I had been stationed as a torpedoman aboard the Sturgeon class Fast
Attack Submarine USS Bluefish SSN-675 home-ported in Norfolk, VA and had served under its commissioning Commanding Officer for the past two and one-half years. And, one morning at crew quarters at the pier he informed us that he would be moving on to a new assignment in the coming weeks and therefore a change of command was in order for Bluefish.
Although, all our crew were disappointed to learn that our Captain was leaving we looked forward with anticipation as to who his replacement might be; and, soon the scuttlebutt around the boat indicated that it would be Captain Frank B. Kelso II whose last assignment had been as skipper of USS Finback SSN 670. The Finback and her crew were awarded the Navy Unit Commendation for a “recon” operation in 1971. And, would later be mentioned in the best-selling novel Blind Man’s Bluff concerning her participation in the top secret “Operation Ivy Bells” within Soviet territorial waters along with USS Parche SSN 683, the most highly decorated ship in U.S. history.
And, although I had little familiarity with the credentials of submarine captains, apparently some of the senior enlisted guys and officers on board did. Apparently, Kelso’s reputation preceded him in that much enthusiasm was being generated among them concerning the prospect of his coming to Bluefish.
As the story went at the time, Captain Kelso had been scheduled to take command of another submarine; however an old back injury he had suffered flared that required corrective surgery and so negated that assignment. And, now that he had completed his convalescence and was fit again he was coming to take command of our boat. He was known for not only being an exceptional submarine officer and skilled commander but as a crew’s captain too who supported his men fully and had unmitigated confidence and trust in their abilities.
And, although I would only serve under his command for just six months or so prior to my being separated from active duty and returning home, I did have one memorable experience with him.
Bluefish was heading out to sea from Norfolk to the North Atlantic for short ops. And, as a torpedoman I was involved in the routine evolution prior to the making our dive of firing “water slugs” where we flooded down all four empty tubes then fired them individually in order to test them out, however tube #2 did not fire. This was problematic for me because I had just spent four hours on the helm as the Maneuvering Watch Helmsman and was now scheduled to stand a six-hour watch in the “room” as Torpedoman of the Watch. Furthermore, due to the recent transfer of two key senior personnel I had instantly become the most experienced torpedoman aboard and so the responsibility to troubleshoot and repair the tube fell on my shoulders.
Consequently, I proceeded to consider the electrical vs. the mechanical aspects of the problem first and after securing the appropriate permissions I attempted to fire the tube manually in order to see if there was an electrical problem between the firing panel in the room and the torpedo tube itself; it didn’t fire. So, my next step was to check out the firing valve to determine if it was operating correctly. But, in order to do that I had to shut down the 250-psi firing air to the tube so I could disconnect the airlines and unbolt the valve in order to remove it. So, I proceeded to locate the isolation valve that was installed on each of the four tubes. However, I couldn’t locate it and so I pulled the blueprint for the firing air system for reference. Then I again crawled around the steel deck while searching on hands and knees but still couldn’t locate the valve; I concluded that it wasn’t there. This was very challenging to me because it meant that in order to repair tube #2; I would have to shut the main 250 psi supply valve to all four tubes. Correspondingly, it was somewhat silly for me to claim that the shipyard overlooked installing the isolation valves. So, I called down my Weapons Officer, Mr. Cox, to the room and I explained the situation to him, then he suggested that we go up to the control room and advise the Captain of the situation.
Along the way I was thinking oh yeah this is going to be just swell, me a junior guy telling our new Captain that I know more about the weapons system than the people who built the thing. Accordingly, when we spoke to Kelso, I cautiously explained to him that the shipyard apparently hadn’t installed the isolation valves when Bluefish was built two years prior. And, since I fully expected him to challenge me I offered to show him the blueprints. However, his immediate response astonished me.
“No Fasino, that’s not necessary. If you say it, then that makes it so; you do whatever is necessary to fix the problem. But, you know what that means don’t you Petty-Officer?”
“Sir?” I responded.
“We will have a nuclear submarine floating around out here in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that’s unarmed. So, you don’t sleep until it’s fixed.”
“Aye, Aye Captain” I said.
Afterwards, I returned to the room to begin work on the tube and after a few hours I suspected that the cause was with the solenoid valve that sits atop and actuates the large firing valve to initiate the firing sequence whether the tube is fired electrically or manually. However, since I couldn’t determine it myself I enlisted the assistance of our Fire Control Chief “Jake” who had the essential knowledge and test equipment to properly identify the problem and pin-point the cause of the malfunction. It was necessary to uninstall the solenoid with the large and heavy firing valve as one unit in order to test their operation together using electrical diagnostic equipment and then reinstall them multiple times in order to get the tube working again. This was very time consuming and so we didn’t finally have the tube repaired and operational until after I initially began my work on it fifty-two hours prior. Therefore, by that point I was a walking zombie and so LTCD Cox had someone else cover my next watch to allow me to get some extra sleep; which I did over the next sixteen hours. And, although it had been an ordeal, I had a great sense of accomplishment in stepping up for my Captain and crew and knowing he had unquestioned trust in my abilities. Little did I know then that Captain Kelso would go on to be Admiral Kelso one day and become the Chief of Naval Operations and sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff along with another renowned military Officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell.
U.S. Navy Admiral Frank Benton Kelso II served as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in the early 1990s and had graduated in 1956 from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Prior to being named CNO he had become Commander Sixth Fleet and NATO Commander Naval Striking Force and Support Forces Southern Europe in 1985. During this tour, forces under his command launched raids on Libya in defiance of President Muammar Gaddafi’s claim that Libya’s territorial waters extended 200 miles into the Gulf of Sidra. Then on June 30, 1986, Kelso was promoted to the rank of admiral and assumed the duties of Commander in Chief Fleet. Subsequently, Kelso became Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic and Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Command on November 22, 1988. And, in that capacity his forces were involved in the second Gulf of Sidra incident in 1989. He succeeded Admiral Carlisle A.H. Trost to become the Navy’s 24th Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) on June 29, 1990 and commanded U.S. naval forces during the Gulf War, “Operation Desert Storm”. In which the USN Attack submarine USS Louisville SSN-724 carried out the first war patrol conducted by an American submarine since World War II. Her patrol began with a 14,000-mile submerged, high-speed transit across the Pacific Ocean, through the Indian Ocean and into the Red Sea. Then, shortly after 1200 hours on 19 January 1991 she launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against targets in Iraq, becoming the first USN submarine to launch Tomahawks in combat. For this war patrol, Louisville was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation.
Adm. Kelso was a native of Fayetteville, NC where he attended public schools. He studied one year at the University of the South before his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy by Sen. Albert Gore Sr. in 1952. He was the son of the late Benton and Wista Kelso of Fayetteville. After retirement, he lived in the Washington, D.C., area until his return home to Fayetteville in 2003. He was a member of the Fayetteville First United Methodist Church.
Adm. Kelso was married to Landess McCown Kelso for 56 years prior to her passing in July 2012. They had four children: one of whom is a career naval officer who retired as a captain and served in submarines. Adm. Kelso died on Sunday, June 23, 2013 in Norfolk, Va., following a fall there that resulted in a severe head injury. Kelso was in Norfolk to attend his grandson’s high school graduation. And, like his grandfather, the grandson had received an appointment to the Naval Academy also.
A lifelong friend of Kelso’s said at his funeral; “… Frank was a wonderful person, and I’m thankful to have so many good memories of him. I think of him as my friend, but putting that aside, I think about his commitment to his country. That is why he is so well respected by his peers and the people who served under him. He had a feel for what it takes to make this country great. It’s not the presidents or other high-ranking officials – it’s John Q. Public. If I were to think of one word to describe Frank, it would be service – he served people up and down the ladder and would help anyone he could,” he added. “He meant so much to so many people here, and he will be missed incredibly.”
Another lifelong friend of Kelso’s said of him;
“Adm. Frank B. Kelso was a great man. He reached the top of his profession as Chief of Naval Operations and one of the Joint Chiefs of Military Operations. He received many honors from all over the world, yet he chose to come back to his hometown and spend the last 10 years of his life here…. He will be greatly missed.”
Over the course of his exemplary naval career CNO, Adm. Frank B. Kelso II was awarded; the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Identification Badge, Distinguished Service Medal, Navy Distinguished Service Medal with two gold stars, Legion of Merit with three gold stars, Meritorious Service Medal with one gold star, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medal, Navy Unit Commendation Medal with two bronze service stars, Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation with one service star, Navy Expeditionary Medal with one service star, National Defense Service Medal with two service stars, Navy Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, Officer Submarine Warfare insignia and the SSBN Deterrent Patrol insignia with three gold stars.
I had been undecided concerning remaining in the Navy beyond my first enlistment. And, Captain Kelso, through my division officer, encouraged me to do so. They both offered to recommend me for entry into the Navy NECP program that would allow me to attend one of twenty-two top American college universities as a civilian and upon completion be commissioned an Ensign in the United States Navy. However, I declined and went through the separation process to return home.
Then, shortly after I left the Navy I received in the mail a personal commendation from the Commander Submarine force U.S. Atlantic fleet for work I had done on Bluefish during a northern run prior to Captain Kelso taking command. It was accompanied with and official USN letter having a hand-written note from Captain Kelso that read; “We still have a good job waiting for you. Best of luck” Signed Frank Kelso.
But although just one line, it’s one of my prized possessions and I am humbled and honored that such a great man and naval officer as Adm. Kelso thought so highly of my capabilities and character. And, I feel so very fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve under his Command in USS Bluefish SSN 675. My service and experiences in the Silent Service and the opportunity to work with men of such high caliber as Frank Kelso has served me for a lifetime. For this, I am grateful.