The last of the original frogmen, the forerunners of Navy SEAL teams, was honored last week on the date of his 94th birthday among his family members and friends.
Bill Dawson, who grew up in Washington D.C., worked at the Washington Navy Shipyard in 1943 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy when he was just 17. Not long after, he found out about a specialized Navy unit that, as he put it, “got to blow things up.” After saying he didn’t quite know how to take that tidbit of information, he and another sailor decided to volunteer. But he almost didn’t even get a chance to attempt the training.
As the two reached the building where the volunteers assembled, they were told class was full, as there were 500 volunteers. Undeterred, Dawson and his buddy walked around the back of the building, climbed through an open window, and took their place in the end of the line. Class 1 of the famous volunteer frogmen now numbered 502.
Training whittled down the number of volunteers to just 52. And the toughness of the frogman course was every bit as challenging as the famed BUDS course for the SEALs is today: three–to–five mile runs in the sand, climbing over slippery, barnacle-encrusted rocks in the jetty, and the log PT. “I can still pick the splinters out of my arms today,” Dawson joked in an interview he conducted with the American Veterans Center.
The training was so difficult, it reduced the 17-year-old to tears at times. “I wanted to quit,” he recalled. But he kept going and persevered. The nonagenarian laughed and said the sand fleas and mosquitoes that were so plentiful at the frogmen’s training base kept him going.
But he graduated, and took his place among what the Navy called underwater demolition teams, later known as frogmen. They were also referred to as naval combat demolition units. These men were legendary for clearing beach obstacles to accommodate the countless amphibious landings the United States conducted in World War II. The casualty rate for the frogmen at Normandy on D-Day was 53 percent.
Dawson took part in several landings in the Pacific, helping the military clear beaches for infantry troops of the Army and Marines to get ashore and attack enemy installations. Dawson’s unit readied the beach for the return of General Douglas MacArthur to the Philippines. “We got ashore before he did,” Dawson remembered.
During his birthday celebration last week, Dawson took great pride in being the first group of sailors who paved the way for modern Navy SEALs. “Knowing what I helped start developed into what it is today. It’s one of the greatest outfits in the world,” he said.
After the war was over, Dawson joined the Washington D.C. Fire Department and served there for 25 years, retiring 45 years ago. Dawson was a founding member of the U.S. Navy SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida, and contributed many of the key exhibits there. Despite his age, Dawson remains active in supporting Naval Special Warfare history and heritage.
In 2015, Dawson wrote Before They Were SEALs They Were Frogs, a book about his time during World War II on the Navy’s first special operations team. Four years ago, at age 90, Dawson was honored at the BattleFrog Navy SEALs obstacle course race at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey.
Dawson’s American Veterans Center interview below is long, but it’s worth the time to hear the remembrances of a truly unique special warrior.
This article originally appeared on SpecialOperations.com.
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