More than 300 friends, family and colleagues gathered Saturday morning at the First United Methodist Church in Fayetteville to pay their final respects to Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, the nation’s 24th Chief of Naval Operations.
Remembered for his strength of character, integrity, and devotion to family, church, community and nation, the admiral’s life was tearfully celebrated during the funeral, which carried full military honors. At the age of 79, Kelso passed away on June 23 after complications from a fall. He would have celebrated his 80th birthday on July 11.
The service was predominately officiated by Chaplain Bill Perry, a long-time friend of Kelso and former naval officer of 27 years, and the Rev. Tommy Ward, a friend of Kelso since joining the church as senior pastor seven years ago. The admiral’s eldest son, Tom Kelso, also shared with those gathered for the service.
“The last time I felt like this is when I buried and did this service for my mother,” said Perry, visibly shaken by the loss of his friend.
“Today is a day we celebrate a life well lived and then we mourn heavily for ourselves,” he continued. “For the Kelso family you have to know not only is there a pain within this church and over in the overflow room, but there is pain throughout the naval community, because folks who knew him and worked with him — every person here — knows that if you knew Adm. Kelso then you respected him, and you liked him, and if you were around him enough, you grew to love him.”
Perry recalled the admiral’s 38-year career as a Navy officer, from his time commanding nuclear submarines to his rise to Commander Sixth Fleet and NATO Commander Naval Striking Force and Support Forces Southern Europe. On June 30, 1986, Adm. Kelso was promoted to admiral and assumed the duties of Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. He became Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic and Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Command on Nov. 22, 1988. The admiral then became the Navy’s 24th Chief of Naval Operations on June 29, 1990, a position he held through May 1994.
He was perhaps the only CNO to also serve as acting Secretary of Navy, a position he held for seven and one half months, Perry said, going on to recall the now infamous Tailhook Convention in 1991, during which numerous incidents of sexual assault and harassment were found to have occurred. Kelso, a proponent of allowing women to serve in expanded roles, had been ready to take the brunt of the storm, even taking his resignation to then President Bill Clinton, but it was a resignation that Clinton refused to accept.
Retiring in 1994 with his full four-star rank, Kelso remained in Washington, D.C., until 2003 when he and his first wife, Landess, who died in 2012, returned to their native Fayetteville. They had been married 56 years at the time of her death.
Ward, who then took the pulpit, talked of his meeting the admiral for the first time – Kelso had introduced himself simply as Frank, he said. Three years ago, when Ward was diagnosed with cancer, Kelso had written him a letter, a letter that Ward shared with those present for Saturday’s service. In it, the admiral wrote of how Jesus and even the apostles had suffered.
“There are things that happen in life that we won’t understand this side of eternity,” Kelso continued in the letter, encouraging and inspiring Ward as he went on to write how his plans for retirement had not worked out as he had expected after being stricken with an illness that impeded his ability to walk.
The admiral’s eldest son, Tom, also addressed the gathering, describing his love, appreciation and admiration for his father. He went on to share a letter that he had found in his dad’s file during the past week – it was a letter that Tom had written his father in 1977. The letter, too, described the son’s love and appreciation for a man who had been a wonderful father.
The service had included words of grace and greeting from the First United Methodist Church’s new senior pastor, the Rev. Will Wells, as well as a prayer led by the Rev. Ann Hatcher, associate pastor of the church. Those present joined in singing three hymns, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling”, “Because He Lives” and “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”, a song known to U.S. Navy men and women as the “Navy Hymn.”
Ceremonious U.S. Navy guardsmen had brought the admiral’s casket into the sanctuary, and following the service, they carried it from the church to the awaiting hearse. A processional turned from Elk Avenue onto College Street, proceeding to historic Rose Hill Cemetery where Kelso’s wife and many of his family members are buried. Along the route, flags flew at half staff and in front of businesses around the square. Large flags, held high in the air by a Fayetteville fire engine and two bucket trucks from Fayetteville Public Utilities, also marked the way. Officers and others gathered along the path stood at attention.
As Kelso was laid to rest, the nation’s current Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert presented a national ensign to Adm. Kelso’s widow, the former Georgeanna Robinson of Fayetteville, whom he had recently married. Mrs. Kelso then presented the flag to the admiral’s children.
A 21-gun salute – three volleys by seven members of the navy’s guard – rang out across the cemetery.
Navy News Service
“Adm. Kelso was a submariner, an accomplished commander, and an unmatched leader known for his intelligence and integrity. The thoughts of the 900,000 Sailors, Marines and civilians who make up the Department of the Navy go out to our fallen shipmate and his family. Semper Fortis,” said Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Mabus.
“Adm. Frank Kelso’s bold leadership and innovative thinking guided the Navy through times of war and significant draw-down at the end of the Cold War,” said current U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert. “The ability to cut against the grain and find new and creative solutions for the Navy are what set Adm. Kelso apart from his peers.
“It was his strength of character and sure-fire integrity that ensured his success as a former CNO and to a higher degree solidified the formidable legacy of a great life that Adm. Frank Kelso leaves behind. It was an honor to have served with him, and we are a better Navy due to his leadership and faithful commitment to our Sailors, civilians and their families,” Greenert added.
Kelso was the third of three submariners in a row who served as CNO in the 1980s and ‘90s. As CNO he led the Navy in a period of significant draw down of U.S. naval forces in the wake of the end of the Cold War and the ballyhooed “peace dividend.” Concurrently, he oversaw the introduction of new platforms and systems that improved capabilities, including precision strike operations. The nation persistently called on the naval capabilities throughout his tour, starting with Operation Desert Storm.
As CNO, he also oversaw revolutionary changes within the OPNAV staff and profoundly changed the means by which the Navy processed and made decisions. In keeping with joint staff practices, he changed “OP” codes to “N” codes, and the staff was reorganized to align with a “Napoleonic” arrangement used by both the Army and the Joint Staff. In a period of dramatic change, he helped to transform not merely the organization, but also the processes by which information could be shared and considered. He is credited with dramatically changing the means by which more informed decisions could be made by the Navy.
Kelso was a strong advocate for the integration of women, particularly in the wake of the 1991 Tailhook Convention during which numerous incidents of sexual assault and harassment were found to have occurred.
During his tour as Commander of the Navy’s Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea, members of the Palestine Liberation Front hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro and had killed a disabled passenger. When their demands were not met, they negotiated safe refuge and were flown towards Tunisia aboard an Egyptian commercial airliner. The plane was intercepted by U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcats and forced to land in Sigonella, Sicily, where the hijackers were arrested and later tried for murder.
In March of 1986 the U.S. initiated a series of ‘Freedom of Navigation’ exercises in the Gulf of Sidra that challenged Libyan leader’s Col. Muammar al-Qadhafi “line of death” that spanned the Gulf of Sidra. Then Vice Adm. Kelso deployed elements of Task Force 60 including America (CV 66), Coral Sea (CV 43), and Saratoga (CV 60) with upward of 250 aircraft and 26 ships and submarines across the line and triggered Libyan action. Ultimately naval aircraft completed 1,546 sorties in support of the successful operation.
Then in April of that year, following additional terrorist attacks sponsored by al-Qadhafi, the U.S. launched Operation El Dorado Canyon-attacks against Libyan military targets. Under Kelso, U.S. aircraft attacked three target areas near Tripoli. Jets also bombed the al-Jamahiriyyah barracks and Benina Airfield, both near Benghazi.
Kelso got his start in public school and the University of the South in Sewanee, prior to entering the U.S. Naval Academy in 1952. Following graduation in 1956, he served in the cargo ship USS Oglethorpe (AKA 100) before attending Submarine School in 1958. On completion of training, he was assigned to the submarine USS Sabalo (SS 302) before returning to Submarine School for nuclear power training in January 1960. He then served one year in the Nuclear Power Department at the school. Subsequent tours included the pre-commissioning crew of the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Pollack (SSN 603), Engineering Officer aboard USS Daniel Webster (SSBN 626) and Executive Officer of USS Sculpin (SSN 590).
From January 1969 to August 1971, Kelso served as Commanding Officer, U.S. Naval Nuclear Power School in Bainbridge, Md. Following tours included Commanding Officer, USS Finback (SSN 670); Staff of Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet; and Commanding Officer, USS Bluefish (SSN 675). Adm. Kelso was then assigned as Executive Assistant to the Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Command and U.S. Atlantic Fleet and Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic from September 1975 to July 1977.
He served as Commander, Submarine Squadron SEVEN until reporting as Division Director, Submarine Distribution Division in the Naval Military Personnel Command, and Section Head of the Submarine Programs Section in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Manpower, Personnel and Training) in September 1978.
He was selected for promotion to the rank of rear admiral in February 1980.
Upon selection for flag rank, Kelso served as Director, Strategic Submarine Division, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, and then was assigned as Director, Office of Program Appraisal, Office of the Secretary of the Navy. On Feb. 8, 1985, Kelso became Commander 6th Fleet and NATO Commander Naval Striking Force and Support Forces Southern Europe. On June 30, 1986, Kelso was promoted to admiral and assumed the duties of Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Admiral Kelso became Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic and Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Command on Nov. 22, 1988. He became the Navy’s 24th Chief of Naval Operations on June 29, 1990.
Kelso has been awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal (three awards), Legion of Merit (four awards), Meritorious Service, Navy Commendation and Navy Achievement Medals.