Medal of Honor
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of the Congress the Medal of Honor to
CAPTAIN BEN L. SALOMON
UNITED STATES ARMY
for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:
Rank and organization: Captain, 2nd Battalion, 105th Infantry, Regiment, 27th Infantry Division
Place and date: Saipan, in the Marianas Islands, 7 July, 1944
Entered service at: Los Angeles, California
Birth: 1 September, 1914, Milwaukee, WI
Captain Ben L. Salomon was serving at Saipan, in the Marianas Islands on July 7, 1944, as the Surgeon for the 2d Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division. The Regiment's 1st and 2d Battalions were attacked by an overwhelming force estimated between 3,000 and 5,000 Japanese soldiers. It was one of the largest attacks attempted in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Although both units fought furiously, the enemy soon penetrated the Battalions' combined perimeter and inflicted overwhelming casualties. In the first minutes of the attack, approximately 30 wounded soldiers walked, crawled, or were carried into Captain Salomon's aid station, and the small tent soon filled with wounded men. 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. After four men were killed while manning a machine gun, Captain Salomon took control of it. When his body was later found, 98 dead enemy soldiers were piled in front of his position. Captain Salomon's extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
1 May 2002
Remarks by the President at Presentation of Medal of Honor
The Rose Garden
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, and welcome to the White House, and welcome to our beautiful Rose Garden. We gather in tribute to two young men who died long ago in the service to America. In awarding the Medal of Honor to Captain Ben Salomon and Captain Jon Swanson, the United States acknowledges a debt that time has not diminished.
It's my honor to welcome to the Rose Garden the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Tony Principi, Secretary Tom White of the Army, General Eric Shinseki, General John Jumper, Brigadier General David Hicks, the Chaplain -- thank you General Hicks for your prayer -- Congressman Brad Sherman, Congressman Charlie Norwood, Congressman Mark Udall, World War II veterans, Vietnam veterans, fellow Americans.
Joining us in this ceremony are four men who themselves earned the Medal of Honor: Barney Barnum, Al Rascon, Ryan Thacker, and Nicky Bacon. Thank you all for coming. (Applause.)
President Harry S. Truman said he would rather have earned the Medal of Honor than be the Commander-in-Chief. When you meet a veteran who wears that medal, remember the moment, because you are looking at one of the bravest ever to wear our country's uniform. We're honored to welcome these gentlemen.
I'm also pleased to welcome the family of Captain Swanson -- Sandee Swanson and their daughters, Holly and Brigid. We're so glad you all are here. (Applause.) I know how proud you must be of the man you have loved and missed for so many years. And seeing you here today, I know that John would be extremely proud.
For Captain Ben Salomon, no living relatives remain to witness this moment. And even though they never met, Captain Salomon is represented today by a true friend, Dr. Robert West. Welcome, sir. (Applause.)
Five years ago, Dr. West was reading about his fellow alumni of the University of Southern California's Dental School. He came upon the story of Ben Salomon of the class of 1937, who was a surgeon in World War II, and was posthumously nominated for the Medal of Honor. The medal was denied on a technicality. Looking into the matter, Dr. West found that an honest error had occurred, and that Captain Salomon was indeed eligible to receive the Medal of Honor.
He earned it on the day he died, July the 7th, 1944. Captain Salomon was serving in the Marianas Islands as a surgeon, in the 27th infantry division, when his battalion came under ferocious attack by thousands of Japanese soldiers. The American units sustained massive casualties, and the advancing enemy soon descended on Captain Salomon's aid station. To defend the wounded men in his care, Captain Salomon killed several enemy soldiers who had entered the aid station.
As the advance continued, 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, Captain 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 gun.
No one who knew him is with us this afternoon. Yet America will always know Benjamin Lewis Salomon by the 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.
The Medal of Honor recognizes acts of bravery that no superior could rightly order a soldier to perform. The courage it signifies -- gallant, intrepid service at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty -- is written forever in the service record of Army Captain Jon Swanson.
A helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, Captain Swanson flew his last mission on his second tour of duty, on February 26th, 1971, over Cambodia. As Allied forces on the ground came under heavy enemy fire, Captain Swanson was called in to provide close air support. Flying at tree-top level, he found and engaged the enemy, exposing himself to intense fire from the ground. He ran out of heavy ordinance, yet continued to drop smoke grenades to mark other targets for nearby gunships.
Captain Swanson made it back to safety, his ammunition nearly gone, and his Scout helicopter heavily damaged. Had he stayed on the ground, no one would have faulted him. But he had seen more -- he had seen that more targets needed marking, to eliminate the danger to the troops on the ground. He volunteered to do the job himself, flying directly into enemy fire, until his helicopter exploded in flight.
Captain Swanson's actions, said one fellow officer, "were the highest degree of personal bravery and self-sacrifice I have ever witnessed". Others agreed, and the Medal of Honor was recommended by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and by the late Admiral John McCain. However, only the Distinguished Service Cross was awarded, until a recent review of the case made clear that the nation's highest military honor was in order.
And so today, on what would have been his 60th birthday, the Medal of Honor is presented to the family of John Edward Swanson.
The two events we recognize today took place a generation apart, but they represent the same tradition. That tradition of military valor and sacrifice has preserved our country, and continues to this day. Captain Salomon and Captain Swanson never lived to wear this medal, but they will be honored forever in the memory of our country.
Ben Salomon and the Medal of Honor
By William T. Bowers
COL, U.S. Army, Retired
Office of Medical History
Directorate of Health Care Operations
The fighting was fierce throughout 7 July 1944 on the northern end of the island of Saipan. Desperate, cornered Japanese soldiers hurled themselves at American positions. On the hills overlooking the coastal plain and the village of Tanapag, soldiers of the 27th Infantry Division repelled several banzai attacks. Their position was strong, and gradually as the day wore on the Japanese assaults weakened. The story was different on the beach below. Occasionally looking down, they saw that their fellow soldiers in the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 105th Infantry Regiment were in a much more precarious position. The initial enemy attacks coming out of the night had struck full force at the battalions' initial positions next to the ocean. Despite furious resistance, the survivors were eventually pushed back to the village of Tanapag where they continued to fight. The soldiers on the hills above readily recognized the bravery of their comrades below, but they could not foresee that out of this action would come a Distinguished Unit Citation, two Medals of Honor, and a fifty-seven year struggle for another Medal of Honor for an Army dentist. In combat, the courage and fearlessness shown by some soldiers is frequently astounding and inexplicable. Such a fighter was Captain Ben Salomon, the Army dentist killed in battle defending his aid station on 7 July 1944. Almost as amazing as Ben Salomon's exploits is the story of how his heroism was finally recognized by the award of the nation's highest medal for valor.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on 1 September 1914, Ben Salomon grew up in the city, graduated from Shorewood High School, and attended Marquette University before moving to Los Angeles, California, to finish his undergraduate education at the University of Southern California. He then went on to graduate from the University of Southern California Dental College in 1937, and began practicing dentistry. As with most young men in the United States on the eve of World War II, Ben's civilian plans quickly took second place to the military needs of the country. He was smart, good-looking, and popular, with a bright future in front of him. Soon after the National Selective Service Act became effective in the fall of 1940, Ben's draft board ordered him to report for induction into the Army. Dr. Ben Salomon became an infantry private.
After basic training Ben joined the 102d Infantry Regiment and quickly proved to be a natural soldier and leader. He won awards as an expert rifle and pistol marksman, and his commanding officer stated that he was "the best all-around soldier" in the regiment. Within a year he had risen to the rank of sergeant and was in charge of a machine gun section. In 1942 Salomon received notification that he was to become an officer in the Dental Corps. At first Ben attempted to remain in the infantry, and his commanding officer requested that he be commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry. The request was denied, and Salomon reported to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, where he was commissioned a first lieutenant on 14 August 1942. After several months of work in a hospital, Lieutenant Salomon was assigned in May 1943 as the regimental dental officer of the 105th Infantry Regiment, part of the 27th Infantry Division.
Characteristically, Ben jumped into his new duties with enthusiasm and skill. Despite not having practiced dentistry for two years, Lieutenant Salomon was quickly recognized as an excellent dentist by his patients and his fellow dentists. He developed a routine of handling dental appointments in the morning and joining his regiment in the field for training in the afternoon. Ben was not just a staff observer, but also an active participant in all activities from hot, dusty hikes and range firing to crawling through the mud of the obstacle courses. He won all of the regimental competitions. Later, his regimental commander described the uniqueness of his dental officer:
Ben Salomon was the best instructor in infantry tactics we ever had. He gave everybody who ever met him a real lift. He had a way of inspiring people to do things that they might not have done otherwise. I think it was because he himself was the most vital man most of us ever met.
In June 1944, newly promoted Captain Salomon went ashore on Saipan with the 105th Infantry Regiment for his first taste of battle. In active combat operations there was little work for the regimental dentist, so Ben immediately volunteered to replace the 2nd Battalion's surgeon who had been wounded in a mortar attack on 22 June. The day before, the unbloodied 2d Battalion had been thrown into a fight to clear the Nafutan peninsula in the southeast corner of the island while the remainder of the 27th Division and the 4th Marine Division pushed north. The 2d Battalion struggled and eventually at great expense, through trial and error, began to learn the techniques ofproperly executed combined arms attacks. There was plenty of work to keep acting surgeon Salomon busy as the effective strength of his battalion dropped to about fifty percent of its authorized strength. On 27 June the 2d Battalion finally secured the Nafutan peninsula, but the cost had been high, not only in personnel losses, but also in its reputation. The Marine commander on Saipan, Lt. Gen. Holland Smith, complained about the poorly performing unit, which he claimed had been stopped by a handful of disorganized enemy soldiers. General Smith's doubts about the leadership of the 2d Battalion, and indeed of most Army units on Saipan, contributed to his relief of Army Maj. Gen. Ralph Smith, commander of the 27th Infantry Division. As the 2d Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment moved north to rejoin the rest of the 27th Division, there might have been a cloud over its head in the eyes of the Marines, but the battalion itself was a much wiser and combat hardened unit.
The final drive to the north to clear the remainder of Saipan moved forward rapidly with the 27th Infantry Division on the left and the 4th Marine Division on the right. On 4 July the 2d Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment was inserted into the far left of the line on the coastal plain next to the ocean near the village of Tanapag. Although the 2nd Battalion advanced almost 800 yards on the 5th, it bogged down the next day against increasingly desperate Japanese resistance. Late on 6 July the regimental reserve, the 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry, was committed on the right of the 2d Battalion thus allowing the two battalions to drive forward 600 yards along the coast before dark. With reports of a planned Japanese night counterattack circulating, the 1st and 2d Battalions established a tight perimeter defense of foxholes well supported by infantry heavy weapons and artillery.
The reports were correct. Of the original thirty thousand Japanese soldiers, only a few thousand remained, and those were disorganized and short of food and weapons. General Saito, the Japanese army commander, ordered all remaining Japanese soldiers, sailors, and civilians, possibly as many as five or six thousand men, to gather about a mile in front of the 1st and 2nd Battalion positions the evening of 6 July. Saito addressed his men and issued the following order: "We will advance to attack the American forces and will all die an honorable death. Each man will kill ten Americans." Then Saito committed suicide along with the naval commander on Saipan, Admiral Chichi Nagumi. Saito's men followed his orders and moved resolutely forward against the 1st and 2d Battalions despite heavy American artillery fire.
The Americans were vigilant and quickly detected the Japanese advance. Flares added to the natural illumination of a bright moon, but the Japanese approach was somewhat concealed by heavy brush which began about 400 yards from the American position. About 0500 hours the tidal wave of the Japanese banzai attack burst out of the brush and rolled forward in waves. The Americans opened fire inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy, but still the Japanese advanced and soon were inside the foxhole perimeter.
Ben Salomon had set up his aid station in a small tent about fifty yards behind the forward foxholes and thirty yards from the shoreline. Within ten minutes of the beginning of the attack, his aid station was overwhelmed with over thirty wounded. Salomon was working steadily on the most serious cases inside the tent when Japanese soldiers began to enter. Ben shot the first one who had bayoneted a wounded American lying on a stretcher. Two more charged through the tent entrance. Ben clubbed them both with a rifle, then shot one and bayoneted the other. Four more began to crawl under the sides of the tent. He shot one, bayoneted one, stabbed another with a knife, and head butted the fourth. Ben ran out of the tent to get help to defend the aid station. He quickly saw that the situation was hopeless. The Japanese suicide masses had overwhelmed the two under strength American battalions. Pockets of resistance fought on inside the perimeter, but the bulk of the survivors were being pushed back toward Tanapag village. Salomon returned to the tent and ordered his aid men to evacuate the wounded while he stayed behind to hold off the enemy and cover their withdrawal. Salomon then grabbed a rifle and fought on with the few Americans still resisting inside the perimeter. Eventually he manned a machine gun after its gunner was killed. That was the last time anyone saw Ben Salomon alive.
The fighting continued throughout 7 July as the Japanese attacked other American units. As the day wore on, it was obvious that the assaulting force had spent itself. Late on the 7th, the Americans counterattacked, and on 9 July the island was secured as most of the remaining Japanese committed suicide. Early on 8 July the positions of the 1st and 2d Battalions, 105th Infantry Regiment had been regained. These units had withstood the worst of the assault. At the beginning of the banzai attack, the two battalions had 1,108 men present for duty; at the end 919 were either dead or seriously wounded, an 83 percent casualty rate.
The 27th Division historian, Capt. Edmund G. Love, accompanied the team that went back to the overrun battalions' position. Love later described what they found:
We had been walking through piles of dead men when the general gave a sudden start, and then stepped over to the figure of a man who was bent over the barrel of a heavy machine gun. Very quickly, almost before I saw what he was doing, the general took out a knife and cut the Red Cross brassard from Ben Salomon's arm. Then he straightened up and looked around. There were ninety-eight Japanese bodies piled up in front of that gun position. Salomon had killed so many men that he had been forced to move the gun four different times in order to get a clear field of fire. There was something else that we noted, too. There were seventy-six bullet holes in Salomon's body. When we called a doctor over to examine him, we were told that twenty-four of the wounds had been suffered before Salomon died. There were no witnesses, but it wasn't hard to put the story together. One could easily visualize Ben Salomon, wounded and bleeding, trying to drag that gun a few more feet so that he would have a new field of fire. The blood was on the ground, and the marks plainly indicated how hard it must have been for him, especially in that last move.
Over the next several weeks, Captain Love carefully reconstructed the fighting on 7 July. All unit records of the 1st and 2nd Battalions had been destroyed. Love moved through hospitals and unit assembly areas and camps all over the Pacific interviewing the survivors of the attack. It became increasingly clear that there were many heroes, most of whom would remain unrecognized because there were no survivors to tell their stories. Eventually recommendations for Medals of Honor for two soldiers killed in the fighting, Lt. Col. William J. O'Brien, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, and Sgt. Thomas A. Baker of Company A, were prepared. Brig. Gen. Ogden J. Ross, the assistant commander of the 27th Division, asked Love to prepare one for Captain Salomon. Love wrote the recommendation for the Medal of Honor and assembled the supporting eyewitness accounts. He secured statements from the 2nd Battalion commander, Maj. Edward McCarthy, from the Company A commander, Capt. Louis Ackerman, and from one of Salomon's enlisted aid men. The recommendations were forwarded through official channels for approval.
When Captain Love rejoined the 27th Infantry Division in early 1945 to provide historical coverage for the invasion of Okinawa, he inquired about the award recommendations. The awards for Colonel O'Brien and Sergeant Baker had been approved. The award recommendation for Captain Salomon had been returned without action to the 2d Battalion with a handwritten note from Maj. Gen. George W. Griner, the commanding general of the 27th Division:
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.
Captain Love attempted without success to persuade General Griner to reconsider his decision. The commanders of the 105th Infantry Regiment and the 2d Battalion were new, were unaware of Salomon's heroic actions, and offered little support for Love's efforts. As the 27th Division entered the fighting on Okinawa the matter was dropped.
After the war, Captain Love returned to the United States where he went to work as a civilian historian at the Office of the Chief of Military History in Washington preparing written accounts of the various battles in the Pacific. In 1946 he wrote an article for The Infantry Journal that described the fighting on 7 July 1944 and specifically mentioned Ben Salomon's heroics. Ben Salomon's father heard the article read over the radio and wrote a letter of inquiry to the War Department. The Secretary of War, Judge Robert Patterson, learned the details of the Salomon case from Edmund Love. Judge Patterson asked Love to give Salomon's father the details of how his son had died and to prepare another award recommendation for resubmission. Love carried outhis instructions. He flew to Los Angeles and met with Mr. Salomon. Ben's father learned for the first time how his son had died. Previously he had only a routine telegram informing him of the death; there were no other details or posthumous awards, not even a Purple Heart.
Resubmitting the award recommendation was more difficult. The original award recommendation had been returned to the 2nd Battalion, 105th Infantry by General Griner and could not be located. Most of the notes that Love had collected during the war had been sent to the Adjutant General's office in the Pentagon and were now lost. Of the three eyewitnesses for the original Medal of Honor recommendation, Captain Ackerman was killed on Okinawa and the medical aid man could not be located. Only Major McCarthy was available. He provided an affidavit and indicated other veterans that might have knowledge of Salomon's actions. In recognition of the bravery and sacrifice of the 1st and 2d Battalions, 105th Infantry Regiment, in the fighting on 7 July 1944, the two units were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation in 1948. In addition to the losses on Saipan, the heavy casualties suffered by the 2nd Battalion on Okinawa hampered Love's search for witnesses; only about thirty soldiers survived the war. In the summer of 1951, Love, with the help of Major McCarthy, finally secured all of the necessary statements and submitted the recommendation through the Office of the Chief of Military History since Secretary of War Patterson's successors knew nothing of the action. Love left government service soon after and was later informed that the recommendation was returned without action because the time limit on submitting World War II awards had expired. There the matter rested for several years.
In the late 1960s another attempt was begun to win approval of a Medal of Honor for Ben Salomon. Dr. John I. Ingle, Dean of the University of Southern California School of Dentistry, learned from his friend, Ben's father, the story of his son's heroics. In 1968 Ingle contacted Maj. Gen. Robert B. Shira, chief of the Army Dental Corps, and urged him to reopen the case. Over the next year the award recommendation was reconstructed. This effort was even more difficult than the one in the late 1940s and early 1950s. None of the previous award recommendations could be located. Major McCarthy had committed suicide in 1953, and no one even remembered the names of the other eyewitnesses who had submitted statements for the 1951 submission. The services of Edmund Love were called upon, and he attended a 27th Division reunion but could only find one soldier from the 2nd Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment. This veteran remembered Salomon, but was wounded and knocked unconscious early in the action. Some items of interest were found in Ben Salomon's personnel file at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Extensive correspondence was conducted with veterans of the 27th Division. Two of the individuals with Love when Salomon's body was found were located, and they willingly provided sworn statements. Another officer, who remembered the wounded coming back from the overrun battalions talking about Salomon's exploits, provided a statement. Edmund Love wrote an extensive account of the events not only surrounding the fighting on 7 July 1944, but also the previous attempts to have the Medal of Honor awarded to Salomon. Research indicated that the passage of congressional legislation in 1960 had removed the legal restrictions on time limits for submission of awards. On 29 October 1969 the Army Surgeon General, Lt. Gen. Hal B. Jennings, signed the third Medal of Honor recommendation for Captain Salomon.
A legal review by the Judge Advocate General's office stated that the 1929 Geneva Convention allowed medical personnel to bear arms in self-defense and in defense of the wounded and sick. With the previous reasons for disapproval, namely the time limitation on submission of awards and the assumption that Salomon's actions violated the Geneva Convention, now eliminated, the recommendation was quickly processed by the Senior Army Decorations Board and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of which recommended approval. On 21 July 1970 the Secretary of the Army, Stanley R. Resor, recommended approval of the Medal of Honor for Ben Salomon and forwarded the papers to the Secretary of Defense for final approval.
From the beginning the Office of the Secretary of Defense took a critical view of the recommendation. At first the papers were returned to the Army citing an unfavorable Department of Defense legal opinion. After considerable research and argument, all lawyers agreed that according to regulations Salomon was eligible for consideration of an award. The recommendation still languished. In 1972 it was returned to the Army for another review by the new Secretary of the Army, Robert F. Froehlke. On 28 March Froehlke returned it to the Secretary of Defense stating in part:
After a careful review of the 1944 Medal of Honor case involving Captain Ben Salomon, I'm convinced that the Army is absolutely right in trying to redress a 27-year old error of judgment. The case has been painstakingly reconstructed. It has been endorsed unanimously for approval by the Army Senior Decorations Board and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and my predecessor, Stan Resor....this one deserves to be approved.
It was all to no avail. On 10 June 1972 the Office of the Secretary of Defense returned Salomon's Medal of Honor recommendation to the Army without acting on it, merely stating that it was based on circumstantial information.
The heroism of Ben Salomon in giving his life for his patients was not immediately forgotten. In 1973 a dental clinic at Fort Benning, Georgia was dedicated to his memory. His fellow alumnae of the U.S.C. School of Dentistry kept him in their thoughts; in the mid-1960s a new major clinic at the U.S.C. School of Dentistry had been named in his honor. The Army largely forgot him until the mid-1990s when an Army Dentist, Col. John E. King, while conducting research for a history of the Dental Corps during Vietnam, came across the story of Ben Salomon in neglected files in the office of the Chief of the Dental Corps. Coincidentally, about the same time, Dr. Robert West, an alumnusof the U.S.C. School of Dentistry, who was working on a book to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the school, also became interested in Ben Salomon. He contacted Dr. Ingle, who put him in touch with former acquaintances from the office of the Chief of the Dental Corps; in turn they referred Dr. West to Colonel King. When called by West, King readily agreed to send him the documents used in the 1969 recommendation for Salomon's Medal of Honor.
With advice and assistance from the Army's Military Awards Branch and his Congressman, Dr. West assembled the required documents and submitted them to the Army in April 1998 through his Congressman, Representative Brad Sherman, as required by law. In September 1998 the recommendation went forward to the Senior Army Decorations Board for processing. As the nomination moved through the lengthy review process, Major General Patrick D. Sculley, Deputy Surgeon General, U.S. Army, and Chief of the Dental Corps, maintained close contact with Mr. Patrick T. Henry, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, to make sure that CPT Salomons package remained on track. After recommendations for approval by the Army and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, legislation was introduced to waive the time limitation for awarding the Medal of Honor to Captain Salomon. With the signing into law of the FY 2002 Defense Authorization Act, the protracted struggle for Ben Salomon to receive his long overdue recognition finally ended. On 1 May 2002, President George W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor to Dr. Robert West, representing the U.S.C. School of Dentistry. The presentation of Captain Ben Salomon's Medal of Honor verifies Edmund Love's words of many years ago:
During the war in the Pacific, as a historian, in seven battles with four different divisions, I studied the individual actions of thousands of men. I personally prepared, at the request of various division and regimental commanders, the papers which resulted in the award of seven Congressional Medals of Honor and countless lesser decorations. I do not know of a man more richly deserving of this high honor than Captain Salomon, whom I never met in life.
The Washington Times
MEDAL OF HONOR
4 July 2002
By Ellen Sorokin
Army Capt. Benjamin L. Salomon earned the respect of his fellow soldiers long before they found him bent over a barrel of a machine gun on a World War II battlefield in the Marianas Islands, his hand still on the trigger.
Capt. Salomon was a dentist serving as a surgeon with the 27th Infantry Division when his unit invaded Saipan. He was at his battalion's aid station on July 8, 1944, when 5,000 Japanese soldiers attacked his unit. Capt. Salomon killed several enemy soldiers as they tried to enter the aid station. Then, he ordered his fellow soldiers to evacuate the tent and carry away the wounded. "I'll hold them off until you get them to safety," he was last heard shouting. "See you later."
He replaced a dead two-man machine-gun crew and single-handedly killed 98 Japanese soldiers. He was shot 24 times before he fell and more than 50 times after that.
"We never even got a Purple Heart," his father once said years after his son's death.
Fifty-eight years later, the young dentist's acts of heroism were officially recognized when President Bush in May awarded Capt. Salomon the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration for bravery or self-sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty.
"No one who knew him is with us this afternoon," Mr. Bush said during the May 1 ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. "Yet America will always know Benjamin Lewis Salomon by the citation that will 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 to him from a grateful country."
One of many
Capt. Salomon's story is one of many cases in which veterans receive recognition for their heroic wartime efforts years after they die. Over the last decade, 41 war veterans received the medal, 29 of whom received it posthumously.
There are 3,458 Medal of Honor recipients, and of those, only 143 are alive, according to statistics compiled by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
It was during World War II that, for the first time, more Medals of Honor were awarded to those who died in battle than to those who survived. The same holds true in Korea and Vietnam.
"If the Medal of Honor today has an intangible and solemn halo around it, it is partly due to those men who did not survive to wear it," writes Allen Mikaelian in his book "Medal of Honor." "The survivors who wear the medal frequently acknowledge this. They very rarely speak of glory, preferring instead to speak simply of their immense gratitude."
Why the delay?
Lost paperwork or too few eyewitnesses who could attest to a soldier's heroic deeds, Defense Department officials say. In some cases, particularly those that involve prisoners of war, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests can slow the process.
"You can get pretty discouraged on a number of occasions," said Mike Faber, who spent the last four years campaigning for a Medal of Honor for the late POW Rocky Versace. "But it should be a difficult process. This is the Medal of Honor we're talking about here, and it should be a hard process."
Defense Department officials said this week it all depends on the circumstances surrounding the heroic actions and the ability to formulate those into a case for the medal.
"Awards do take time," a Defense Department official said. "It is something the Defense Department takes very seriously, combining our desire to recognize the service and sacrifice of service members with the judicious application of policies. In that way, we can recognize the deserving, maximize the value to morale and preserve the value of the award itself."
Implemented in 1861, the Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force that can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the armed services of the United States.
The medals hang from blue ribbons, each ending in a "knot" embroidered with 13 stars. The Air Force and Army medals hang from a bar that reads "Valor," and the Navy medal is suspended from an anchor.
No one ever doubted that Capt. Salomon deserved the Medal of Honor, but it took more than half a century for it to be awarded to him. Many people tried to get Capt. Salomon his due, but paperwork was misplaced, and the Army couldn't find enough eyewitnesses to the deeds.
Then, in 1997, Dr. Robert West, a man whom Capt. Salomon had never met, undertook a massive letter-writing campaign to get the late captain the recognition he deserved.
"I more or less became obsessed with this case," Dr. West said in an interview last week. "I just couldn't let it go."
Soon after the action in Saipan ended, Capt. Salomon's commander nominated him to receive the medal. However, the paperwork stopped after his division officials strictly interpreted a Geneva Convention rule that prohibited medical personnel from receiving valor awards.
Dr. West, a World War II veteran and dentist from Calabasas, Calif., learned of Capt. Salomon's heroic efforts two years earlier while researching notable alumni for the University of California's centennial celebration. Capt. Salomon was a 1937 graduate of the university's dental school.
During his research, Dr. West found that the posthumous award was denied because of an error, not a technicality. Dr. West had discovered that the commanding general reviewing Capt. Salomon's recommendation for a medal misunderstood the Geneva Convention rule.
The rule states that medical personnel were prohibited from bearing arms against enemy troops for offensive purposes, but they could bear arms in self-defense or in defense of the wounded or sick. That meant, Dr. West found out, that medical personnel could receive valor awards if those such as Capt. Salomon were defending their patients and aid stations or hospitals.
However, by the time that interpretation came through, the time limit on nominations had passed.
During the next five years, Dr. West wrote letters to at least a dozen government agencies and branches of the armed services, urging them to reopen Capt. Salomon's case, to correct the error and award him the medal.
"For a long time I didn't think this was going to happen," Dr. West said. "There was a lot of watching and waiting. It was a long process, but the end result was worth it."
On May 1, Dr. West accepted Capt. Salomon's Medal of Honor and later presented the award to Maj. Gen. Patrick Sculley, Army dental chief. The medal will be displayed at the Army Medical Department Museum in San Antonio. A fax copy of the medal will be displayed at the University of Southern California School of Dentistry.
Dr. West said even though it was frustrating at times, it's good that the military looks into cases so meticulously. "Whether it took one year or five years, it was well worth the hard work and the wait in the end," he said.
Since its inception, the process by which the medal is awarded has undergone a number of changes because of misinterpretations or even mishandling of the Medal of Honor.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln, who was in need of troops, awarded the medal to the members of the 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry, to keep them on active duty. Because of a clerical error, the entire unit 864 men received the medal, even though only 311 men volunteered for extended duty.
Others had received the medal under questionable circumstances.
William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody received the medal although he was a civilian serving with the military. Mary Edwards Walker, a contract surgeon, was reportedly given the medal during the Civil War to placate her after the Army terminated her contract. Dr. Walker is the only woman to have received the medal.
In 1916, a board was created to determine eligibility for the award and to review the cases of those who had already received the award. The board reviewed all 2,625 medals that were awarded up to that time, and the board canceled 911 of them, including most that were issued to the 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry. The medals given to Cody and Dr. Walker also were canceled.
Two years later, Congress decided to clear away any inconsistencies of the legislation regarding the Army Medal of Honor and wrote clear rules for its award.
Each of the armed services has set up regulations that allow no margin of doubt or error in judging whether a soldier is entitled to receive the medal.
A soldier's actions must be proved by at least two eyewitnesses. It must involve the risk of one's life and be the type of deed that, if he or she had not done it, would not subject him or her to any criticism.
There are also statutes of limitations. A recommendation for the Army or Air Force medal must be made within two years from the date the action occurred. The medal must be awarded within three years after the action took place. The recommendation for a Navy Medal of Honor must be made within three years and awarded within five.
The original request for military awards, including the Medal of Honor, is made by the military commander. In some cases, members of Congress ask the president to consider or reconsider a soldier or veteran for the medal.
Reasons why the medal wasn't initially awarded can be included in the application. Special legislation allows members of Congress then to ask the president to award the medal, according to documents made available by the Medal of Honor Society.
The military typically will not consider awarding the medal unless the soldier who was originally nominated for it did not receive it because of lost documentation or accusations of racism.
In these cases, the Board of Correction for Military Records of the appropriate military branch reviews the applications, and after its conclusions, submits it to appropriate authorities for further consideration. The Board of Correction for Military Records, however, is not involved in the process in cases where no original recommendation was made. Government officials say it is unlikely that the medal would be awarded if no original recommendation was made.
Defense Department officials agree reviews can take several years to obtain and verify evidence of actions deserving of an award. "Often cases are re-examined after previously unavailable evidence is discovered," a Pentagon official said. "This often leads to a perception that an award case took several decades to reach a final decision."
Recently, there have been a number of specific instances in which the Medal of Honor was awarded or reinstated outside of statutory time limits after reviews of records.
A 1996 study conducted by Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., found there was a racial disparity in the way Medal of Honor recipients were selected, and that U.S. Army practices and the political climate during World War II guaranteed that no black soldier would receive the military's top award. The Army contracted the study in 1993.
After the study was completed, Congress passed a law that created a way around the 1952 statute of limitations that blocked new World War II medals. About the same time, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat, wrote a provision of the 1996 Defense Authorization Act mandating a review of the service records of Americans of Asian-Pacific descent who received the Distinguished Service Cross.
As a result, President Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to seven black veterans for their service during World War II. Three years later, Mr. Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to 21 Americans of Asian descent, including Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, who, according to his Senate biography, "slogged through nearly three bloody months of the Rome-Arno campaign with the U.S. 5th Army and established himself as an outstanding patrol leader with the 'Go For Broke Regiment.'"
Other instances where the medal was awarded or reinstated:
The family of the late Marine Col. Donald G. Cook received his Medal of Honor on May 16, 1980, for his service during captivity as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam from Dec. 31, 1964, through his death in captivity on Dec. 8, 1967. Information on his heroic deeds were only obtained after the repatriation of other POWs. Col. Cook's award was delayed in part because he had not been officially declared dead.
The Army Board for Corrections of Military Records reinstated Dr. Walker's medal posthumously in 1977, citing her "distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex." Dr. Walker's family contacted members of Congress and President Carter for help on the matter. Mr. Carter, in turn, contacted the Defense Department to investigate.
The Army Board reinstated Cody's medal posthumously in 1989, in part on the grounds in which Dr. Walker's award was reinstated, and that a precedent existed for awarding the medal to civilians who served with the military.
The first President Bush in 1991 posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to Army Cpl. Freddie Stowers, for his service in World War I. Although blacks had received the award for other conflicts before and since, Cpl. Stowers was, at the time, the only black to be awarded the Medal of Honor for service in either World War. Cpl. Stowers' case followed a review of the award by the Army to determine whether or not blacks were treated fairly.
Honoring Capt. Versace
It took the last 38 years for several former prisoners of war to press at least four administrations to get their fellow captive Army Capt. Rocky Versace a Medal of Honor, an award that many of his supporters argue he was denied in Vietnam.
Unlike the Air Force, the Navy or the Marines, the Army has never awarded the Medal of Honor to a POW from Vietnam for actions during captivity.
"The key point here is that it was Versace's actions and not just his status that earned him our nation's highest award for valor," the Defense Department official said. "Captain Versace's heroic actions and determination to resist capture reflected extraordinary valor amid grave personal sacrifice. In spite of every effort, Capt. Versace maintained his dignity, honor and faith in God and country."
An Alexandria native, Humbert Roque "Rocky" Versace, 25, was a few days away from joining the priesthood when he was captured by the Viet Cong in October 1963 as he accompanied an operation near U Minh Forest. The South Vietnamese company was overrun by a large enemy troop engagement, and Capt. Versace went down with three rounds in the leg. He, along with two others, were taken prisoner.
For years, they were incarcerated in bamboo cages, deprived of food. After trying to escape four times, Capt. Versace was shackled. He was kept flat on his back and often gagged in a tiny dark isolation cage. Their captors often paraded the prisoners around the villages, pulling them by a rope tied around their necks.
Capt. Versace remained defiant, never breaking during torture. According to past interviews with fellow prisoners, Capt. Versace always argued with his captors, rebutting their propaganda. "He told them to go to hell in Vietnamese, French and English," one fellow prisoner told a historian before his death in 1997. "He got a lot of pressure and torture, but he held his path. There was no other way."
In 1965, Capt. Versace was executed by his captors. His remains were never found, and his family was told little about his case.
Recommendations made to President Nixon by former POWs who escaped after Capt. Versace's death were turned down because of what some supporters say was the political climate of the time. He instead was awarded the Silver Star posthumously in 1969.
Nearly three decades later, a group of family friends and West Point classmates formed "The Friends of Rocky Versace" to lobby Congress to support a medal application for Capt. Versace.
"We crawled at a snail's pace to get through the red tape," said Duane Frederic, an Ohio resident who helped research Capt. Versace's records. "The process is a good one, but the problem is it takes too long and for good reason. No one would want the Medal of Honor to go to someone who didn't deserve it. To retain the integrity of the process, no one should be rushed."
Word came from the White House last year that Capt. Versace would be awarded the medal. Mr. Bush will award his family the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony July 8.
"We never gave up, that's what it all comes down to," Mr. Frederic said. "Everybody understood that this man really deserves the Medal of Honor. And now we have closure, to know that Rocky did not necessarily suffer in vain. In the end, it's all about these soldiers who died with their boots on fighting for our freedom. We should never forget that."
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