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US Navy names ship for late Alaska Native veteran

Solomon Atkinson (US Navy/Released)

The U.S. Navy is naming a ship after decorated Alaska Native veteran Solomon Atkinson of Metlakatla.

Atkinson, who died in 2019, was one of the first Navy SEALs. He was deployed to Korea and completed three tours in Vietnam, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Among his many acts of service, Atkinson also trained astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in underwater weightless simulations.

The Navy announced plans Monday to name a future Navajo-class towing, salvage and rescue ship — which are traditionally named for prominent Indigenous people and tribes — after Atkinson.

“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,” Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said in a statement. “I am pleased to ensure that his name will extend globally to all who views this great ship.”

Atkinson was born in Metlakatla in 1930 and raised in Alaska’s only federally recognized Indian reservation. Before enlisting in the Navy in 1952, he worked as a commercial fisherman. After his retirement from the Navy as a Chief Warrant Officer 4 in 1973, Atkinson founded the first veterans organization on Annette Island and served as mayor of Metlakatla, among other roles in the community.

The Navy named Atkinson’s widow, Joann Atkinson, and daughters Michele Gunyah and Maria Hayward as sponsors of the vessel. In that role, they will maintain a relationship with the ship and crew.

Joann Atkinson said the news that the Navy planned to name a ship after her late husband was “completely overwhelming.”

“I still haven’t come down off the clouds,” she said.

“I just wish he was here to receive, but I know he’s looking down on us right now,” she said of her husband. “And he’s probably just smiling. He had the most beautiful smile.”

Caitlin Steinberg is an archivist chronicling Atkinson’s life for a book and the executive director of Operation Green Faces, a nonprofit that preserves SEALs’ oral histories from the Vietnam War.

Steinberg called the task of preserving Atkinson’s story “intimidating” because it spans so many historical events. In an interview, she outlined Atkinson’s experiences preparing for the Cuban missile crisis, training astronauts, serving in the Vietnam War and being in Washington, D.C., during 9/11.

“His life is filled with such extraordinary circumstances that can only be described as either fate or incredible coincidence,” she said.

Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan recognized Atkinson as “Alaskan of the Week” in a 2017 U.S. Senate floor speech. Sullivan knew Atkinson and called him “a legendary Alaskan and an American hero” in a statement.

“You would never hear Sol brag about his accomplishments and illustrious career because Sol was — as most of the greats are — a truly humble man,” Sullivan said.

Hayward, Atkinson’s daughter, thanked the Navy for honoring Atkinson. She said in a statement that her father embodied the Tsimshian tradition of “akadi lip a’algyaga sm’ooygit,” which loosely translates to “a chief never speaks for himself.”

“Through all of his time as a U.S. Navy UDT and SEAL, as well as a leader of veterans and Native Alaskans, Sol lived this ethos,” she said. “And, here today, in the shadow of Sol’s death, he holds to it still.”


(c) 2023 the Alaska Dispatch News

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