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Vice Admiral Robert Lee Ghormley (15 October 1883 – 21 June 1958) was an admiral in the United States Navy, serving as Commander, South Pacific Area, during the Second World War.[1]

Robert L. Ghormley
Ghormley in 1942
Born(1883-10-15)October 15, 1883
Portland, Oregon
DiedJune 21, 1958(1958-06-21) (aged 74)
Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service1906–1946
RankUS-O9 insignia.svg Vice Admiral
Commands heldUSS Niagara (SP-136)
USS Sands (DD-243)
USS Nevada (BB-36)
Assistant Chief of Naval Operations
Commander South Pacific Area
Commandant 14th Naval District
Battles/warsWorld War I
World War II
AwardsArmy Distinguished Service Medal
Navy Distinguished Service Medal
Legion of Merit


Early yearsEdit

Born in Portland, Oregon, Ghormley was the oldest of six children to a Presbyterian missionary.[2] While attending the University of Idaho in Moscow,[3] he was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland and entered there on September 23, 1902, and graduated in June 1906.

He served on cruisers during the next five years, including USS West Virginia,[4] the auxiliary cruiser USS Buffalo,[5] USS Charleston,[6] and USS Maryland.[7] From 1911 to 1913, Lieutenant Ghormley was Aide and Flag Lieutenant to the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, participating in the 1912 campaign in Nicaragua. That was followed by duty at the U.S. Naval Academy starting in June 1913. He was assigned to the battleship USS Nevada in June 1916.

Ghormley was promoted to lieutenant commander on May 23, 1917 and spent most of World War I on Nevada and as a flag aide. Late in the conflict, he was promoted to commander and became assistant director of the Overseas Division of the Naval Overseas Transportation Service. In 1919 he was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal for his service in this position.

From 1920 to 1922, he commanded the patrol vessel USS Niagara and the destroyer USS Sands, including Mediterranean Sea duty in the latter.


Promoted to the rank of commander in July 1921, Ghormley served as Aide to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1923 to 1925 and as executive officer of the battleship Oklahoma for the next two years. In 1927 he became Secretary of the Navy's General Board, in Washington, D.C., Captain Ghormley was Chief of Staff to the commanders of the Battle Force and U.S. Fleet during the early 1930s.

After working with the Chief of Naval Operations, he became commanding officer of the battleship Nevada from June 25, 1935 to June 23, 1936. In 1936, he returned to the U.S. Fleet staff. By 1938, he completed the senior course at the Naval War College. Rear Admiral Ghormley became Director of the War Plans Division and Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, remaining in those positions until August 1940. He then was sent to the United Kingdom as a Special Naval Observer for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was subsequently promoted to vice admiral on October 1, 1938.

Pearl Harbor attack, repercussions and immediate consequencesEdit

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, by the Japanese Imperial Navy using fast offensive aircraft carrier forces wrought destruction on the American battleships there at anchor. This dramatically changed the strategic and tactical (doctrinal) emphasis of the U.S. Navy for the rest of World War II. Until the attack on Pearl Harbor, the battleship was widely accepted and held as the supreme weapon of naval power. The attack from aircraft launched by carriers made it clear that air power had instantly superseded the battleship as the primary asset of naval power. In the days after the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. Navy attempted to immediately reinforce Wake Island, and dispatched Vice Admiral William Halsey Jr.[8] on raids against various enemy held islands.

In addition, naval intelligence had decoded transmissions indicating an attack on Midway Island,[9] which if taken by the Japanese would have immediately threatened Hawaii. All of the pressing needs to protect and retaliate required the use of the few aircraft carriers then available, along with their escort and support ships. Into the summer months of 1942, the United States struggled on a "shoestring" to rush an offensive force consisting of the 1st Marine Division (11,000 men) commanded by Marine Major General Alexander Vandegrift and supported by two carrier task forces (Saratoga and Wasp). The plan, called Operation Watchtower, was to immediately attack, seize, and hold the Solomon Islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi.[10]

South Pacific Command assignmentEdit

It was into these critical early days of the Solomons Campaign that Vice Admiral Ghormley was rush-assigned command of South Pacific (COMSOPAC) on the recommendations of Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet, and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Earnest J. King. It is possible that Ghormley was appointed to the position over other commanders with superior carrier and aviation expertise and experience because of his association with President Roosevelt. Nimitz's choice was Admiral William S. Pye, but since Pye had recalled the Wake Island relief attempt, Admiral King was hostile to Pye.[11] Vice Admiral Ghormley had last held sea command in 1938 on the battleship Nevada and had not been back to a sea command since. And, in addition, he had never commanded a carrier. Upon taking command as COMSOPAC, Ghormley had only the carriers Saratoga and Wasp, later joined by Enterprise.

Ghormley's performance appeared to be lackluster and pessimistic, as reflected in his continuing reports to Admiral Nimitz at Pearl Harbor, to which Admiral King took exceptional note. Ghormley had been directed through original operational orders by Admiral King to "personally oversee" the Guadalcanal/Tulagi attacks by U.S. forces, meaning he was expected to be on site or in the immediate area of conflict.[11] However, Ghormley was either absent in the early planning phases and subsequent invasions or else holed up in his headquarters once he finally moved to Nouméa, more than 900 miles (1,400 km) from Guadalcanal. He apparently was overwhelmed by the quick developments of the overall operation as well as lack of immediate resources, paperwork, myriad details and petty political squabbling caused by New Caledonia's French government hosts, rather than being present in the immediate conflict areas. It was noted that Ghormley failed to set foot on Guadalcanal or to make himself "visible" to combat forces as a morale presence.

Ghormley also conveyed weak or indecisive communications to his commanders and was absent at critical planning meetings, which were marked by vociferous arguments between Admirals Frank Jack Fletcher and Richmond K. Turner over the length of time that carriers would be able to provide air cover to landing forces and supply ships. Fletcher seemed to place more concern on protecting the aircraft carriers and on the overall fuel needs of the fleet over the immediate support requirements of the invasion force. Part of the problem was also due to Fletcher's attempts to interpret Admiral Nimitz's dictum against over-exposure of carriers to attack unless more damage could be inflicted upon the enemy; Admiral Fletcher was left to interpret this rather than Vice Admiral Ghormley, and Fletcher's interpretation was seen as over-cautious. The heated arguments aside, Ghormley had assigned Fletcher as the Commander, Expeditionary Force who had overriding authority to move carrier air support out of the battle area. After only 36 hours, and with at least two to three days (estimate as high as five by Turner) needed to unload supplies to the Marines fighting on Guadalcanal, Fletcher ordered carriers to pull out of the immediate critical invasion operation, leaving many supply ships unloaded and vulnerable to Japanese attack, and with no carrier air support for ground forces.

As a result of all these mitigating circumstances, problems and misjudgments, both Admirals Nimitz and King became highly concerned with the precarious state of the conflict and Ghormley's ability to command in a sound manner. In consequence, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey flew to Nouméa on October 16, 1942 to interview Ghormley and his staff. It became apparent to Admiral Nimitz that Ghormley and his staff did not have answers to serious questions that they should have had.

Dismayed by Ghormley's shortcomings, on 18 October Admiral Nimitz replaced him with Vice Admiral Halsey, who quickly and decisively took leadership command and fully restored the balance of trust. Placing Halsey in charge demonstrated that the job had required a decisive, aggressive and trained battle carrier admiral. As Ghormley should have done from the beginning, Halsey had no problem with making frequent numerous appearances and taking the lead.[12]

Final contributionsEdit

After a few months' duty in Washington, D.C., Ghormley returned to the Pacific to become Commandant of the 14th Naval District in Hawaii. In December 1944, Ghormley became Commander, United States Naval Forces Germany, and served in that position until December 1945. He spent his last months of active duty as a member of the General Board, at the Navy Department, and retired in August 1946.

While recovering from surgery in 1958 at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Ghormley died at age 74 on 21 June,[1] and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.




  1. ^ a b "Vice Adm. Ghormley dead at 74". Lewiston Morning Tribune. (Idaho). Associated Press. June 22, 1958. p. 1.
  2. ^ "The Pacific War Encyclopedia – Ghormley, Robert Lee (1883–1958)". Retrieved April 30, 2014.
  3. ^ "Biographies in Naval History – Vice Admiral Robert Lee Ghormely, US Navy". Retrieved April 30, 2014.
  4. ^ "[USS] West Virginia". Retrieved April 30, 2014.
  5. ^ "[USS] Buffalo". Retrieved April 30, 2014.
  6. ^ "[USS] Charleston". Retrieved April 30, 2014.
  7. ^ "[USS] Maryland". Retrieved April 30, 2014.
  8. ^ Wukovits, John (2010). Admiral "Bull" Halsey – The Life and Wars of the Navy’s Most Controversial Commander. New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-60284-7.
  9. ^ Carlson, Elliot (2011). Joe Rochefort’s War – The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-61251-060-6.
  10. ^ Schom, Alan (2003). The Eagle and the Rising Sun – The Japanese-American War 1941–1943. New York, New York: W.W.Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-04924-4.
  11. ^ a b Hornfischer, James D. (2012). Neptune's Inferno, The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal. Bantam Books Trade Paperback Edition. ISBN 978-0-553-80670-0.
  12. ^ Smith, W. Thomas (2003). "Guadalcanal". Decisive 20th Century American Battles. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Bravo Delta. p. 57. ISBN 1-592-57147-6.
  13. ^ "Ghormley Park". City of Moscow. Archived from the original on 30 April 2014. Retrieved 2 March 2013.

External linksEdit