He wasn’t supposed to be there.
Though Captain Ben Salomon came to be regarded by his commanding officer as “the best all-around soldier” in his unit, he hadn’t intended to get into a war. He was a practicing dentist when he was drafted into the army just before World War II. Though they trained him for combat, the military eventually decided he was best qualified for a different kind of drilling, and it was as a member of the Army Dental Corps that he waded ashore on Saipan one June day in 1944.
But no one was looking to get a cavity filled on Saipan – which rapidly boiled over into one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War. Among the first casualties was the surgeon for Dr. Salomon’s battalion, and Salomon volunteered to do what he could for the growing number of wounded at the front. They set him up – a one-man aid station – in a tent 50 yards back of the foxholes, and he had 30 bleeding patients before he could put on his stethoscope.
Within minutes, thousands of enemy soldiers poured over the front lines – and overwhelmed the aid station.
Mid-surgery, Salomon looked up to see a Japanese soldier bayoneting a wounded, unarmed American at the front of the tent. The dentist snatched up a rifle and shot him. Two more Japanese charged in; Salomon swung the rifle and clubbed them down – then saw four more enemy soldiers crawling under the sides of the tent and lunging for his patients.
Incredibly, Salomon threw himself at all four – kicking a knife from one soldier’s hand, shooting another, grabbing a bayonet to stab a third, and putting his head into the stomach of the fourth. He yelled for the patients to get out – help each other, limp as best they could back to the main lines. But the Japanese were everywhere, and most of the Americans still fighting had already fallen back. Someone would have to cover the wounded men’s slow retreat.
Salomon took the closest rifle and ran toward the enemy.
A nearby machine gun had already been overrun – the four men who’d manned it lay dead. Shooting as he ran, the dentist moved that way.
Later, when the battle turned and the Americans came back, they found Salomon there. He was slumped over the machine gun, with 76 bullet wounds and as many bayonet marks on him. Doctors determined that at least 24 of those wounds came before he died.
Around him, they found the bodies of 98 enemy soldiers.
No one seems to have counted how many wounded Americans he saved, selling his own life so dearly.
We call them “the few,” but, in reality, there are so many men like Dr. Salomon, whose stories lie dormant in the foggy corners of our history. We recruit them, we draft them, we train them, we expect them to take orders. We hope some may prove to be heroes, but mostly we want them to go where we ourselves can’t – and honestly, don’t want to – go. To do things that desperately need doing, that we ourselves don’t want to have to do.
We dress them up in sharp uniforms, admire their precision on the parade ground, award them medals and decorations, and applaud politely when they’re introduced from the podium. And most of us, if we’re honest, give thanks that they went, served, fought, if only so that we – and our fathers and sons and daughters – didn’t have to.
Memorial Day is our attempt, as a nation, to take at least passing notice of something we mostly take for granted … to gently remind ourselves that the things we cherish most – our families, our homes, our freedoms – are also the things most expensively purchased. And the things most costly to maintain.
A lot of the price is paid by people whose names we never know.
Of course, most of us don’t dwell so much on the meaning of Memorial Day as we do on the holiday it affords … for much the same reason we don’t ponder slaughterhouses while cutting our steaks. And, at some level, that’s okay. Dr. Salomon didn’t run for that machine gun hoping everyone would spend the last Monday of all future Mays sitting around teary-eyed.
But it doesn’t hurt to remember, as Miss Maudie says in To Kill A Mockingbird, that “Some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us.” Nor the observation of an admiral in In Harm’s Way, that “All battles are fought by scared men who'd rather be someplace else.”
Dentists, more than most people, are confronted every day with scared souls who would rather be someplace else. Dr. Salomon understood. And went to the aid station, anyway.
There’s a reason, he knew, they call it military “service.”