There have been an innumerable amount of US Navy SEALs who’ve served since the 1960s, but few have earned themselves the reputation of Solomon Atkinson. The Alaska Native was among the founding members of SEAL Team 1 and went on to receive a number of accolades for his combat service in Vietnam.
In August 2023, it was announced Atkinson would be having a Navy vessel named for him, an honor that will forever solidify his place in military – and Alaskan – history.
Solomon Atkinson’s early life
Solomon Atkinson was born in 1930 in Metlakatla, Alaska, and raised in a small Tsimshian village on Annette Island, along Port Chester Bay. Home to a population of under 500 people, the environment was the perfect place for the young man to hone and develop a variety of skills, including hunting, fishing and living off the land.
Attending boarding school for the majority of the year, Atkinson returned home each summer to help his father, who was an accomplished commercial fisherman.
Becoming one of the first US Navy SEALs
Solomon Atkinson enlisted in the US Navy in 1952, at the age of 21. He’d previously joined the Army National Guard, but almost immediately requested a transfer. In 1953, he volunteered to become a frogman – a member of the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs), which served as the precursors for the SEALs. He became the first Alaska Native to join the UDTs.
When the Navy SEALs were established in 1962, Atkinson, once again, volunteered, attending training at Naval Base Coronado, California. He subsequently became one of the founding members of SEAL Team 1, and served deployments in Korea and the Pacific. While in Korea, he did a rotation aboard the USS Washburn (AKA-108) as an engineman.
Following his stint with SEAL Team 1, Atkinson went on to serve with SEAL Team 2, based out of Dam Neck, Virginia.
Serving three combat tours in Vietnam
Over the course of his career with the US Navy, Solomon Atkinson served three combat tours in Vietnam, receiving the Bronze Star, the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V” and the Purple Heart. His first deployment was for beach reconnaissance, while the second was to train Vietnamese special operations forces.
During his third in June 1968, Atkinson suffered an injury. His mission was to keep the shipping channel to Saigon open in the Rung Sat Special Zone, in the Sác Forest, and he’d been assigned as a platoon chief. While on a jungle ambush, he and his men accidentally placed a claymore mine on a rotting tree. When they detonated it near a group of Viet Cong guerrillas, shrapnel shot back at them.
“We got right back up and started shooting, but Sol had a lot of blood on his face and lost some teeth, but he got right back on it,” fellow Navy SEAL Lowell “Bo” Burwell told Task & Purpose. “He was serious about everything, and we had some enemy out there. He was wanting to get back on to that for sure.”
Solomon Atkinson trained NASA astronauts
Outside of his deployments, Solomon Atkinson became an instructor for up-and-coming US Navy SEALs, who gave him the nickname, the “Mean Machine.” According to his widow, JoAnn, Atkinson earned the moniker “because he was in charge of [physical training] for new recruits” and “was your typical SEAL – work hard, play hard.”
He was also a dive instructor at the US Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School in Key West, Florida, which afforded him the chance to train 48 NASA astronauts in underwater weightless simulations, including Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell.
As if that wasn’t enough, Atkinson also trained Green Light Teams known as Special Atomic Demolition Munition Units to deploy portable nuclear bombs – B-54 Special Atomic Demolition Munitions, to be exact – in Eastern Europe.
He even worked as a stuntman on the 1958 movie, Underwater Warrior.
Dedicating himself to his local community and veterans
Solomon Atkinson retired from the US Navy in 1973, with the rank of chief warrant officer 4. Following his military service, he did all he could to advocate for veterans, founding Annette Island’s first veterans organization in the 1990s. His advocacy saw him be awarded the Alaska Governor’s Veteran’s Advocacy Award in 2018.
He also dedicated himself to his community, despite struggling for a time with alcoholism. He spoke at local schools, became a member of the school board and went on to sit on the Metlakatla Community Council. His heavy involvement in the community eventually saw him voted mayor.
Atkinson passed away in July 2019.
Naming a US Navy ship for Solomon Atkinson
In August 2023, the US Navy announced that a future Navajo-class towing, salvage and rescue (T-ATS) ship would be named in honor of the late veteran. The USNS Solomon Atkinson (T-ATS-12) will be the seventh vessel in her class, with the first, the USNS Navajo (T-ATS-6), yet to be commissioned.
“The Navy couldn’t have picked a better person to name a ship after. It brings tears to my eyes thinking that they are going to honor him in this way,” Verdie Bowen, director of the Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs, said in a press release. “If you want a representation for Alaska on a ship, it’s Sol.
“For him to go from a local Alaskan hero to having his name on a ship is remarkable,” she continued. “It just means that for the generations to come, not only will Alaskans know that the ship is named for him but every sailor that gets on the ship will know about his accomplishments.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) also commented on the news, saying:
“You would never hear Sol brag about his accomplishments and illustrious career because Sol was – as most of the greats are – a truly humble man. Sol also personified the special patriotism manifest in our Alaska Native people, who serve at higher rates in our military than any other ethnic group. I can’t think of an individual who is more deserving of this incredible honor.”
Upon her completion and launch in 2025, the USNS Solomon Atkinson will join the guided missile destroyer USS Ted Stevens (DDG-128), which is still under construction, as just one of two ships named for Alaskan servicemen.