Robert L. Ghormley

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Robert L. Ghormley
Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, 1942
Born (1883-10-15)October 15, 1883
Portland, Oregon
Died June 21, 1958(1958-06-21) (aged 74)
Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland
Buried at Arlington National Cemetery
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch  United States Navy
Years of service 1906–1946
Rank Vice Admiral
Commands held USS Niagara (SP-136)
USS Sands (DD-243)
USS Nevada (BB-36)
Assistant Chief of Naval Operations
Commander South Pacific Area
Commandant 14th Naval District

World War I
World War II

Awards Army Distinguished Service Medal
Legion of Merit

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.


Early years[edit]

Vice Admiral Ghormley was born in Portland, Oregon on October 15, 1883, the oldest of six children to a Presbyterian missionary.[1] While attending the University of Idaho,[2] he was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland and entered there, September 23, 1902, graduating June 1906. He served on cruisers during the next five years, including the USS West Virginia (ACR-5),[3] the auxiliary cruiser USS Buffalo,[4] USS Charleston (C-22),[5] and the USS Maryland (ACR-8).[6] In 1911–13, 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 Nevada (BB-36) in June 1916.

Ghormley was promoted to Lieutenant Commander on May 23, 1917 and spent most of World War I on the 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.

In 1920–22, he commanded the patrol vessel Niagara (SP-136) and the destroyer Sands (DD-243), 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 during 1923–25 and as executive officer of the battleship Oklahoma (BB-37) 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 (BB-36), 25 June 1935 – 23 June 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 consequences[edit]

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, by the Japanese Imperial Navy using fast offensive carrier forces wrought devastating 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 fortify Wake Island sending Vice Admiral William Halsey Jr.[7] out on counterattack forays on various enemy held islands and patrol the immediate waters around Hawaii.

In addition, naval intelligence had decoded transmissions indicating the attack on Midway,[8] and if taken by the Japanese, would have immediately threatened Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast. All of these pressing needs to immediately protect and to retaliate, required the use of the then, few available aircraft carriers, 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.[9]

South Pacific Command assignment[edit]

It was into these critical early days of the Solomons Campaign that Vice Admiral Ghormley was rush-assigned command of South Pacific (COMSOPAC) over the recommendations of Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet (CinCPac), for U.S. naval forces and Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas (CinCPOA) by Nimitz's immediate superior, Fleet Admiral Earnest J. King. It is possible, because of Ghormley's high level association with President Roosevelt, that he was appointed to the position over other commanders (Nimitz's choice was Admiral William S. Pye) with superior carrier and aviation expertise and experience. Since Admiral Pye had been the one to recall the Wake Island relief attempt, Admiral King was known to be hostile to Pye.[10] 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 Saratoga and Wasp for carriers (to be joined by Enterprise, three carriers in total during the entire conflict period).

The convoluted and extensive problems involving several major players in the South Pacific battles, the fact that the following battles in the Solomons in the early stages were the United States' first offensive land operations in the Pacific War, that "Island Warfare" was a new concept, that amphibious training by invasion forces was hurried, that the swift change in reality which resulted from the Pearl Harbor attack (battleship to air power in terms of naval doctrine) had not yet crystallized in the minds of key players, that the areas of operation were strung all across the South Pacific islands to Australia and New Zealand, that major decision makers were themselves attempting to grasp and deal with the complexities of logistical support for massive invasion assets, and it appears, by the faults of long-distance politics spread over 7,000 miles of expansive ocean to the U.S. – all contributed to Admiral Ghormley ultimately being dismissed from command. All these other problems aside, Admiral Ghormley's personal shortcomings, primarily due to his absences and his failure to clearly arbitrate and make decisive, on-the-spot decisions, ultimately led to his dismissal from command because he was the immediate commander in charge over all operations (Commander, South Pacific Forces (COMSOPAC)).

Vice Admiral 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.[10] 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.

Vice Admiral Ghormley also conveyed weak or indecisive communications to his commanders and through his personal absence at critical planning meetings which could have settled vociferous arguments between Admirals Frank Jack Fletcher and Richmond K. Turner that occurred at the invasion planning meeting on Fiji Islands. The argument was over how long carriers would be able to provide air cover to landing forces and supply ships.

Fletcher's main concern seemed to be protecting carriers and refueling needs above the immediate support requirements of the invasion force. There was also a morale factor involved with the Marines, who had felt abandoned on Wake Island after Admiral Pye had left them to be forced to surrender when he recalled the Wake relief attempt immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack. Part of the problem was also due to attempting 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. Fletcher apparently was 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 2 – 3 (estimate as high as 5 by Turner) days 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 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. In consequence, Admiral Nimitz had to make a personal appearance on Guadalcanal to bolster morale. 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.[11]

Final contributions[edit]

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, U.S. 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.

Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley died on 21 June 1958; he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


A small park in Moscow, Idaho, near the University of Idaho, is named for Admiral Ghormley.[12]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Pacific War Encyclopedia – Ghormley, Robert Lee (1883–1958)". Retrieved April 30, 2014. 
  2. ^ "Biographies in Naval History – Vice Admiral Robert Lee Ghormely, US Navy". Retrieved April 30, 2014. 
  3. ^ "[USS] West Virginia". Retrieved April 30, 2014. 
  4. ^ "[USS] Buffalo". Retrieved April 30, 2014. 
  5. ^ "[USS] Charleston". Retrieved April 30, 2014. 
  6. ^ "[USS] Maryland". Retrieved April 30, 2014. 
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Smith, W. Thomas (2003). "Guadalcanal". Decisive 20th Century American Battles. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Bravo Delta. p. 57. ISBN 1-592-57147-6. 
  12. ^ "Ghormley Park". City of Moscow. Retrieved 2 March 2013. 

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