Bill Dawson, the last living member of the U.S. Navy’s very first SEAL team, celebrated his 94th birthday earlier this month.
Dawson may now be in a wheelchair and need oxygen, but he was once part of a special elite team. The Washington, D.C. veteran was just 17 years old when he joined the Navy, with him and his teammates being deployed on highly secret and often life-threatening missions.
Before they were known as Navy SEALs, they were known as Frogmen. “There weren’t any SEALs yet, so Frogmen seemed an appropriate name,” Dawson said.
Dawson served in the Pacific from 1943 to 1945, when the Japanese surrendered. As the last living Frogman, he had no one to remember that time with. He does own something he calls ‘the book’; a thick folder, about 15cm thick, full of information about that time.
“Everything we did was top secret,” Dawson said. “You weren’t supposed to keep some kind of log, but I managed to make a scrapbook.” He kept a diary and took numerous photographs during his travels through Japan, Papua New Guinea, Borneo and other Pacific islands.
From the beginning, Dawson was a bit rebellious. When he missed the deadline to sign up for the team, he snuck in through a window to put his form on the pile. Eventually he was chosen for a team of 10 men, after which Dawson specialised in explosives.
Dawson knew nothing about what awaited him. “They couldn’t tell us much, because everything was top secret. But one thing they did tell me was how to blow things up.”
Dawson admits it wasn’t always easy to stay brave. “Of course I was scared,” he said. “If anyone says otherwise, I’ll call them a liar.”
Dawson said he and his unit became a close-knit group during their time on duty. As soon as they were discharged from the army, he regularly visited his teammates who lived 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 need to be able to talk to someone who was there. And I don’t have anyone who was there anymore,” he said. “They have all died.”
After his time in the Navy, Dawson took on another dangerous job. For over 20 years, he worked as a firefighter in Washington, D.C., and Dawson still meets up with other retired firefighters. “Great group of guys,” he said, about the firefighters he worked with. “Their mindset is the same as it was with the SEALs. It’s all about teamwork.”
Some of his friends knew nothing of his colourful past until Dawson published a book in 2015. The veteran published his photos and diary entries, and called it, ‘Before they were SEALs, they were Frogs’.
“I didn’t know anything about his past in the Pacific,” said his friend, Al Hurley, 90, a fellow firefighter from Washington, D.C. “That says something about Bill, he’s a humble, beloved man.”
Dawson says some family members of his former teammates thanked him for compiling such a detailed account of their past as Frogmen. With his enormous wealth of information, Dawson is the only person who could tell their story. Most of their missions were completely undocumented.
For that reason, Dawson doesn’t know if he’ll be buried at the Arlington National Cemetery, but he hopes this will be his final resting place. “I’ll be with my friends again,” he said.