The son of the Reverend David Owen Ghormley and Alice Minerva Irwin, Robert L. Ghormley, came into the world on October 15, 1883 in Portland, Oregon. He showed outstanding intellect and academic skills when he graduated from the University of Idaho in 1902 with a Phi Beta Kappa Key. After graduating from the Naval Academy four years later ranked twelfth in his class, his prospects for a rewarding and successful naval career were very bright. He served with distinction in several assignments onboard ships and in administrative positions. His particularly unique strengths in staff positions drew the attention of high-ranking naval officers, and he seemed destined for rapid advancement. After finishing a senior officer’s course at the Naval War College in 1938 and promoted to Rear Admiral, Ghormley served as the Director of the War Plans Division and Assistant Chief of Naval Operations in Washington.
By 1940, it was almost a forgone conclusion the British and the Americans would form an alliance against Nazi Germany. Ghormley drew a high-visibility assignment by going to London to assess Britain’s ability to hold on from the constant air raids from the German Luftwaffe and the ever increasingly successful U-boat attacks on British shipping. His British colleagues admired his diplomatic and administrative skills. Such success did not escape the eyes of his superiors either.
Rewarding his outstanding work in London, Admiral King named him the commander of the newly forming command in the South Pacific (COMSOPAC) on April 17, 1942. The new job also earned Ghormley a third star worn by a Vice Admiral. Hopes ran high that the newly appointed commander’s outstanding diplomatic and people skills would guarantee an American success story. Nevertheless, Ghormley lacked one important piece of experience – he had never commanded a large, complex multi-service force. No one knew how he would act under stress when he needed to take aggressive action.
When he learned what his assignment would be – capturing Guadalcanal, he immediately began to doubt whether he could succeed. Ghormley started to believe his command would never get the ships, planes, men, and supplies needed to defeat the powerful Japanese Navy and Army. His qualms began to dominate his decision making such that he seemed incapable of acting at all. When the situation on Guadalcanal reached a critical point and the Americans might be defeated, he allowed desperately needed supplies to pile up in Nouméa’s harbor. The Marines on Guadalcanal were on the verge of starving to death.
After General Arnold completed his tour of the South Pacific and reported to Nimitz in Pearl Harbor, Nimitz did not wait for Arnold to report his findings to King. He went to Guadalcanal to assess the situation personally and stopped off in Nouméa to meet Ghormley. When Nimitz walked aboard Ghormley’s flagship, the transport Argonne, he looked in shock how Ghormley’s health had deteriorated and the decrepitly over-crowded conditions on the ship.
Nimitz boarded his to return to Pearl Harbor and decided that he had to relieve Ghormley. After arriving in Hawaii, he met with his staff to get their opinions. Nimitz did not wait long to decide to put Vice Admiral William F. Halsey in Ghormley’s place.
Ghormley returned to Washington and finished out the war in various less meaningful assignments including the command of all American naval forces as the Americans crossed the Rhine River in 1945. His son, Robert L. Ghormley Jr., wrote an unpublished biography of his father that included a highly complementary letter from New Zealand’s Prime Minister. Ghormley had been much and undeservedly maligned during and after the war. He was just not the right man to lead such a vital combat assignment. As it turned out, Halsey, a close friend of Ghormley’s, turned out to be the right man for the job.