Frank B. Kelso II, a retired Navy admiral whose tenure as chief of naval operations was clouded by the Tailhook sexual harassment scandal, which focused a glaring spotlight on a rowdy military culture of aggressive male behavior toward women, died June 23 at a hospital in Norfolk. He was 79.
He had complications from injuries suffered in a fall, his son Tom Kelso said. Adm. Kelso, who lived in Fayetteville, Tenn., had been attending the high school graduation of a grandson in Virginia.
During almost 38 years as a career Navy officer, Adm. Kelso served aboard nuclear submarines, commanded the Atlantic Fleet and directed the Navy’s military actions in the Persian Gulf War. In 1990, he was named chief of naval operations — the Navy’s top uniformed officer and its representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff — and supervised the largest reduction in naval forces since the end of World War II.
But much of Adm. Kelso’s career was overshadowed by the events of Sept. 5-7, 1991, when a convention of the Tailhook Association was held in Las Vegas. (The Tailhook Association is named after a device that helps brake airplanes landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier.) Adm. Kelso was one of about 4,000 people to attend the Las Vegas event for naval aviators.
Within months of the convention, word began to leak out of a raucous gathering in which male officers repeatedly groped and fondled women, many of whom were fellow military officers. According to reports, the men formed a gantlet and grasped at women running between them.
At a time when Adm. Kelso was working to expand opportunities for women in the military, the events of Tailhook exposed a Navy culture in which men, often fueled by alcohol, felt free to treat women as sexual objects without fear of reprisal.
Adm. Kelso ordered an investigation, but the scandal would not go away. He was dismayed, he said, when he learned that one female officer had sought help from a senior officer three times, only to be ignored.
He offered to resign in 1992 but was turned down by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and President George H.W. Bush.
After the initial investigation found only two central wrongdoers in the Tailhook matter, a more thorough report by an inspector general in 1993 cited 140 Navy and Marine Corps officers for sexual assault and other forms of misconduct.
Even his wife, Adm. Kelso said, asked him, “What is it about the Navy?”
The admiral came under sharp scrutiny and was criticized for not fully understanding the gravity of a scandal that had left, in the words of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), “a sordid, sleazy stain on the U.S. Navy.”
Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III resigned under pressure in 1992. In October 1993, his successor, John H. Dalton, called for Adm. Kelso to step down as chief of naval operations. Defense Secretary Les Aspin rejected the advice, and the admiral stayed on.
In military legal proceedings, witnesses claimed to have seen Adm. Kelso near where some of the harassment occurred. A military judge also said the admiral had exerted undue influence on the Tailhook investigation.
Adm. Kelso vehemently maintained that he saw no misconduct at Tailhook and had done nothing wrong.
“I’m an honest man,” he said. “I didn’t lie, and I didn’t manipulate.”
In the end, no one faced a court-martial over Tailhook, but several admirals and other top officers were forced out of the Navy or otherwise disciplined.
Adm. Kelso announced that he would retire from the Navy in April 1994, two months ahead of schedule. Led by women of both parties, the Senate held a vote on whether he should be demoted and lose two of his admiral’s stars — and $1,150 a month in pension benefits.
Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) said Adm. Kelso had “demonstrated a complete failure of leadership” during Tailhook. Supporters noted that he ordered mandatory sensitivity training for all Navy personnel, opened combat and aviation roles to women for the first time and never sought to evade responsibility.
The Senate voted in the admiral’s favor, and he was allowed to retire at his full four-star rank.
Frank Benton Kelso II was born July 11, 1933, in Fayetteville, Tenn., and was a 1956 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Early in his career, he joined the Navy’s nuclear submarine program led by Adm. Hyman G. Rickover and later commanded two nuclear submarines, the USS Finback and USS Bluefish.
He became a rear admiral in 1980 and served in the office of Navy Secretary John Lehman. In 1986, he became commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet and led the planning for military actions that year against Libya, curtailing belligerent activities of the government of Moammar Gaddafi.
Adm. Kelso’s decorations included the Defense Distinguished Service Medal; three awards of the Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal; Distinguished Service Medals from the Army, Air Force and Coast Guard; and four awards of the Legion of Merit.
He lived in Springfield before moving to his home town of Fayetteville in 2003.
His wife of 56 years, Landess McCown Kelso, died in 2012.
Survivors include his wife of several weeks, Georgeanna Robinson of Fayetteville; four children from his first marriage, Dr. Thomas Kelso of Southport, N.C., retired Navy Capt. R. Donald Kelso of Chesapeake, Va., Mary Kearns of Honolulu and Kerry Thomas of Richmond; and eight grandchildren.
In retirement, Adm. Kelso consulted on military affairs and was a trustee of the Naval Academy Foundation.
“We cannot undo the past,” he said in 1993, while still engulfed in the Tailhook scandal, “but we sure can influence the future and we are. We have emerged from this experience a better, more effective, stronger institution.”