A plankholder of the Navy SEAL teams, and one of the service’s most decorated Alaska Native sailors, will be remembered as the namesake of a new Navy ship.
The USNS Solomon Atkinson is scheduled to launch in 2025 as the service’s 12th Navajo-class Towing, Salvage, and Rescue ship, a series of tender boats that officials have named after notable Native American sailors.
Solomon Atkinson died in 2019 in his hometown of Metlakatla, Alaska. His casket told the tale of his life. The side was covered in a mural of Native Alaskan art, depicting animals and symbols of the fishing village of Metlakatla, in the state’s southeastern arm. Like many Tsimshian people in Metlakatla, Atkinson had been raised on commercial fishing and hunting.
On the lid, between two crosses, was the engraved trident of the Navy SEALs, in whose history Atkinson looms large.
“It was one summer when he was fishing near Seattle that he saw a recruitment poster for the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT),” said Atkinson’s wife, JoAnn, in a Navy press release. “He thought it looked cool and at that point decided he wanted to become a frogman.”
Navy SEAL plankholder
After qualifying for UDT duty, Atkinson became a “plankholder” at SEAL Team 1 as one of the first 60 sailors officially assigned as SEALs in 1962. Atkinson quickly became one of the elite unit’s earliest leaders, helping develop SEAL teams from their humble beginnings as little more than beach scouts into the feared commando teams of Vietnam.
As a SEAL, Atkinson deployed to Korea and served three combat tours in Vietnam. There he was awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and a Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V.”
He also spent time as a feared SEAL instructor for new recruits, earning the nickname “the Mean Machine”.
“He earned that nickname because he was in charge of [physical training] for new recruits,” said JoAnn. “Sol was always passionate in his career. He was your typical SEAL — work hard, play hard.”
He had to set aside the harsh techniques known to SEAL recruits for another training assignment. As the space race heated up, Atkinson worked with astronauts in specially constructed pools that simulated working in weightless environments. The astronauts he trained included Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Jim Lovell at the Underwater Swimmers School in Key West, Florida.
He retired from the Navy in 1973 as a Chief Warrant Officer 4.
“Sol did what he thought was best for his family, community, and country,” said JoAnn. “He did what any man would do—follow his heart and do his best.”
Days after retiring from the Navy in Little Creek, Virginia, Atkinson and his family drove their Ford Econoline van more than 3,500 miles back to Metlakatla. There he spent the next 40 years as a community leader and veteran’s advocate, including being elected mayor of Metlakatla.
Atkinson died in July 2019.
A final cruise
For Atkinson’s funeral in Metlakatla, SEAL Team 1 sent a team of pallbearers. Before the final burial, the SEALs sat with Atkinson’s handmade casket on the deck of a boat for a final honor, a cruise around the waters of Metlakatla with a dozen or so local fishing boats following, a farewell parade for a hero in a hometown with more boats than streets.
Earlier this month, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced that the 12th Navajo-class Towing, Salvage, and Rescue (T-ATS) ship would be named the USNS Solomon Atkinson. The ships are named for Native American sailors and Native American tribes. Nearly 25,000 Active, American Indian or Alaska Natives serve in the Navy.