An interviewer gets to know another person’s approach to the world quite well when the subject describes his life in more than three dozen hours, spread over 16 sessions. During visits to Admiral Frank Kelso’s Northern Virginia home in 2001–02, I developed great admiration for him, so I was particularly sorry to learn of his passing in June at age 79. Whenever I went to see him, he was invariably friendly and unpretentious.
He exhibited much of the character built during his years in Fayetteville, Tennessee, in the 1930s and 1940s. As the admiral put it in his oral history, “We believe that an officer and gentleman does not lie, cheat, or steal. You didn’t have to teach me that when I got to the Naval Academy. It was a pretty clear lesson throughout my young life that this was the way you are supposed to live.” What several people have said about him could be summarized in one sentence: “Frank Kelso wouldn’t know how to tell a lie.”
In his growing-up years he observed and absorbed a racial climate that he subsequently questioned. One of his grandparents’ acquaintances was a former slave for whom they provided housing and employment. Even though young Kelso had black friends, they had to enter his house through the back door, and they had to attend different schools. Reflecting on that, he asked rhetorically, “Why didn’t I see something wrong with that? And I regret that I didn’t.”
In the 1950s, Kelso did well enough in academics that Admiral Hyman Rickover selected him for the nuclear-power program. Not only did he excel in submarines, but Rickover also put him in charge of the nuclear-power school. As skipper of the Bluefish (SSN-675) in the mid-1970s, he tracked Soviet Navy ships, giving literal meaning to the term “Cold War” by operating under the Arctic polar icecap.
In the mid-1980s, the enemy was Libya-sponsored terrorism. As a vice admiral, Kelso was Commander Sixth Fleet, a billet traditionally held by aviators. In 1986, under his direction, the fleet staged air attacks in conjunction with planes from other services, laying down a marker to deter further terrorism. ABC Television featured the admiral in its “Person of the Week” series. As he later commented wryly, “Until Tailhook, that was probably my only claim to fame as far as getting on television. That was a much better time. . . .”
After stints as Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Fleet and later in command of the joint-service Atlantic Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, Kelso became Chief of Naval Operations in 1990. The challenges were manifold: post–Cold War reduced funding; making amends after a botched investigation of the turret explosion in the battleship Iowa (BB-61); dealing with the floundering A-12 stealth-bomber program; pulling the Navy into the enhanced arena of jointness; and serving as resource provider during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
There was also an increasing assertiveness toward wider opportunities for women within the Navy, complicated by existing restrictions on women in combat. Kelso conceded afterward that he did not clearly understand the weight of the issue. As with race early in life, he was inclined to accept the status quo. This time, however, he was more than a witness to change; change was forced on him.
To show his support for naval aviators, Kelso attended the September 1991 Tailhook convention. “Tailhook” is still a term that evokes images of widespread sexual misconduct—things he would not have dreamed of doing. Kelso was accused of witnessing some of the untoward activities and taking no action, charges he vehemently denied.
Nonetheless, he was pilloried in the press and initially had to fend for himself. But Secretary of Defense Les Aspin backed Kelso rather than let Secretary of the Navy John Dalton get rid of him. Still, the criticism persisted, and the admiral decided to retire early because he perceived he had become a lightning rod for criticism heaped on the Navy.
It is a measure of the man that Kelso decided to spend an entire interview discussing Tailhook and other gender issues. He said ruefully, “there is probably nothing that caused me more personal and professional pain. It is unpleasant to think that some may remember my tour by this singularly unprofessional period.” That is a sadly ironic legacy for a man of sterling character. Would that there were many more individuals with the high standards of Frank Kelso. In his final years, he returned to live in Fayetteville, where those standards had been ingrained so long ago.