Many come into this world to do great and honorable things, but few have been the first person to do so many things as Solomon Atkinson.
Born in 1930, Atkinson was the first Alaska Native to join the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT), the precursor to the Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) Teams that comprise the Navy’s elite special warfare community today. He would go on to have a decorated career as a founding member of the SEALs before returning to Alaska where he worked for decades to help his community, Alaska Natives and the veteran community in any way he could.
“He came into the community in 1953,” said Rep. Laddie Shaw, a former SEAL and representing Alaska’s 26th district in the state legislature. “One of the legendary frogmen.”
UDTs were elite swimmers and specialists in charge of swimming ashore heavily defended beaches and blowing up obstacles so Marines and soldiers could perform amphibious landings without being cut to pieces.
“Even when times were tough for Natives and other minorities, he was the first to step forward,” said Alaska resident Bob Ridley, who knew Atkinson well. When the Navy commissioned the first SEAL teams in 1962, Atkinson was a plankowner for SEAL Team 1. Plankowners are the first personnel to join a brand new ship or special warfare team in the Navy and Marine Corps, said Shaw.
Atkinson would go on to a storied career, including time training space program candidates underwater in weightless movement.
“He trained a number of astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell,” said Ridley. Armstrong and Aldrin were the first men to step on the moon; Lovell was the commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.
A plaque signed by all three was among his most treasured mementos, said Shaw. On Saturday, days after Atkinson’s death, America celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, where two astronauts trained by Atkinson became the first humans to step foot on an extraplanetary body.
During his remaining time in the service, he served both with SEAL Team 1, which he helped found, and with SEAL Team 2, based in Dam Neck, Virginia. Atkinson did three tours of Vietnam, earning a number of commendations, including the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, which can only be earned for heroic or meritorious service in a combat zone. He retired from the Navy in 1973 as a chief warrant officer, a specialist officer recognized for his deep experience in his job field.
Retiring from the Navy in 1973, Atkinson returned to Metlakatla.
“After 22 years of service, he spent the rest of his years in service to his community and veterans,” Shaw said. Atkinson would go on to champion veteran’s issues in Alaska, as well as serving two terms as mayor of Metlakatla, where he worked tirelessly to improve the lot of the town.
“He did a lot of work for the town,” Ridley said. “The roads, the houses, the water treatment, the power lines.”
Even after his two terms as mayor, Ridley said, he kept working hard, staying on as a councilman so he could continue to be helpful.
Atkinson was also hugely active in the veterans community in Alaska, where the biggest percentage of veterans in America live, with more than 80,000 veterans, Shaw said.
“He paved the way for helping the Native veteran community with VA home loans,” Shaw said. “The Native veterans were kind of set aside in that process.”
One of Atkinson’s abiding wishes was to be laid to final rest by SEALs, members of the community he helped form and shape. An honor guard of SEALs from SEAL Team 1, the team he founded, were present as pallbearers for the ceremony, along with a flotilla of 20 boats, said Shaw. He was laid to rest with eight sets of the SEALs unique service badge embedded in his casket, one from every SEAL present.
Atkinson represents the best of Alaska and the military; a steadfast and committed individual who wouldn’t let barriers or difficulty stand in his way, whether it was joining the elite UDTs as the first Alaska Native, volunteering to join the SEALs when they were commissioned as a member of the very first team, or working to build a better world for residents of Metlakatla or veterans living in Alaska. Atkinson is remembered for his unwavering drive to give, to help out, and to work hard for that which he believed in.
“He gave about 68 years of his life to his community and the military,” Shaw said.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.