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From Oklahoma to North Pole: Highland Lakes veteran recounts life, family history

Rear Admiral Albert Kelln (retired) and his wife, Cecily, enjoy life at their Llano-area home. The admiral spent 28 years in the U.S. Navy, serving in the submarine service (though also a stint as the chief engineer of the USS Enterprise). He is the first person to have flown above, sailed below and stood upon the North Pole. Kelln is giving a presentation Nov. 12 during a special Veterans Day meeting of the Kingsland Genealogical Society of the Highland Lakes at 2 p.m. at the Granite Shoals Fire Department, 410 RR 1431 in Granite Shoals. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton


LLANO — Just inside the front door of the home of retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Albert Kelln and his wife, Cecily, hangs his family’s coat of arms: a knight overlooking a shield bearing a bundle of wheat on the left side and a trident on the right.

In many ways, that coat of arms, which has been traced to 1259, not only reflects his family’s history but his personal story. He, after all, grew up on a Depression-era Oklahoma wheat farm, went on to be the first man to fly over, sail under and stand upon the North Pole and, eventually, oversaw the U.S. Navy Trident submarine program.

“It’s very interesting, isn’t it?” Kelln asked, referring to the coat of arms.

“Interesting” also would be a good way of describing Kelln’s life and Navy career.

On Nov. 12, Kelln will delve into his family history and personal narrative during a special Kingsland Genealogical Society of the Highland Lakes meeting celebrating Veterans Day at the Granite Shoals Fire Department meeting room at 2 p.m. The fire hall is located 410 RR 1431 in Granite Shoals.[box]IF YOU GO
WHAT: Special Veterans Day meeting of Kingsland Genealogicial Society of the Highland Lakes
WHEN: 2 p.m. Nov. 12
WHERE: Granite Shoals Fire Department, 410 RR 1431 in Granite Shoals
FOR MORE: Call Shirley Shaw at (830) 385-7070 or Raye Lokey at (830) 613-1577[/box]

Kelln, a first-generation American of German immigrants, has traced his family’s history back several generations. His family members were among those who settled in Russia before eventually immigrating to the United States, where they mostly found homes in the wheat-growing Central Plains. His parents grew wheat in the Shattluck, Okla., area.

During his youth, Kelln learned the importance of not only hard work but serving others. His father also imparted the importance of civic duty — including voting — on the future naval officer. Though his father couldn’t vote because of his citizenship status, he refused to sit at home on Election Day. Instead, the farmer drove around the area’s German settlements, loaded up people in his yellow truck and took them to polling places so they could take part in the American process.

As a teen, Kelln used that same truck to help put up election signs for candidates.

One of the those candidates, who went on to become a U.S. congressman, remembered Kelln’s efforts and helped him get a nomination to the U.S. Naval Academy.

From there, Kelln’s path took him on adventures above and below the ocean,

Though he had his heart set on aviation, a few early commanding officers steered him toward the submarine fleet.

In the late 1950s, Kelln was a young officer on the USS Skate (SSN-578), one of the first nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarines. One of the sub’s early missions was to study the Arctic Ocean and other area underwater features in hopes of locating oil reserves. It was one of the early “races” between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

“Before we went out, the captain said he needed photos of the surface,” Kelln said. As a junior officer, the job fell to Kelln, who loaded up an airplane with camera gear and flew over the possible tracks the USS Skate would take. The flight passed right over the North Pole.

Kelln even had the crew drop an American flag on the pole, thus “claiming” it for the United States.

Once back aboard the Skate, Kelln and the crew sailed beneath the Arctic ice — directly under the North Pole. On a return trip in August 1958, the Skate surfaced at the North Pole. This made Kelln the first person to fly over, sail below and stand on the North Pole. But his captain gave him a choice: Be a hero or a submariner.

“I chose to be a submariner,” Kelln said.

And so Kelln went on to build a Naval career that spanned 28 years and included many missions and commands. After his stint on the Skate and two other subs, Kelln commanded the USS Ray (SSN-653).

At one point, he was overseeing a submarine project with a crew of about 40 men when he was named the chief engineer of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65), the Navy’s largest nuclear-powered ship.

He landed back in the submarine service, including commanding attack and ballistic-missile groups and fleets.

In 1972, at the age of 42 and with only 20 years in the Navy, Kelln earned the rank of admiral.

“I was probably one of the youngest to become an admiral,” he said. It would be another five years before other members of his 1952 Naval Academy graduating class began attaining the rank of admiral.

Despite retiring in 1980, Kelln hasn’t stopped leading. One of his passions is getting young people excited about their futures. As someone from a poor, farming background, he said he understands what many youths might feel as they begin creating their own lives, whether they have rural, suburban or inner city backgrounds.

The big thing he stresses when it comes to young people is not to give up on them.

During one submarine trip, the king and queen of Greece were aboard. At one point, he looked over and saw a young sailer explaining to the queen how to operate the sub.

It was a young man many in society had previously given up on because of his drug use and violent background. But Kelln pointed out what the sailor needed, what he craved, was discipline, direction and responsibility.

“There’s basically an instinct to do good,” Kelln said. “It’s basically the frustration of life that leads you astray.”

He stressed the importance of giving young people good educations coupled with good leadership, whether it’s from parents, educators or even military officials.

“You just can’t give up on them,” he added.

The Kingsland Genealogical Society holds regular meetings 2 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month at the Kingsland Branch Library, 125 Polk St. in Kingsland. The meetings, including the Nov. 12 event, are open to the public. The society serves all local residents, not just those in Kingsland.

Call Shirley Shaw at (830) 385-7070 or Raye Lokey at (830) 613-1577 for more information on society.