This past summer, Joann Atkinson received some unexpected news. The U.S. Navy called and told her that they would be naming a newly designed Navajo class ship the USNS Solomon Atkinson after her husband, who had served in the Navy for 22 years and had passed in 2019. Of his many accomplishments were being among the first Navy SEALs (Sea-Air-Land Teams) serving in both the Korea and Vietnam Wars and training astronauts to endure weightlessness in underwater simulations.
This latest recognition follows the naval tradition of naming T-ATS (tug, anchor, tow and salvage) ships after prominent Indigenous veterans or American Indian tribes. Solomon Atkinson was from the Metlakatla Indian Community on Annette Island, just west of British Columbia from where hundreds of his Ts'msyen people had relocated in 1887.
“We are just completely overwhelmed,” said Joann Atkinson. She was married to Solomon for 60 years and was chosen along with the couple's two daughters as the ship’s “sponsors,” or those who will christen the ship.
“I am honored to name the next T-ATS after Solomon Atkinson, a man who achieved many firsts, even in the face of adversity, and continued to lead,” said Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro in a Navy announcement in August. “Atkinson’s achievements as a SEAL have left behind an enduring legacy, not just in the Special Warfare community but with our nation’s astronauts as well. I am pleased to ensure that his name will extend globally to all who view this great ship.”
One of 10 children in his family, Solomon Atkinson learned to free dive in frigid Alaska waters as a youth and worked as a commercial salmon fisherman before enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1952 at the age of 22. He joined its underwater demolition team (UDT)—the unit that recovered and dismantled underwater armament and was the precursor to the Navy’s SEALs. Atkinson was the first Alaska Native to join the UDT and a foundational member of SEAL Team 1. He also tested state-of-the-art diving equipment near the shores of La Jolla, California, for famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.
Atkinson served in the Korean War aboard the USS Washburn from 1952 to 1953 and was deployed to three combat tours in Vietnam in 1963, 1964 and 1968. He also served in deployments to Japan, the Philippines and the Bikini Atoll for nuclear bomb testing during the 1960s.
In 1966, Atkinson had an underwater accident that temporarily paralyzed him. He recovered, and by April 1967 was proctoring an underwater class in weightlessness to train 48 astronauts in the Apollo and Gemini spaceflight programs. Among his students were future moon-walkers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
In 1968, Atkinson was deployed to Vietnam and served as chief of a platoon that participated in maneuvers in a shipping channel where supplies were in danger of being intercepted or destroyed on their way to Saigon. His commanding officer, SEALs Captain Rick Woolard, said that casualties happened regularly. In spite of the risk, Atkinson was “always calm,” and “had a great sense of humor,” said Woolard. “He had a deep courage within him. He was a guy with great dignity.”
Atkinson retired as a Chief Warrant Officer 4 in 1973. For his distinguished military career, Atkinson received numerous medals and citations, including a Bronze Star, Combat Action Ribbon, Cross of Gallantry, Navy Commendation Medal, Presidential Unit Citation and Purple Heart.
According to his family, friends and colleagues, Atkinson put the welfare of others before himself. He continued to serve his Alaska Native community of Metlakatla as its mayor for two terms, on its school board and as a member of its council. He also founded the first organization for veterans on Annette Island to help them obtain their health care and government benefits.
Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs Director Verdie Bowen said, “The Navy couldn’t have picked a better person to honor by naming a ship after him. He was an integral part of our space program.” In spite of his many other achievements, Atkinson probably was “the most humble person I’ve ever met,” Bowen said. “He wanted to make sure everybody else had their Veterans Affairs disability squared away before he cared for himself. I don’t think there’s anybody who knew Sol who wasn’t his friend.”
Forrest Powell, the deputy director of the Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs, agreed. “He was a man with a big heart. I considered him a pathfinder because he always guided me. When he spoke, he spoke the truth.”
Upon Solomon Atkinson’s death on July 16, 2019, at the age of 89, 20 boats gathered at a dock near his home community in honor of his passing. A team of Navy SEALs carried Atkinson in a traditional bentwood box a mile from the dock to the William Duncan Memorial Church for his funeral.
Powell noted that any ship named for an individual will dedicate a small area of the vessel to that person’s history. He said, “Sol is actually going to be in their historical requirements.”
As the ship’s sponsors, Joann Atkinson and her daughters will remain in contact with the ship’s crew. “Dad went through a lot over there,” said his daughter Michele Gunyah. “Later in life, we realized it. He didn’t show us. He actually hid a lot of the pain from us.”
“I’m so proud of my dad,” said his other daughter Maria Hayward, “I can’t think of another person who deserves it more. I only wish he was here to see it.”