Robert Lee Ghormley was born in Portland, Oregon, on 15 October 1883, son of David Owen Ghormley and Mrs. (Alice Minerva Irwin) Ghormley. He was appointed to the Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, while a student at the University of Idaho, and entered on 23 September 1902 as a Midshipman from Idaho. After graduation in June 1906, he was assigned to the USS West Virginia, as a Passed Midshipman. He served the two years at sea, then required by law, and was commissioned Ensign in 1908, and subsequently advanced in rank to that of Vice Admiral, to date from 1 October 1938, until his retirement in that rank on 1 August 1946.
Following his acceptance of appointment as Ensign in 1908, he had successive service at sea in the USS Buffalo, USS Charleston, and the USS Maryland, and from 1911 until 1913 served as Aide and Flag Lieutenant on the Staff of Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, and in that assignment participated in the Nicaraguan Campaign of 1912. He returned to the Naval Academy in 1913 to serve for two years in the Division of Physical Training, and the subsequent two years in the Executive Department.
In June 1916, he joined the USS Nevada, and on 6 January 1917 became First Lieutenant of that battleship. Later in 1917 and during the early part of 1918 (World War I) period he had duty as Gunnery Officer of the Nevada, and Aide and Flag Lieutenant on the Staff of Commander Battleship Force ONE, and Squadron TWO, Atlantic Fleet. For meritorious service in that capacity he received a special Letter of Commendation from the Secretary of the Navy.
Shortly before the Armistice he returned to the United States, and reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Navy Department, Washington, DC. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by the War Department and cited as follows: 'For exceptionally meritorious and conspicuous service as the Assistant Director of the Overseas Division, Naval Overseas Transportation Service.'
In 1920 he joined the USS Niagara, and during that year had additional duty as Aide to the President of the Court of Inquiry into conditions in Haiti. In December of that year he assumed command of the USS Sands, and was Senior Officer Present Afloat during the bombardment of Samsun, Turkey by the Greek Fleet in 1922. He returned to the Navy Department in 1922, for duty in the Bureau of Navigation.
He served as Aide to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., in 1923-24, and to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, T. Douglas Robinson in 1924-25. Detached in 1925, he reported as Executive Officer on the USS Oklahoma. He returned to the Navy Department in 1927, and after serving for three years as Secretary of the General Board, he again went to sea, this time as Chief of Staff to Commander Battle Force. In 1931 he was transferred to similar duty on the Staff of Commander in Chief, US Fleet.
Three years duty as Head of the Tactical Section of the Fleet Training Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations preceded command of the USS Nevada from June 1935 to June 1936. He then became Operations Officer on the Staff of the Commander in Chief, US Fleet, and served in that capacity for a year before being detached to the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, where he completed the senior course in 1938.
Assigned duty as the Director of the War Plans Division, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, he remained in the Navy Department as Assistant Chief of Naval Operations from July 1939 until August 1940. On 15 August of that year he was sent to London, England, as special Naval Observer at the American Embassy there, and after reporting to Headquarters, Commander in Chief, US Fleet, joined the Pacific Fleet for a conference with the Commander in Chief, after which he established Headquarters in Auckland, New Zealand.
On 19 June 1942, he became Commander, South Pacific Area and South Pacific Force, and served in that command until 20 October 1942. He was on duty at Headquarters, Commander in Chief, US Fleet, Navy Department, Washington, DC until February 1943, when he reported as Commandant of the Fourteenth Naval District and Commander Hawaiian Sea Frontier. 'For exceptionally meritorious conduct as Commandant Fourteenth Naval District and Commander Hawaiian Sea Frontier from 17 February 1943 to 24 October 1944...' he was awarded the Legion of Merit. The citation further states:
'An aggressive and persevering leader, Vice Admiral Ghormley carried out his duties untiringly in the fulfillment of the mission of support to the United States Pacific Fleet throughout this period of enormous expansion and accelerated activity...'
Vice Admiral Ghormley returned to the United States in November 1944, and later that month reported to the Commander, US Naval Forces, Germany. For his services which extended to December 1945, Vice Admiral Ghormley was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, and cited, in part as follows:
Distinguished Service Medal: 'For exceptionally meritorious service to the Government of the United States in a duty of great responsibility as Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Germany (Commander Task Force 124 of the Twelfth Fleet), Senior U.S. Naval Member of the Group Control Council for Germany and Senior U.S. Naval Member of the Naval Commission from December 1944 to December 1945. Responsible for all activities of our Naval Forces in Germany, (he) established and directed the effective organization in carrying out the demilitarization of the German Navy and the collection of valuable intelligence material...maintained cooperative operations with the representatives of other Allied Governments and...rendered outstanding assistance in furthering a mutual exchange of data and findings of great importance to the Commander Twelfth Fleet and the Navy as a whole... (His) leadership, keen foresight, great administrative ability and steadfast devotion to the completion of a vital mission were essential factors in the success of our occupational forces in Germany and reflect the highest credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service.'
Upon his return to the United States, he reported on 22 January 1946 for duty as a member of the General Board, Navy Department. He was relieved of all active duty on 26 April 1946, and was transferred to the Retired List of the Navy on 1 August of that year.
Vice Admiral Ghormley died at the Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland on 21 June 1958. He was survived by his wife, Mrs. Lucille Ghormley, and two sons and a daughter.
In addition to the Distinguished Service Medal from the Navy Department for World War II service; the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Service Medal from the War Department, Vice Admiral Ghormley had the Nicaraguan Campaign Medal (USS California); Mexican Service Medal, (USS California); Victory Medal, Atlantic Fleet Clasp (USS Minnesota); American Defense Service Medal, Base Clasp; European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal; the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; and the World War II Victory Medal.