- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 4, 2002

Special Report

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.

Deserving it
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.

Undergoing changes
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."

Racial disparity
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."


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide