Kemp Tolley, 92, retired rear admiral, linguist and `legend'

November 01, 2000|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Retired Navy Rear Adm. Kemp Tolley, who said the White House ordered him to use his ship as a target to help drag the United States into World War II in the hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor, died Saturday of complications of a stroke at his home in Corbett, in Northern Baltimore County. He was 92.

Mr. Tolley's command of the Lanikai, then a battered, 27-year-old wooden schooner previously used as a theatrical prop, provided some of the war's more unusual scenes. His 4,000-mile, three-month odyssey was a notable incident in a naval career that stretched from duty on the rivers of China in the 1930s to peacetime in Japan in 1950s.

"The cruise of the Lanikai is one of the great sea adventures of the 20th century," said Capt. James M. Wylie, who works in the office of the assistant chief of missile defense of naval operations in Arlington, Va. "The admiral was a Navy legend. He regaled us with sea stories of the China coast and old Japan. He talked, and we listened."

Days before the Dec. 7, 1941, attack at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a top secret order to minimally equip a civilian schooner as a warship, commission it and send it south of the Philippines in waters where the Japanese fleet was thought to be.

Years later, Mr. Tolley wrote that the mission provided evidence that the Roosevelt administration not only suspected a Japanese attack was coming but was doing its best to provide the enemy an easy target.

"Roosevelt's fear was that the Japanese would knock the British and Dutch fleet out there and leave us holding the bag alone," he said in a 1981 interview with The Sun. "But meanwhile, he was hoping he could get an incident cheaply by sinking me. ... I thought the whole thing was damn peculiar."

Events overtook the plan, and the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor before Mr. Tolley could get under way. He wound up sailing the 76-foot schooner, which had been used in the movie "The Hurricane," directed by John Ford, from Manila to the western coast of Australia in enemy waters. He had 25 men on board, and his vessel carried a gun that had last seen service in the Spanish-American War. Its crow's nest was a Coca-Cola crate.

Yet it was one of the few naval vessels to escape the Philippines.

Born in Manila, where his father was in military service, he grew up in Corbett. He rode the Pennsylvania Railroad to classes at Polytechnic Institute, from which he graduated before attending the Naval Academy as a member of the Class of 1929.

Assigned to China in the 1930s, he was executive officer of the USS Tutuila, a gunboat that protected U.S. interests in the upper Yangtze River Valley. He also became a student of languages and learned Russian, French, German and Spanish.

"The admiral came out of an earlier age," said former Goucher College President Rhoda Dorsey. "It was `Terry and the Pirates' stuff. He had an extraordinary adventuresome life. He was also an able and smart man, a very good linguist, too."

He collected military uniforms of all nations and often wore exotic hats. A gardener, he made tomato juice and peach brandy.

After his experiences aboard the Lanikai, he was posted to Russia, where he did intelligence work as an assistant naval attachM-i. There, he met Vlada Gritzenko, whom he married in 1943 and who survives him. She later became a professor of Russian at Goucher College.

Toward the end of World War II, Mr. Tolley returned to the Pacific, participated in the assault on Iwo Jima and was wounded by shell fragments at Okinawa Gunto. From 1949 to 1952, he was director of the intelligence division of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va.

In 1956, he was designated commander of fleet activities at the Yokosuka, Japan.

"The work he did helped to underpin the U.S. defense posture there today," said Captain Wylie, who later commanded that base.

Last year, a building was named Lanikai Inn in his honor at a ceremony in Yokosuka. He also was honored at the White House's Rose Garden in 1994 by President Clinton and then by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

After he retired from the Navy in 1959, when he was named a rear admiral, he returned to his boyhood home in Corbett, where he wrote more than 100 articles and three books, "Yangtze Patrol," "Cruise of the Lanikai" and "Caviar and Commissars."

He had many honors and medals, but liked to tell visitors of his 1992 induction into the Defense AttachM-i Hall of Fame in Washington.

Private funeral services are planned for today.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Svietlana Lynn Franke of Ruxton; and six granddaughters. A daughter, photographer Neena Tolley Ewing died in 1996.

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