Born in the summer of 1923, Dick Lyon was destined to become an extraordinary waterman. Initially, while only a junior in high school, he became the #1 nationally ranked swimmer in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle. In 1940, Dick made the US national Olympic team. Mentored by the formidable Yale coach Bob Kiphuth, it’s no surprise that Dick entered Yale in the fall of 1941.
He enlisted in the Navy on October 9, 1942 while an engineering major at Yale, and entered the accelerated program, graduating after only two years and nine months. While taking a tough course load, Dick never let up on his training in the pool. The whole time he competed at Yale the swim team never lost a meet. During Dick’s junior year he anchored the 400-yard freestyle relay team which set a new world’s record, stealing it from the Japanese national team who had held the record previously. Hearing the patriotic crowd roar with excitement at the prospect of Americans beating the Japanese, Dick got his best-ever split on his leg. When he touched the wall, his teammates jumped in with him and yelled, “We got it!” As soon as he could, Dick sent a telegraph to his delighted parents telling them his relay team in essence had “just broken the world’s record, ho hum.” They weren’t fooled for a second by his low key message. They were all over the moon. Finally, he capped off his swimming career by captaining Yale to the NCAA Division 1 National Championship in his senior year.
After graduating with honors in 1944, Dick went on to Columbia Midshipman School in New York City for three months. After the first month he was selected to take command of the entire regiment (2,400 midshipmen). Three weeks before he was to graduate as a 90-day-wonder he saw a notice “Wanted: Volunteers for Special Warfare Unit Involving Demolition of Explosives. Must be Strong Swimmer.” The assignment to the Scouts and Raiders (forefathers of today’s Navy Seals) was just his calling.
Sent to Ft. Pierce, Florida, Dick went through Class 8 of the Scouts and Raiders along with 56 other tough naval officers. Scouts and Raiders was the Navy’s first special warfare unit, developed to conduct reconnaissance on potential invasion beaches. They were soon followed in 1942 by NCDU’s (navy combat demolition units), and in 1943 by “frogmen”, the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT’s), who were responsible for blowing up natural (reefs) and man-made obstacles on beaches to clear a path for invasion forces.
The Scouts and Raiders were the first to endure such trials as “hell week”, a week with almost no sleep or rations, which is today a standard part of training for Navy SEALS that prepares them to find ways to survive on their own behind enemy lines. Three months later, Class 8 were sent to Europe, the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater, and the Pacific. Dick landed on the Pacific side, where he joined the Administrative Command Amphibious Force Pacific Fleet.
Hopping from island to island primarily in the Philippines, Dick got to do his first reconnaissance mission of the war at a beach a little bit outside of Davao, one of the larger cities on Mindanao. Dick found and reported that it was clear of natural and man-made obstacles, a good place for a landing. Exactly five days after he did the recon, the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan.
The Amphibious Force picked up elements of the Army’s 33rd Infantry Division, then went on to Japan’s Honshu Island. There, inside Sagami Wan, a large curved bay west of Tokyo Bay, near the village of Wakayama, Dick did another recon of a beach. The town looked abandoned, but as Dick looked out of the water towards the small town center he saw three people walking down the main street to the beach. It soon became clear they were waiting to talk to him. So, Dick walked out of the water and up the beach towards the men. The leader of the little group said in clear English, “I want to let you know that I and the people of this city are so glad that this war is over.” Somewhat surprised to have met his first Japanese, and one who spoke English so well, Dick said he was glad the war was over too, “And I think you will find the occupation a peaceful one.” His new acquaintance replied, “I am sure you will find that the case in Wakayama.”
After several minutes, Dick asked how he spoke such good English. The Japanese man said, “I’m a graduate of Harvard.”
Not one to let that slip, Dick immediately expressed his regrets, “Well my heart goes out to you, because Yale always beats Harvard at football.”
They made an appointment to meet again on the beach in three days, and his now Japanese friend brought Dick to his house as a guest, where they had a delightful evening. Dick’s gift of two cartons of Lucky Strikes could not have been more enthusiastically received, and as he left he was presented with a portfolio of 23 antique prints with detailed hand appliqués of Samurai warriors…priceless!
Still not able to return home because he had so few points, Dick was somewhat at loose ends. Then he heard through the grapevine that the Commander of the 7th fleet based in Shanghai wanted a Scout intelligence officer on his staff. He spent the next year in northern China reporting on the activities of Mao Tse Tung’s armies on the Shantung Peninsula in an effort to hold off a Chinese civil war, an incredible experience for a very junior officer.
Leaving active duty after that assignment, Dick joined the Naval Reserves and had completed his first year of a Stanford MBA when he was recalled for Korea. Reporting in 1951 to Beach Jumper Unit 1, he again volunteered for NavSpecWar, UDTRA Class 2, and as a Navy Lieutenant became a Plank Owner (original commissioning member) of Underwater Demolition Team 5. That grueling training that UDT5 experienced was the beginning of what is now the 55-week SEAL training. Since then 281 additional classes have endured the training, and in early 2012 Class 287 will graduate.
After just a three-month training, UDT5 was sent immediately to Korea. For the first time they took mission responsibility beyond the mean high-water mark. In fact, UDT5 went in and blew up rail lines and tunnels. Dick worked in North Korea, above the 38th parallel, inside Won San harbor, recovering a new type of anti-amphibious assault mine. His job was to dive in 36-degree water in a dry suit (before SCUBA and wetsuits existed), under fire, swim under the mine, and cut its mooring line with a pair of 24” bolt cutters. After 20 minutes he had to be pulled out due to the cold. Working out of a little yellow raft with the explosive ordinance disposal expert, they would tow each mine to an island within the harbor and “render it safe” (defuse it). The mines were then sent back to Indian Head, Maryland, Navy Mine Warfare Headquarters, where all were determined to be Russian-made!
Dick eventually attained the rank of two-star Admiral in 1974, the first special warfare (SEAL) officer to do so. In this rank he was recalled for three more years of active duty as Deputy Chief of Naval Reserve, the senior reserve officer in the Navy. He has the distinction of holding the title “BullFrog 1”. “BullFrog” is that active-duty SEAL with the longest tenure in special warfare. When Admiral Eric Olson (BullFrog 14) retired, Admiral William H. McRaven, and Commander Brian Sebenaler (a Mustang) jointly inherited the title of BullFrog 15. Both graduated from BUD/S Class 87.
Retiring from the Navy after nearly 41 years of service, Dick became actively involved in community affairs. He was a founder and trustee president of Children’s Hospital, Orange County (CHOC). He also became mayor of Oceanside, California for eight years. A proud representative of the Scouts and Raiders, Dick lives on the beach and still swims in the ocean in the summer. He enjoys a very full family life with wife Cindy, nine children, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.