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“Sol, [as he was often called], did what he thought was best for his family, community, and country,” said JoAnn Atkinson, Sol’s wife. “He did what any man would do—follow his heart and do his best.”
Sol was born in 1930 in Metlakatla, Alaska, and raised by his parents in a small Tsimshian village located along Port Chester Bay on Annette Island—it remains the sole Indian Reserve in Alaska.
The small village of less than 500 people provided ample space for Sol to develop skills to hunt, fish, and live off the land. As the son of a successful fisherman, it came as no surprise that he would follow in his father’s footsteps. When Sol was older, he returned home from boarding school in the summers to work fish alongside his father.
“It was one summer when he was fishing near Seattle that he saw a recruitment poster for the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT),” said JoAnn. “He thought it looked cool and at that point decided he wanted to become a frogman [the precursor to present day SEALs].”
When he was 21, Sol decided to leave his community and enlist in the U.S. Navy. In 1953, he volunteered for the UDT teams and became a frogman just as he imagined. When the first SEAL teams were established in 1962, Sol volunteered again and became one of the first Navy SEALs and one of 60 plankowners, or founding members, of SEAL Team 1.
As a SEAL, he deployed to Korea and the Pacific, completed three combat tours in Vietnam, and became a SEAL instructor for new recruits where he received 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.”
Sol rose to the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4, received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and retired in 1973 after 22 years of service. Just days after his retirement ceremony in Little Creek, Virginia, Sol and his family drove their Ford Econoline van more than 3,500 miles back to Metlakatla.
In retirement, Sol volunteered his time talking to the youth in local schools. It was not uncommon for him to show off his most prized possession, a plaque signed by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell and many other astronauts from when Atkinson was the class proctor in underwater weight training for the astronauts enrolled in the Underwater Swimmers School in Key West.
Once Sol returned home to Alaska, he continued to serve his people, state and nation on the Indian Community Council and Board of Education, as a founder and president of the first veteran’s organization on Annette Island, and as mayor of Metlakatla.
“What is truly remarkable about Sol is that after he retired from the Navy, he moved back home to Metlakatla and continued to serve his country and serve his community,” said U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska during a statement submitted to the Congressional Record in 2017.
“He played a principal role in the Department of Defense Innovative Readiness training program. [Sol] was one of Alaska’s most vocal veteran’s advocates, leading delegation teams to lobby in [Washington], and before the Alaska state legislature,” said Sullivan “[Sol] spent decades reaching out to his fellow veterans to make sure they receive the benefits, honor, and dignity they earned.”
During a trip to Washington in 2001, Sol and his team were scheduled for a meeting at the Pentagon with the U.S Army Corps of Engineers regarding a project in Alaska. The night before, he received a phone call—the meeting had been canceled. The next morning Sol heard the news the Pentagon had been struck by an airplane on Sept. 11.
“One of his coworkers would later tell us that when [Sol] found out, it was like a light switch, he went into SEAL mode,” said Maria Hayward, Sol’s daughter. “He quickly organized a plan to gather his team to safety and remove them from any potential danger.”
Sol received various types of training throughout his naval career and used that for the greater good. As passionate as Sol was in the Navy, he was equally passionate about the members of his community.
“He was very serious about everything he did,” said JoAnn. “And he did it whole-heartedly.”
In recognition of his life of service, Sol received the Alaska Governor’s Veterans Advocacy Award in 2018. When he accepted the award, Sol said, “Everything I do is for my people, not myself.”
Surrounded by his family in his home in Metlakatla, Sol passed away in July 2019.
In the days before his passing, Sol received a call from the Secretary of the Navy thanking him for his service. His fellow SEAL teammates were there to support and remind him he had paved the way for the legacy to continue.
Family and friends, to include JoAnn and Maria, attended a ceremony in San Diego, hosted by SEAL Team 1 on Aug. 19, to render honors to the passing of one of their plank owners.
“This tradition serves to honor the memory of the founding members of our community, to remind current command members of the Naval Special Warfare legacy, and to provide surviving families with a connection to the service of their loved ones,” said an active duty SEAL officer who serves as the command historian at SEAL Team 1.
“Chief Warrant Officer 4 Sol Atkinson was a dedicated family man, a patriot and a serviceman to his country,” said the commanding officer of SEAL Team 1. “He set the standards high in a lot of regards, both in and out of uniform, and is certainly remembered throughout the teams for all he’s done.”
Sol was passionate throughout many facets of his life. Out of everything he did, one stuck out the most.
“His greatest accomplishment was being a husband, a father to four children, grandfather and great-grandfather to all,” said Maria. “He had a full loving life.”
Native American Heritage Month provides the Navy an opportunity to recognize the service and contributions of Native Americans. This year’s theme, ‘Grounded in Tradition, Resilient in Spirit’, reflects on the rich culture and heritage of Native American communities and their strength to endure through the toughest of times.
“As we consider this year’s theme, let us celebrate the past accomplishments and current service of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, but also make time to engage and learn about the cultural traditions, background, and experiences of our colleagues,” said Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro. “Let us remember how inclusion of many experiences, talents, and viewpoints are essential to mission and operational readiness.”
There are more than 23,000 Active, 850 Full-Time Support, and 655 Selected Reserve American Indian or Alaska Native Sailors serving in the Navy today.
Naval Special Warfare is proud to celebrate the legacy, service and contributions of our teammates and is committed to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in our policies, programs and operations.