From Valley Forge to Baghdad, Gettysburg to Khe Sanh, San Juan Hill to Inchon, through the forests at Argonne and along the beaches of Normandy, for over 200 years the United States’ greatest natural resource, the men and women of its armed forces, have fought and died for freedom at home and abroad. And while some may not approve of every mission, the citizens of this great and blessed, beautifully diverse mosaic we call America, recognize that our soldiers serve not so we may all agree, but so we may be free to disagree.
Although somewhat unclear, it is generally believed that some semblance of a day to remember those who died in battle was created after the American Civil War. First the South and then the North, founded commemorations for the fallen by decorating the graves of soldiers who wore gray and blue only a few years before. One of the more famous earlier Memorial Day events took place in 1868 when veterans of the Union and the Confederacy gathered at the battleground and cemetery of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to hold ceremonies honoring their lost comrades. Nearly 150 years later, the Annual Gettysburg Memorial Day Parade and Ceremony is still going strong.
The brave, who over the years, as President Abraham Lincoln said at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, “gave the last full measure of devotion,” have come from all walks of life. They were fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, farmers, machine workers, nurses and doctors, and yes, even dentists
During fierce fighting at the Battle of Saipan in World War II in July of 1944, Japanese troops broke through American lines. Surgeon and Captain Ben L. Salomon (2d Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment of the 27th Infantry Division), a dentist by education and trade, and a Jew from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was in a hospital tent when Japanese soldiers entered and began bayoneting the wounded. Salomon killed seven enemy soldiers who had broken into or were breaking into the tent, and then ran outside to get help. But it was hopeless.
According to the US Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History’s website: “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.”
A few days later, once the island of Saipan was secured, the 27th Division historian described what he and his team had 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… 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.”
Ben L. Salomon was posthumously recommended for the Medal of Honor, but because of technical reasons, he did not receive the medal until it was awarded by President George W. Bush in May of 2002.
Liberty comes at a cost – America’s sons and daughters who continue to pay the ultimate price in service to their country. And although we may never be worthy of their sacrifice, taking the time to pay solemn tribute insures that we never forget. Never to forget, not just those who ultimately receive well-deserved recognition, but also and just as importantly, those who die doing their duty anonymously.
Memorial Day reminds us that it is not the super-wealthy celebrity, whose name is plastered on our TV screens and magazines who is the hero. It is the courageous, selfless soldier, known by but a few, whose name is simply etched in stone.