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A Heroic World War II Dentist Finally Gets His Due

Ceremony: Fellow USC alumnus spends years making the case for awarding the Medal of Honor to a Southland officer he never met.

May 05, 2002|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No member of Ben Salomon's family was in the White House Rose Garden last week when he became the first Army dentist to receive the Medal of Honor, awarded posthumously.

Salomon was an only child who died in a lonely, courageous last stand on the island of Saipan in 1944, and his remains lie next to his parents' in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.

But as President Bush said during the award ceremony Wednesday, Capt. Salomon was represented by a "true friend, Dr. Robert West."

It was largely through the efforts of West, a 75-year-old dentist from Calabasas, that Salomon's heroism as a soldier-dentist during World War II was finally recognized.

West never met Salomon, but proudly accepted the medal from President Bush on his behalf.

A 29-year-old Angeleno who graduated from the USC dental school in 1937, Salomon was acting as a surgeon with the 27th Infantry Division in the South Pacific's Marianas Islands on July 7, 1944, when his battalion was attacked by thousands of Japanese soldiers.

"The advancing enemy soon descended on Capt. Salomon's aid station," Bush recounted. "To defend the wounded men in his care, he ordered comrades to evacuate the tent and carry away the wounded. He went out to face the enemy alone, and was last heard shouting, 'I'll hold them off until you get them to safety. See you later.'"

"In the moments that followed, Salomon single-handedly killed 98 enemy soldiers, saving many American lives but sacrificing his own. As best the Army could tell, he was shot 24 times before he fell, more than 50 times after that. And when they found his body, he was still at his [machine] gun.

"No one who knew him is with us this afternoon. Yet America will always know Benjamin Lewis Salomon by the [Medal of Honor] citation to be read shortly. It tells of one young man who was the match for 100, a person of true valor who now receives the honor due him from a grateful country."

"I think Ben Salomon is smiling down on us today," West told the president at a meeting in the Oval Office.

Salomon was originally denied the Medal of Honor, the highest award for military bravery in the United States, because his commanding general believed, incorrectly, that he was ineligible.

The general agreed that Salomon deserved the honor but thought the Geneva Convention barred medical officers from bearing arms against the enemy under any circumstances.

West, who graduated from USC dental school in 1952, discovered Salomon's story in 1997 when he and other alumni were working on the "Tommy Trojan Goes to War" chapter of a book for the dental school's 100th anniversary. After West, who served in the Navy during World War II, started writing to Army brass and others, urging that Salomon be given the medal, he learned that Salomon was eligible.

According to the Geneva Convention, medical personnel could not take up arms for offensive purposes. But they could fight in self-defense or to defend others, as Salomon had done, West said.

"I was just possessed when I found out it was an error, an innocent error, on the part of the commanding general," West recalled. With the help of Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Woodland Hills), West pleaded Salomon's case with military officials.

"It was a labor of love," West said.

"We have been working toward his recognition for years and years," said Maj. Gen. Patrick D. Sculley, chief of the U.S. Army Dental Corps. "We were very close in the late 1960s. For whatever reason, it didn't get approved at that time. We in the Army Dental Corps have always had two professions--being a soldier and being a dentist, and Ben Salomon epitomized that."

Harold Slavkin, dean of the USC School of Dentistry, was a new faculty member in 1968 when he learned about Salomon from then-Dean John Ingle.

Slavkin said he was moved by how long, hard and selflessly Ingle, West and fellow USC alumni William Ridgeway and William Dahlberg had fought for Salomon's recognition.

"It was a kind of moral imperative," Slavkin said. "They were compelled to do it because they wanted the right thing to be done."

The people who were closest to Salomon are all gone. His yearbook photo captures a young man with a shy smile, dark, curly hair and wire-rimmed glasses. His admittance into dental school was itself a triumph at a time when American universities limited the number of Jews they accepted.

Slavkin had dinner with several elderly alumni who had known Salomon as a young man, in hopes of learning more about him. He was tall, single and good-looking, they told Slavkin, and he had several aspiring movie stars as patients in the Beverly Hills dental practice he started before entering the Army.

Fresh out of USC in 1937, Salomon tried unsuccessfully to enlist as a dentist in both the American and Canadian armies. In 1940, he was drafted as a private in the infantry.

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