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Last remaining member of first-ever Navy SEAL team celebrates 94th birthday

Last surviving member of first Navy SEAL team turns 94

Bill Dawson, the last living member of the first-ever U.S. Navy SEAL team, celebrated his 94th birthday earlier this month, 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.

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Dawson was just 17 when he enlisted. To get on the elite team, he snuck through a window to hand in his application past the deadline. Bill Dawson/CBS News

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."

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Dawson kept a scrapbook filled with photos and diary entries. He wasn't supposed to record anything during his time overseas, but he was a bit rebellious. Bill Dawson/CBS News

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."

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." 

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Dawson continued to visit his teammates when the went back home to the states. They kept in touch for years. Now, he's the only one left. Bill Dawson/CBS News

"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.

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"Before they were SEALs They were Frogs," chronicles Dawson's time on the first-ever Naval Combat Demolition Unit. The SEALs got their new name in 1962. Greg Turnell/CBS News

For that reason, Dawson doesn't know if he'll make it into Arlington National Cemetery, but he wishes that to be his final resting place. "I'll be with friends," he said.

Dawson is often seen at Navy reunions, wearing his WWII veteran cap that is covered in pins. They haven't been Frogmen since 1962, but he said he is proud of what the Navy SEALs have become today. "There's nothing they can't do. No place they won't go."

For his 94th birthday, former firefighters and friends from his senior living home celebrated Dawson. 

"Well, he always makes ours!" one woman said. Dawson has had many roles throughout his long life – Frogman, firefighter and friend.

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