The only dentist to receive the Medal of Honor did so posthumously, 58 years after his death, for his World War II exploits defending his patients. He killed a few enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat before slowly falling back with a machine gun and killing dozens more, totaling 98 enemy soldiers killed, while allowing his patients to escape to safety before he died of fatal wounds.
A young Benjamin Salomon fought for entry into the University of Southern California’s dental program despite the fact that many American universities at the time had a cap on how many Jewish applicants they would accept. When he graduated in 1937, he immediately tried to join both the Canadian and American armies, possibly because of how his brethren were being treated in Europe at the time.
Both armies rejected him and the young man started a successful dental practice in Beverly Hills instead. In 1940, he had a small client base that included aspiring actors in Hollywood when he was drafted into the American infantry as a private.
While it may seem odd that a man with a doctorate of dental medicine was an infantryman, Salomon reportedly took to the training and became a top-tier machine gunner. He gave free checkups and cleanings to his friends in the barracks until, in 1942, the Army commissioned him into the dental corps. Salomon tried to refuse the commission to stay in his position as sergeant of a machine gun team, but his request was denied.
He was sent to the Pacific Theater with the 27th Infantry Division. There, during the Marianas Island Campaign, a battalion surgeon was wounded. Capt. Salomon offered to fill in until a new surgeon could be assigned and sent.
It was in this role that the 29-year-old was serving when, on July 7, 1944, the Japanese commander ordered waves of suicide attacks against American positions, calling for each attacker to kill 10 Americans before dying.
Salomon saw his first attacker while working on a patient. The Japanese man emerged from the brush and began bayoneting wounded troops lined up for treatment. Salomon grabbed a rifle and shot the man down and tried to return to his patient.
But two more attackers rushed through the front. Salomon clubbed both, then bayoneted one and shot the other before soldiers started to climb in under the tent walls. The dentist shot one, knifed one, bayoneted a third, and head-butted the fourth.
Seeing that the situation was desperate and the hospital would be lost, he ordered the medics to assist the wounded in a withdrawal while he provided cover.
Contact with Salomon was lost for 15 hours as the American force conducted a withdrawal and then slowly took the territory back. When they found Salomon, he was laying on a machine gun, dead, with 76 bayonet and bullet wounds. Dozens of enemy dead were arrayed before him, a blood trail showed where he had repositioned the gun multiple times, almost certainly while fatally wounded, to continue covering the retreat.
While Salomon’s exploits were well investigated and documented, the recommendation for a Medal of Honor was rejected by Gen. George W. Griner who believed that Salomon’s actions were a violation of the Geneva Convention, which generally bars medical personnel from carrying or using offensive weapons.
But medical personnel are allowed to use weapons in final defense of themselves or their patients, and a review of the case decades later resulted in a 2002 ceremony in the Rose Garden where President George W. Bush presented the medal to Dr. Robert West, one of the Salomon supporters who worked for years to get the award approved.
The medal is now on display at the University of Southern California.