthumous Medal of Honor for heroic action on the island of Saipan on July 7, 1944.
Salomon was born in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1914, and graduated from the University of Southern California’s (USC) Dental College in 1937. Drafted by the Army in 1940, he entered the service as a private in the infantry. By all accounts, he quickly took to the service. While serving in the 102nd Infantry Regiment, he qualified as an expert rifle and pistol marksman, and was praised by his commanding officer as “the best all-around soldier” in the regiment. In 1941, he was promoted to sergeant and placed in charge of a machine gun section. Following the United States’ entry into World War II, in early 1942, Salomon was notified that he was going to be promoted and reassigned to the Dental Corps. On Aug. 14, 1942, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant and assigned as the regimental dental officer of the 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division.
In June, now-Capt. Salomon accompanied the 105th Infantry in the invasion of Saipan. Shortly afterward he volunteered to replace the 2nd Battalion’s surgeon, who had been wounded. In the predawn hours of July 7, he was in his aid station tent about 50 yards behind the front lines when surviving Japanese troops launched a mass banzai charge. Salomon was treating the most seriously wounded soldiers when a total of eight Japanese soldiers entered the tent. With rifle, pistol, and bayonet, he managed to kill the eight enemy soldiers. He then rushed out of the tent to assess the situation. Seeing that the position was about to be overrun, he ordered the wounded evacuated. He then rushed to a machine gun and began laying down cover fire to defend the retreat.
There was a possible additional bias factor in the case as well: Salomon was Jewish, and as was revealed in later studies, minorities did suffer discrimination regarding Medal of Honor awards during the war.
The position was not retaken until the following day. The division’s historian, Capt. Edmund G. Love, was among the group that inspected the battlefield. They discovered the body of Salomon slumped over his machine gun. In addition to several bayonet wounds, they counted 76 bullet holes in his body, 24 of which Salomon received before he was killed. Around him were the bodies of 98 Japanese soldiers.
Medal of Honor recommendations were prepared for three members of the division: Lt. Col. William J. O’Brien, the 1st Battalion commander; Sgt. Thomas A. Baker, Jr. of Company A; and Salomon, all posthumous. O’Brien and Baker’s awards were approved and presented on May 9, 1945. But Salomon’s recommendation was returned without action to the 2nd Battalion. Attached to it was a handwritten note from the 27th Division’s commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Griner, who wrote, “I am deeply sorry that I cannot approve the award of this medal to Captain Salomon, although he richly deserves it. At the time of his death, this officer was in the medical service and wore a Red Cross brassard upon his arm. Under the rules of the Geneva Convention, to which the United States subscribes, no medical officer can bear arms against the enemy.” There was a possible additional bias factor in the case as well: Salomon was Jewish, and as was revealed in later studies, minorities did suffer discrimination regarding Medal of Honor awards during the war.
Over the years, Love and others continued to press the case of Salomon. Ultimately, the cause would become a 58-year effort that included a legal review by the Office of the Judge Advocate General, which determined that the 1929 Geneva Convention referred to by Griner did allow for actions like the one Salomon performed, the advocacy of Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), and a legislative waiver of the statute of limitations for awarding World War II Medals of Honor. Finally, in a White House ceremony on May 1, 2002, Capt. Benjamin Salomon received his Medal of Honor from President George W. Bush. As there were no surviving family members to accept the decoration, Dr. Robert West, representing the USC School of Dentistry and the latest person to become Salomon’s advocate, received it and then passed the Medal of Honor to Maj. Gen. Patrick Sculley, chief of the Army Dental Corps. Salomon’s Medal of Honor is now on display at the Army Dental Corps headquarters and a facsimile of it is at the USC Dental School.
The commitment shown by dental officers such as Salomon, and those who served in the wars that followed, continues to this day in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The commitment shown by dental officers such as Salomon, and those who served in the wars that followed, continues to this day in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, as noted in the opening quote by Dr. Richard Adcook, a third-generation Navy officer, they share in all the discomforts and danger that the other troops experience. Dr. Martin Hritz is a U.S. Army Reserve major who returned for his second tour of duty in Iraq in spring 2009. Assigned to the 360th Medical Company (Dental Service), he arrived at Joint Base Balad in the Sunni Triangle in April and in an e-mail noted, “Things are heating up literally and figuratively. We hit 106 degrees … And with the warm weather came the mortar and rocket attacks. Apparently, the terrorists like to work in the summer heat.” The experiences of Adcook, Hritz, and other dentists serving in the military are periodically reported in the American Dental Association’s journal.