National Archives # 80-G-12864-A
Robert Ghormley was born in Oregon, the oldest of six children of a Presbyterian missionary, and took a
bachelor’s degree from the
of Idaho (1902) before
attending the U.S.
Naval Academy, from which he
graduated in 1906. (At the time, the Naval Academy did not grant
degrees.) He served in Nicaragua and with the battleship force of the Atlantic
in World War
I, as captain of Nevada,
and in several staff
positions between the war. He graduated from the Naval War College in
1938 and was promoted to rear admiral shortly thereafter, serving as
chief of the War Plans Division.
Ghormley had been promoted to vice admiral and was a naval observer in Britain at the outbreak of war (Hornfischer 2011):
Every day I was in London I felt more and more that England and, in fact, civilization was in great danger, and that the United States was the only country which could turn the tide.
He was used by Roosevelt to bypass the Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, and the State Department and negotiate the secret ABC-1 agreement for worldwide strategy against the Axis, at a time when the United States was still formally neutral. He was briefly commander of U.S. naval
forces in European waters before being given command of the South
Pacific theater in April of 1942.
October of that year by Bill
held administrative posts for the remainder of the war, including
command of 14 Naval
District in Hawaii.
He directed the demobilization of the German
navy following victory in Europe and retired in 1946.
The appointment of Ghormley to command the South
Pacific Area was unfortunate. Though he had been a flag officer for
four years, his posting as Commander, Naval Forces, Europe was his
first operational command and he was in his element working with the
British. However, Roosevelt
utterly refused to give the South Pacific command to the other officer
recommended by Nimitz, William Pye, whom Roosevelt
never forgave for calling off the Wake
relief expedition. Ghormley’s leadership
the South Pacific was uninspiring. He never really believed in the Guadalcanal operation and
recommended its postponement. Though both Nimitz and King both expected him to
direct the operation personally, he chose to exercise general command
from his headquarters at Noumea.
Although Nimitz personally visited Guadalcanal in late September 1942,
Ghormley never set foot on the island. Part of the problem may have
been that Ghormley was
dental problems that could not be adequately treated on his flagship.
Nimitz was reluctant to relieve his old friend,
but concluded on 15 October 1942 that Ghormley was "too immersed in
detail and not sufficiently bold and aggressive at the right time"
(Lundstrom 2006). Only very recently has Hornfischer (2011) uncovered
evidence that Nimitz relieved Ghormley because he believed his old
friend was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Halsey was on his way to the South Pacific to take
over the carrier forces there, and Nimitz obtained permission from King
to order Halsey to relieve Ghormley instead.
Ghormley may have been overly deferential to French sensibilities. The French in New Caledonia were divided in sentiment between Vichy and the Free French, which seemed to require a diplomatic touch. When the colonial governor refused to give Ghormley office space ashore, Ghormley meekly accepted the situation and remained on his flagship, the Argonne ("Agony Maru"), for weeks at a time as it sat at anchor. When Halsey took command, he characteristically told the French that they would give his staff acceptable billeting ashore. And they did.
After the war, 1
Marine Division assistant operations officer, Merrill Twining,
claimed that Ghormley had sent a pair of messages to Vandegrift on 11
September 1942. The first message, which was mentioned in a number of
other postwar accounts, was a very pessimistic assessment of the
situation, in which Ghormley all but abdicated responsibility for the
fate of the Marines on Guadalcanal.
The second, which was mentioned only in Twining's account, was a
handwritten note authorizing Vandegrift to surrender if he felt it necessary.
Frank (1990) could find no independent corroboration of Twining's
account, but judged it plausible.
Ghormley was a large man known for his
intelligence. Though not possessed of a cold personality, and
well-liked and respected, he was
somewhat colorless and reserved.
||Born at Portland, Oregon
||Graduates from University of
||Graduates from Naval
Academy, standing 12th in a class of 116
||Flag lieutenant, Pacific Fleet
||Instructor, Naval Academy
||Commander, DD Sands
||Aide, Assistant Secretary of the navy|
||Executive officer, Oklahoma
||Secretary, General Board
||Staff, U.S. Fleet
||Naval War College
||Director, War Plans Division and
Assistant Chief of Naval Operations
||Naval observer, England
||Vice admiral||Naval Forces, Europe
||Staff, U.S. Fleet
||Commandant, 14 Naval District
||Commander, Naval Forces, Germany
||Dies at Bethesda Naval Hospital,
Dupuy et.al. (1992)
Historical Center (accessed 2008-1-23)
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