Richard Lyon, pioneering Navy SEAL who fought in two wars, dies at 93

He was a “naked warrior” during World War II and Korea, a spy in China, a Navy SEAL,  a mayor and one of the greatest surfers to ride the waves in Oceanside.

Retired Rear Adm. Richard “Dick” Lyon, the first Navy SEAL team reservist to become a flag officer, died Feb. 3 from age-related renal failure at his home in Oceanside. He was 93.

Called a modern Forrest Gump by his children because of his rich and varied life, he was known by war-hardened commandos for his stern demeanor in the face of danger and by his family as a God-fearing joker who toiled to make life better for the neediest of kids as a founding trustee of Children’s Hospital in Orange County.

“We used to say that there are bold demo men and there are old demo men, but there aren’t any old and bold demo men. Well, Dick proved us all wrong. He was old and bold and full of life until the day he died,” said retired Rear Adm. Garry Bonelli, a longtime friend.

Lyon was born July 14, 1923, in Anaheim.  

A record-breaking swimmer, he was selected to the U.S. Olympic team for the 1940 games in Tokyo, but the games were canceled because of World War II.

After graduating from Yale University and attending Columbia University Midshipman School in New York, he saw a poster seeking strong swimmers interested in volunteering for a special warfare unit tasked with using explosives.

Lyon joined the Scouts and Raiders, the forerunners of today’s SEAL teams, and learned the art of the “naked warrior” — sneaking onto enemy beaches armed with only a Ka-Bar knife stuck in his web belt and blowing up sea mines.

Lyon is believed to be one of the first commandos to walk on Japanese soil in the wake of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Released from active duty in 1946, he joined the 7th Fleet in Shanghai as a staff scout intelligence officer. Assigned to northern China to spy on Mao Tse-Tung’s revolutionary army, he filed reports from the Shandong Peninsula as that nation collapsed deeper into civil war.

In 1951, shortly after he finished his first year of graduate work at  Stanford, he was recalled to active duty in the Korean War.

Working in Wonsan, a strategic harbor city besieged by communist forces,  Lyon was ordered to help destroy a new type of anti-submarine mine. In frigid conditions and often dodging enemy fire, Lyon would swim under a mine, sever its tether with bolt cutters and then float it to a shore position held by United Nations forces.

He and his team later prowled inside enemy lines, blowing up railroads and tunnels — part of an evolution in Navy doctrine that would create the modern SEAL method of waging war.

After the Korean War, Lyon finished his graduate work and went into retail and financial management as a member of the National Assn. of Securities Dealers in Newport Beach.

He remained in the Navy reserves and became a fixture in Coronado’s burgeoning Naval Special Warfare community.

In 1975, the Navy promoted Lyon to rear admiral, the first SEAL reservist to be named a flag officer. Three years later, the Navy recalled him to active duty as the deputy chief of the Navy Reserve.

A graduate of the National War College and the Naval War College,  Lyon became the first reserve officer to be appointed to the United States Naval Institute’s board of directors.

Founder and trustee president of Children’s Hospital in Orange County, Lyon also served on the board of directors of Girl Scouts of Orange County Council and was president of the Anaheim Rotary Club from 1965 to 66.  

In 2013, he received the Yale Athletics George H.W. Bush Lifetime of Leadership Award.

Lyon served two terms as mayor of Oceanside and served as president of the city’s unified school district.

An avid outdoorsman, Lyon was a pilot, a skier and a yachtsman. He won body surfing contests well into his late 70s.

Lyon is survived by wife, Cindy; nine children; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Prine is a staff writer with the San Diego Union Tribune

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