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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral Albert L. Kelln, USN (Ret.)

Nov. 16, 2022 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Rear Admiral Albert Lee “Al” Kelln, U.S. Navy (Retired), on 17 October 2022 at age 92. Rear Admiral Kelln entered the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1948 and served as a submarine officer until his retirement in July 1980 as deputy director/vice director for management and operations, Defense Intelligence Agency. His commands included Ray (SSN-653), Submarine Division SIX TWO (SUBDIV 62), Submarine Squadron ONE FOUR (SUBRON 14), and Submarine Group SIX (SUBGRU 6). 

After studying for a year at Oklahoma University, Al Kelln entered the U.S. Naval Academy on 30 June 1948, where among other things he was manager of the football team. He graduated with a bachelor of science in naval science and was commissioned an ensign on 6 June 1952. He then immediately reported to the Allen M. Sumner–class destroyer Blue (DD-744) as the ship was on her second deployment to the Korean War combat zone. There it was engaging North Korean targets along the coast and escorting Task Force 77 carriers in the Sea of Japan. Ensign Kelln deployed again on Blue to the war zone in 1953, also conducting a Formosa Straits patrol during this time. He applied for and was selected for submarine duty, reporting to the Naval Submarine School, New London, in November 1953, where he was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) that December. 

 In June 1954, Lieutenant (j.g.) Kelln reported to diesel submarine Ronquil (SS-396), recently converted to Guppy IIA configuration and recommissioned. He served as navigator and engineering officer as Ronquil deployed from San Diego to the Western Pacific for patrol in 1955. Kelln was then selected for the new Navy Nuclear Power Program, reporting to Nuclear Power School at Mare Island, California, in June 1956. Promoted to lieutenant in July 1956, he then reported to the Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit, Idaho Falls, Idaho, in December 1956. 

In June 1957, Lieutenant Kelln reported to the pre-commissioning crew of nuclear attack submarine Skate (SSN-578) as engineering officer. Following Skate’s commissioning in December 1957 and shakedown cruise out of New London, the boat then proceeded to set a new westbound trans-Atlantic submerged speed record, and a new record for continuous submarine submergence of 31 days, 5.5 hours. In August 1958, Skate reached the North Pole a few days after the first submerged Arctic transit by Nautilus (SSN-571). In 1959, Skate conducted extensive winter under-ice operations in the Arctic, and on 17 May 1959 became the first submarine to surface at the North Pole. Prior to this mission, Kelln flew over the North Pole in an aircraft to get photos, during which he had the plane drop an American flag there. Skate was awarded two Navy Unit Commendations during the period Kelln was aboard. 

In October 1959, Lieutenant Kellen reported as engineering officer to the pre-commissioning crew of Skipjack-class nuclear attack submarine Shark (SSN-591) under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding. Following commissioning in February 1961, Shark became the first nuclear-powered submarine to deploy to the Mediterranean, a cruise that included hosting the entire royal family of Greece for surface and submerged demonstration. Kelln was promoted to lieutenant commander in July 1961. In 1962, he became executive officer of Shark for operations in the Northern Atlantic, for which he was awarded a Navy Commendation Medal (rare at that time). 

In December 1962, Lieutenant Commander Kelln reported for duty under instruction at Naval Guided Missile School, Dam Neck, Virginia. In March 1963, he then reported to the pre-commissioning crew of John C. Calhoun (SSBN-630) at Newport News Shipbuilding as Blue Crew prospective executive officer. However, in November 1963, his orders were changed to report to nuclear-powered attack aircraft carrier Enterprise (then CVN-65) as engineering officer. Kelln served aboard Enterprise for the carrier’s second and third Mediterranean deployments, followed by Operation Sea Orbit, the 65-day (57 at sea) around-the-world nuclear-powered transit by Task Force ONE (TF-1), which included Enterprise, nuclear guided-missile cruiser Long Beach (CGN-9), and nuclear-powered destroyer leader Bainbridge (DLGN-25, later CG-25), with brief port visits to Rabat, Freetown, Monrovia, Abidjan, Mombasa, Karachi, Sydney, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo before returning to homeport in Norfolk. Kelln was promoted to commander in May 1965. 

In October 1965, Commander Kelln reported to the director, Division of Naval Reactors, Atomic Energy Commission, Washington, DC, for duty under instruction with additional duty under instruction in the office of Assistant Chief, Bureau of Ships for Nuclear Propulsion, also in Washington, DC. In April 1966, he reported as prospective commanding officer for Sturgeon-class nuclear fast attack submarine Ray (SSN-653), under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding. Kelln assumed command upon Ray’s commissioning in April 1966 and conducted multiple North Atlantic operations, for which he was awarded his second Navy Commendation Medal and Ray a Naval Unit Commendation and a Meritorious Unit Commendation. In February 1969, Commander Kelln assumed command of SUBDIV 62, which included Ray, Shark, and previously Scorpion (SSN-589) before her loss in May 1968. 

In January 1970, Kelln was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, DC, as head, Plans, Programs and Operations Branch in the Submarine Warfare Division (OP-02). He was promoted to captain in July 1970. He then reported in July 1971 to the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Washington, DC, as head, Submarine/Nuclear Power Distribution Control Branch/Program Manager, Nuclear Power Personnel, for which he was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal. 

In June 1972, Captain Kelln assumed command of SUBRON 14, the fleet ballistic missile boat squadron at Holy Loch, Scotland, tended by submarine tender Canopus (AS-34). In February 1974, he assumed command of SUBGRU 6 of fleet ballistic missile submarines. He was promoted to rear admiral on 1 July 1974. 
In June 1975, Rear Admiral Kelln returned to the Office of the CNO as director, Strategic Submarine Division and Trident Program Coordinator. In March 1978, Kelln assumed duty as Assistant Deputy CNO for Submarine Warfare (OP-02B) and, in August 1978, became deputy director, Strategic and General Operations, in the Joint Staff J-3, Washington, DC. In July 1979, Rear Admiral Kelln assumed duty as deputy director/vice director for management and operations at the Defense Intelligence Agency. He retired in August 1980. 

Rear Admiral Kelln’s awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal; Defense Superior Service Medal; Legion of Merit (two awards); Meritorious Service Medal; Navy Commendation Medal (two awards); Navy Unit Commendation (three awards); Meritorious Unit Commendation; China Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Korean Service Medal; Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation; and United Nations Service Medal. 

Following retirement from active duty, Kelln served as a defense system consultant. He was instrumental in the founding of the Naval Submarine League and published a memoir, Living the Miracles: A Sailor’s Life in the Nuclear Power Age. 

Rear Admiral Kelln’s funeral service will be at the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel on 17 July 2023 at 1030, with a walk to the gravesite at Hospital Point with full military honors. 

Rear Admiral Kelln was the first (and probably only) person to fly over, stand on, and pass under the North Pole. The rest of his career is equally astounding and his impact on the U.S. submarine community was, and remains, truly profound. His first days as an officer aboard ship were in combat operations in the Korean War. From there he entered the submarine force, with its own unique dangers, and was one of the first in the Navy’s nuclear power program. He was a “plank owner” for three nuclear-powered submarines (and would have had a fourth if he had not been yanked out to be engineering officer for Enterprise and TF-1’s completely nuclear-powered around-the-world deployment in Operation Sea Orbit. He was instrumental in the accelerated improvements in the U.S. submarine force made in order to stay ahead of the growing threat from Soviet submarines. His early tours were in attack boats: leaving port often on short-notice, highly classified missions with an unknown return date, playing havoc with family life. His later tours focused on ballistic missile submarines, with the greatest achievement being never having to fire a nuclear-tipped missile in anger because they were always ready to do so, and the Soviets knew it and couldn’t do anything about it. In his captain and flag officer tours, he had a major impact in submarine personnel policies and development of the Trident fleet ballistic missile submarines, still in the fleet today, as well as Los Angeles–class fast attack submarines. Our wardroom has lost yet another of our Cold War heroes, from a time when the only difference for U.S. and Soviet submarines between war and peace was pulling the trigger; from a time when the existential threat posed by the Soviets was seen to justify a level of operational and maintenance risk that would be unthinkable today. He was a vocal advocate for the U.S. submarine force long after his retirement from active duty. The U.S. Navy is extremely grateful for the dedicated service of Rear Admiral Kelln, and the sacrifice borne by his family, so that this country never had to fight a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. His legacy lives on in the “silent service.” 

Rest in Peace, Admiral Kelln.