The Last Original Navy SEAL

94-year-old Bill Dawson has a story to tell and is the only one left alive to tell it.

Via a Facebook group, I came across this recent story about a man who was a Navy SEAL before there were Navy SEALs.

Bill Dawson, the last living member of the first-ever U.S. Navy SEAL team, celebrated his 94th birthday [in April], and CBS News visited him to hear stories that only he can tell.

Dawson is now in a wheelchair and he uses oxygen, but he was once part of an elite special operations team. The veteran from Washington, D.C. was just 17 years old when he enlisted in the Navy and he and his teammates were deployed on top-secret and often life-threatening missions.

Before they were known as Navy SEALs, they were Frogmen. “There was no such thing as SEALs, so Frogmen seemed like an appropriate name,” Dawson told CBS News.

Dawson served in the Pacific arena from 1943 to 1945, when the Japanese surrendered. As the last living Frogman, he doesn’t have anyone to relate to. But he does have “the book” — a three-ring binder that is so stuffed with information, it’s about six inches thick.

“Everything we did was top-secret,” Dawson said. “You weren’t supposed to keep a log of any information. But I managed to keep my scrapbook.” He kept a diary and took countless photos while traveling between Japan, Papua New Guinea, Boreno and other Pacific islands. “I’ve got some pretty good pictures. It tells a story,” he said of his thick binder.
From the beginning, Dawson was a bit rebellious. When he missed the deadline to apply for the unit, he snuck through a window to add his application was in the pile. He was eventually chosen to be a part of the team of 10, specializing in explosives.

As part of the new Naval Combat Demolition Unit, Dawson didn’t know much about what his job would entail. “They couldn’t tell us a whole lot about it. Because everything was top-secret,” he said. “But one thing they did tell us, was that you learned to blow things up.”

Dawson admits it wasn’t always easy to stay brave. “Of course I was scared,” he said. “Anybody tells you they wasn’t scared, I’ll call them a liar.” He said it isn’t about not being scared — it’s about what you do when you are scared.

Dawson said he and his unit became a close-knit bunch during their time overseas. Once they were all discharged, he used to visit his former teammates all across the country. The majority of them stayed in touch.
But as the last remaining member of the team, Dawson has a hard time reminiscing. “You have to talk to somebody that was there. And I don’t have anybody that was there,” he said. “They’re all gone.”

CBS News, “Last remaining member of first-ever Navy SEAL team celebrates 94th birthday

That’s a pretty amazing story but it didn’t end there:

After his time in the Navy, Dawson took on another dangerous job. He was a Washington, D.C. firefighter for more than 20 years, and he still gets together with fellow retired firemen.”Great group of men,” he said of the firefighters he worked with. “Same way in the fire department as in the SEALs. It’s teamwork. As long as you got teamwork, you got a company.”

Now, pedants might argue that, since there were no SEALs until decades after Dawson’s service, he can’t have been part of the first SEAL team. First, the SEALs claim the legacy of the frogmen as their own. Second, you know he’s a SEAL because he wrote a book about it:

Some of his friends didn’t even know about his colorful past until he published a book in 2015. The veteran took his photos and diary entries and published “Before they were SEALs, they were Frogs.” 

“I didn’t know about his past in the Pacific,” said his friend, Al Hurley, 90, who was a Washington, D.C. fireman with Dawson. “That’s the kind of guy Bill was – a very humble, well-liked guy.”

Dawson says some family members of his former teammates have reached out to thank him for putting together such a detailed story about their past as frogmen. With his vast treasure trove of information, Dawson is the only person who can tell their story. Most of their missions were completely undocumented, he said.

While I often wish SEALs would emulate the quiet professionalism of Army Green Berets, I’m glad this one decided to go public.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Someone needs to make sure that book of his is preserved, and the story told.

  2. steve says:

    “While I often wish SEALs would emulate the quiet professionalism of Army Green Berets”

    Yup, though the Green Berets did get a better song.

    Steve

  3. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Not the last. My cousin was a frogman, and he is still alive.

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  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    My understanding is the “Seals” came from the merger of two Navy operational units, the Frogman and another that I can’t recall the name of.

  5. Barry says:

    @Sleeping Dog: “My understanding is the “Seals” came from the merger of two Navy operational units, the Frogman and another that I can’t recall the name of.”

    My guess would be UDT (Underwater Demolitions Team).

  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Barry:
    You’re right. After posting I checked the Wikipedia entry.

  7. Gustopher says:

    I applaud the blogmasters’ decision to start featuring shirtless photos of attractive young men.

  8. Stacie says:

    Sadly just heard Bill passed today. RIP frogman.

  9. michilines says:

    @Gustopher: Agreed.

  10. Carole Parker says:

    Nice to read about this wished the book was published earlier My father served in the Navy for 27 active and was UDT in the 50’s and upheld the Honor by not speaking about this part of his career and I had problems of him being recognized as a Seal even thou he was a member of the Seal Assoc when he past away in 2015 It was quite heartbreaking to me while trying to plan his funeral
    The gentleman that held positions in this great Organization truly deserve this honor There are not many out there that can Uphold this honor

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: I would imagine there would be a plenty of frogmen still alive, maybe even a handful from the WWII era. Dawson was on the first-ever frogman team.

  12. @Stacie:

    Link?

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    My Uncle Alec was a WWII frogman, not that he ever talked about it. He was even mentioned in a 60s/70s teen book titled “Frogmen of World War II” for one of his exploits. My mother received a copy from a friend of hers who recognized Alec in it even tho his last name was misspelled. I don’t know what happened to it, probably gave it to one of his sons. I’ve tried finding a copy thru used book sites with no luck.

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Try this: Link Maybe it’s what you’re looking for.

  15. Kim says:

    Bill passed away around noon on 13 May 2019 at his nursing home in Waldorf, MD. His services will be at Raymond Funeral Home in La Plata, MD. A date for the service has not been finalized yet. An obituary has not been published yet.

  16. Rachael Cranston says:

    he was my grandfather and sadly he passed away yesterday, the day this article was published. thank you for sharing his story we miss him dearly.

  17. @Cheryl Rofer: oh, yeah, what’s his name ?
    Contact me at fortbenningsoldier100@gmail.com @Cheryl Rofer: