Solomon Atkinson, a Native Alaskan, was not just an ordinary Navy SEAL; he was a legend in his own right. From his early days in Alaska to his valorous actions in Vietnam, Atkinson's life was a testament to dedication and resilience.
The U.S. Navy recently announced plans to honor him by naming a Navajo-class towing and salvage ship, the USNS Solomon Atkinson.
Early Life in Alaska and Entry into the Navy
Solomon Atkinson grew up in the Metlakatla Indian Community, Annette Islands Reserve in Alaska. His early years were spent swimming, fishing, and diving in the cold Alaskan waters. Atkinson initially joined the Army National Guard in 1951 but soon transferred to the Navy.
His first deployment was aboard the USS Washburn during the Korean War. However, his true calling was with the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT), which he joined in 1953.
Dale McCleskey, a senior diver in UDT-12, remembered Atkinson as a patient and resolute individual. "Sol was the epitome of the fearless warrior and the protector of the innocent," McCleskey said.
Atkinson's upbringing in a native fishing village made him an excellent instructor, especially when training Vietnamese special operations forces during his deployments.
Solomon Atkinson's Valor in Vietnam
The Crucible of Vietnam
Solomon Atkinson's service in Vietnam was a defining chapter in his illustrious military career. Deployed with UDT-12 for beach reconnaissance, he was among the 60 sailors who established the first SEAL Teams, 1 and 2, in 1962.
His second deployment to Vietnam involved training Vietnamese special operations forces, where he earned a "sterling reputation" as an instructor. His upbringing in a native fishing village in Alaska made him particularly adept at connecting with and training local soldiers.
The L-Ambush Incident: Unyielding in the Face of Danger
One of the most harrowing experiences Atkinson faced in Vietnam occurred in 1968. During an ambush set up by his team of Navy SEALs, a claymore was mistakenly attached to a rotten tree.
When the SEALs triggered the explosive, the rotten tree sent shrapnel and wood pieces flying, knocking two SEALs unconscious. Solomon Atkinson was one of them. Despite being momentarily knocked out and sustaining injuries, including loss of some teeth, Atkinson got right back up and resumed firing.
His teammate, Lowell "Bo" Burwell, recalled, "Sol wasn’t going to just lay there. He was serious about everything, and we had some enemy out there. He was wanting to get back on to that for sure."
The Rung Sat Special Zone: A Forest of Assassins
Atkinson's third and final deployment to Vietnam was in the Rung Sat Special Zone, an area known to the troops as the "forest of assassins."
Here, his mission was to keep a shipping channel to Saigon open. Atkinson served as the platoon chief during this deployment, further solidifying his leadership role and commitment to the mission.
Overcoming Personal Struggles and Community Service
After retiring from the Navy in 1973, Atkinson returned to Alaska and battled alcoholism.
However, he found solace in Christianity and went on to serve his community as the Mayor of Metlakatla from 1978 to 2001.
His transformation was nothing short of miraculous, and he became a beacon of hope for many struggling individuals in his community.
Solomon Atkinson passed away in 2019, but his legacy lives on. He was instrumental in establishing the Metlakatla Veterans Association and helped local veterans with VA paperwork and home loans. His casket was carried by SEALs from SEAL Team 1, honoring his last request and marking the end of an era.
Solomon Atkinson in the News
Atkinson was honored as Alaskan of the Week on June 29, 2017 by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK).
Solomon Atkinson's life was a remarkable journey from a small Alaskan community to becoming a legendary Navy SEAL. His story is not just about military valor but also about overcoming personal struggles and making a lasting impact on his community.
The USNS Solomon Atkinson will serve as a fitting tribute to a man who lived his life with honor, dedication, and an unwavering commitment to service.