Adm. Frank B. Kelso II is seen in a photo is dated Sept. 21, 1991. (PH3 Jon Blosser / Navy)
Retired Adm. Frank Kelso, a former chief of naval operations who led the Navy in the lightning victory over Saddam Hussein’s occupying forces in the Gulf War and whose tenure was later tarnished by the Tailhook scandal, died on Sunday after complications from a fall. He was 79.
Kelso was a native of Fayetteville, Tenn., and a 1956 Naval Academy graduate who served for 42 years and commanded two attack submarines. His death was first reported by Alabama news site AL.com.
The site reported that Kelso died after a fall suffered while he was in Norfolk, Va., for his grandson’s high school graduation. He was accompanied by his second wife, Georgia Robinson. His first wife, Landess McCown Kelso, died a year ago.
Kelso earned a reputation as a steely eyed fleet boss who planned and oversaw successful campaigns, such as the first Gulf War, as well as the Gulf of Sidra raids launched against Libya while he was the 6th Fleet commander.
“In the submarine force, he clearly will be revered as one of our greatest leaders and a great humanitarian,” said retired Vice Adm. Al Konetzni, who worked directly for then-Capt. Kelso at the Bureau of Naval Personnel in the late 1970s. Konetzni said Kelso was an approachable and gregarious officer who had won renown for his command of the attack sub Bluefish, a sub whose achievements remain shrouded in mystery.
Kelso’s legacy is a Navy that’s more focused on efficiency and honors the work and potential of every individual, Konetzni added. Kelso pushed the Navy to “worship diversity” and the contributions of every sailor, Konetzni said, “in that wonderful way that says, ‘Hey, I might be a four-star and you might be a fireman, but I want to tell you this right now: You are as important to me as anything.’”
During his tenure as CNO, he supported adding women to combat aviation jobs.
However, his personal ethics were sharply questioned in the fallout of the 1991 Tailhook Association meeting, where more than 100 naval aviators were accused of lurid sexual misconduct that captivated the nation..
“Those were hard times because there were a lot of people, even after Tailhook, who wanted to poo-poo it – ‘Maybe nothing happened,’” Konetzni said. “He saw that there was a problem. We know that he saw it because the first thing he said is, ‘Hey, let me step down. I was in charge.’”
Kelso retired two months early, in 1994, with his four-star rank after four years as the Navy’s top officer.
Kelso also served as a senior fellow at the Armed Forces Staff College, as a trustee emeritus of the Naval Academy Foundation Athletic and Scholarship Division, and he continued to consult with Congress and industry on defense matters.