Bill Dawson was only 19 years old the first time he blew up a coral reef.
As one of 12 operators in a Naval Combat Demolition Unit (NCDU), Dawson dove into the black waters of the Pacific Ocean on a moonlit night in March 1944. His team swam toward a New Guinea shoreline, where they unloaded 47 tons of explosives in the calm water. The sharp angles of the coral reef cut the divers’ skin as they worked, but they placed all the charges and waited for their order.
“Fire in the hole!” came the command, and the shoreline lit up, destroying the reef. A landing craft could now pass through, delivering Marines onto a beach to fight the Japanese.
Dawson, whose hands used to be steady enough to place bombs underwater, now finds it hard to hold his coffee cup. At 90 years of age, he is the last living member of the Class 1 Frogmen, a team of underwater demolition experts that over the years evolved into the elite fighting forces known today as the U.S. Navy SEALs.
Shaky, with a frail voice, Dawson recalls the tragic memories of the young men who never had a chance to live a full life. Edwin Nicholson, a friend of Dawson’s, lost his life fighting as a Marine. But he says he has been blessed with the opportunity to know that the men who fought alongside him didn't die in vain.
Dawson was a teenager working at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., when the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. He describes how hundreds of thousands of young men were moved to enlist to fight against Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Young Bill Dawson was one of them. In 1943 he volunteered for what he was told was a chance to qualify for a top-secret team training to use sophisticated explosives. “That’s all I needed to hear,” he says.
With a muscular, 6-foot frame, Dawson was a natural athlete, an above-average swimmer who excelled in high school basketball and football. But even he was pushed to the edge by NCDU training. Just 42
of 500 men who tried out were selected for the new and unknown unit.
The Frog recruits who made it were shipped off to Fort Pierce, Fla., to find out exactly what they had gotten themselves into.
“The toughest part was the training,” Dawson says. “Sometimes I wanted to lay down and cry. It was the sand fleas that kept me going
I couldn’t lay down, they would bite my whole body. I still have scars.”
The NCOs did all they could to make the men quit, and many did. Training started at 5 a.m. every day with a three-mile run, followed by exercises
such as passing 400- to 600-pound tree logs back and forth
designed to prepare the Frogmen to carry heavy boxes of TNT.
They spent their days swimming, rowing rubber boats five or more miles a day, and carrying the 350-pound boats on their shoulders when they hit land. A normal day consisted of 18 hours of training, mostly in the water.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know why, I just kept going,” Dawson said. “I surely didn’t know what I was getting into. None of us did,”
In the end, the Frogmen were formed into two teams of five men and one commander each. The NCDU teams were deployed to the Pacific as the war against Japan was at a fever pitch.
Dawson and his team undertook 12 missions during the war in the Pacific. The team was referred to as “Kaine’s Killers” after their commander, Lt. Francis Riley “Frank” Kaine, who died in 1999.
The Frogmen traveled on smaller boats to be less recognizable and carried out their missions in the middle of the night wearing rubber boots and pants. Their job was to swim to shore before a planned attack to map out a safe route for the Marines to come through, using explosives to clear out coral, barbed wire, and anything else standing in the way.
“We never knew what we were going to see on shore or who we would run into,” Dawson recalls. “When we ran into Japanese soldiers they didn't know who we were because we were a small team and we would be wearing swim trunks. They didn't expect us to be a military team.”
After the war, Dawson returned home to Maryland, where he married and took on the responsibility of raising five stepchildren while working full time at the D.C. fire department.
But the Special Forces team he helped found lived on and grew into a legendary fighting force. Over time, SEAL training has evolved and become more intense, but it still includes the same training the Frogs endured when they were founded.
The unit's penchant for operational secrecy has lived on as well, even while the SEALs have been celebrated in media and movies.
“Even 70 years after the war I still won’t talk about the details of our operations to protect the SEALs today.” Dawson said. “Our work was so secret that my record of service states, ‘Performed no active duty during this enlistment.’ ”
Retired U.S. Navy SEAL Cmdr. Tom Hawkins, who met Dawson 15 years ago through Navy SEAL reunions, says that despite the force’s global reputation, its operations are still confidential.
“Everyone wants to know about the SEALs, but they don't want anyone knowing about them.” Hawkins says. “Some guys can’t keep their mouth shut though. The other guys get mad at the ones that talk.”
But Dawson is telling his story at last. During his time in the Navy he collected propaganda posters from multiple invasions and kept a day-to-day journal
detailing his actions.
In February he turned these materials into a book, “Before They Were SEALs, They Were Frogs,” which is available for sale and has been placed in the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum at Fort Pierce.
“The Frogmen are the fathers of the Navy SEALs,” says Ruth McSween, curator of the SEAL Museum. “The museum is located on the original training ground. I can’t think of a more appropriate location to bring the men of Naval Special Warfare together, as this is their birthplace.”
“The men who went down to the Pacific became a very tight group because they were a smaller team that stayed together for two years,” says Hawkins, the former SEAL commander. “The most unique thing about the SEALs is the brotherhood. No matter how old or how young you are, we all see each other as family and respect each other.”
As the last of the original group, Dawson does his part to keep the tradition alive by attending annual SEAL reunions and events. In August he spoke at an undisclosed location to an audience of U.S. Special Forces who had personally asked to meet the veteran.
“It’s hard to believe that an old guy like me was part of something that makes our country as great as it is,” Dawson said, as he held back tears. “You guys make me so proud.”
Hawkins says the young guys are equally fascinated by Dawson and the stories he still has to tell of the long-ago war.
“They look at him like ‘Wow, his team did some crazy stuff,’ ” he says. "And Bill sees them and says, ‘I can’t believe the stuff they are doing these days.’ ”