On 8 May 1922, Commander Robert L. Ghormley, U.S. Navy, eased his destroyer through the Bosporus Strait into the Black Sea and aimed her due north. His destination: Odessa, a large port city on Ukraine’s southern coast, 500 miles distant. Once the largest trading center in old Russia, known for its beaches and 19th-century architecture, the city was now crumbling, blighted by three years of civil war and plagued by the famine gripping nearly all of Russia. Ghormley was headed there to do something about the problem; his destroyer was escorting a relief ship carrying foodstuffs and medical supplies. She would soon dock, and he would confer with local authorities about allocating those goods. The commander knew this might not be easy—a collection of virulently anticapitalist Bolshevik committees ruled the city.1
Ghormley’s voyage to Odessa had begun 17 months earlier, in January 1921, when, on board the USS Sands (DD-243), he arrived off the coast of Brest, France. The Sands was a new ship, commissioned just two months earlier. And Ghormley was a new captain, the destroyer being his first command. At the helm only a few weeks, he was still getting used to the Sands. And his crew, consisting of 101 officers and men, was still getting used to him.
They were trying to figure him out, and Ghormley wasn’t an easy read. With his shadowy, deep-set eyes, his slight limp from an old football injury, his stern military bearing, he looked older than his 37 years. There was a reserve about him. Speaking, as he often did, in a low raspy voice, almost a growl, he could seem forbidding. He radiated seriousness.
Of course, crew members could not know what the future held for Ghormley. They could not know, nor could Ghormley, that on 18 October 1942, while serving as South Pacific Area commander during the hard-fought Battle of Guadalcanal, he abruptly and ignominiously would be fired. Pacific Fleet Commander Chester W. Nimitz would never fully explain why he let Ghormley go (and replaced him with the hard-charging William F. “Bull” Halsey). But there were hints that he had found Ghormley’s leadership wanting; the South Pacific commander was said to have been hesitant, overly cautious, and defeatist. Those criticisms may have been justified. If so, would Ghormley’s shortcomings have been foreshadowed by his command of the Sands?
An Auspicious Beginning
In 1921, his ship idling off the coast of France, Ghormley was one of the rising stars of the U.S. Navy. He had had a brilliant career at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he stood out as a running back in football; mild-mannered off the field, he was anything but during a game. With his solid, square frame, his lips curved in a way that gave the impression of a snarl, he played a bruising brand of football, earning him nicknames such as “Hawk Eye,” “Eagle Beak,” “Hatchet Face.” He also did well in class; in 1906, he graduated 12th in a class of 116.
His career got off to a roaring start. He served as flag lieutenant to the Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief, Vice Admiral Henry H. Southerland. Such slots usually go to young officers of whom much is expected. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Ghormley once again found himself appointed a flag lieutenant, this time to Vice Admiral Albert W. Grant, commander of a battleship task force deployed on the East Coast to hunt German U-boats known to be probing U.S. waters. He had hoped for duty closer to the war; instead, in 1918, he was ordered to Washington, where he spent the next two years either behind a desk or serving as the personal aide to some high-level admiral. To be sure, his desk work was important; Ghormley helped run the agency that shipped heavy-duty equipment to the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. In 1919, the U.S. Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal for his effort.
With the November 1918 defeat of the Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire (i.e., Turkey)—Ghormley again asked for a ship. This time he got one.
Relief for a Conflict-Torn Region
From the time of his arrival off the French coast, he had heard rumors the Navy might send him to the Baltic Sea. Millions of Russians, Poles, and others in that region were known to be suffering from the effects of famine and civil war. “It is confidential,” he wrote his wife, but the commander passed on the gossip anyway. In the event of “Russian Poland trouble,” as Ghormley described the situation, the cruiser Chattanooga (CL-18) and the destroyer Williamson (DD-244), along with the Sands, would proceed to the Baltic “to observe or something like that.”2
The rumors turned out to be true. They stemmed from an “appeal” from Russian author Maxim Gorky to Herbert Hoover, director of the American Relief Administration (ARA), a U.S.-financed relief mission to Europe. As Hoover noted in his memoirs, Gorky asked “me and the American people for aid in the stupendous famine among the Russian people in the Ukraine and the valley of the Volga.” Hoover knew the famine might be due partly to bad weather, but he figured it was attributable “mostly to a halt in agricultural production while the Soviets were communizing the Russian peasants.”3
Still, Hoover was receptive to Gorky’s heartfelt plea. He replied that he and the U.S. government would supply the desired aid but only if certain conditions were met: freedom of all American prisoners in Russia (U.S. nationals who had assisted White Russian forces against the Red Army in the recent civil war); full liberty to the Americans to administer the relief and to travel without interference; and the power to organize local committees and distribute food and other supplies on a nonpolitical basis. During tense and sometimes testy negotiations between Hoover’s team and representatives of the Soviet government, those terms were grudgingly met (more than 100 American prisoners in Russian jails were released).
Relief officials thought the U.S. Navy should be called in to secure the safe movement of vessels carrying food and medical supplies to Russian ports. Because the United States did not officially recognize the Soviet government, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes questioned whether the Navy should be involved; he agreed to the mission only when he saw that the relief effort would fail without the service’s active presence.4 Ghormley’s destroyer would be part of that presence. After a brief sojourn to the Baltic Sea, where he escorted relief ships to Petrograd (present-day Saint Petersburg) and Reval (Tallinn), Estonia, he was deployed to where, the Navy said, he was more urgently needed—easily the most fabulous city of the Near East: Constantinople. Suffused with mystery and a touch of the exotic, the city teemed with life and a wild mixture of people, many on the run from the chaos and violence plaguing the region.
Ghormley’s arrival in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) in November 1921 coincided with multiple human catastrophes unfolding in the Near East. Greeks and Turks were fighting for control of remnants of the old Ottoman Empire. Turks were cracking down on Armenians in other sectors of Asia Minor. There was the aftermath of the war between Red and White forces in Russia—a conflict in which the Bolsheviks had prevailed, displacing tens of thousands of Russians who were now on the move, seeking safety and food. The entire region had boiled over, creating “a cauldron of hatred, disease, poverty, and famine,” as one U.S. Navy writer put it.5
Constantinople offered uneasy sanctuary. It had served for centuries as the capital of the now-defunct Ottoman Empire, but after siding with the losing Central Powers in the Great War, the empire was in tatters, the city now the capital of nothing. Still, it remained a strategically important port. Straddling the Bosporus Strait, it linked the Aegean and Mediterranean seas with the Black Sea, a huge body of water about the size of California. It bordered Europe and Russia to the north and, to the south, Asia Minor, present-day Turkey.
Two wars were in various stages of being fought, or terminated, around the Black Sea. Ghormley would visit sites of those conflicts on orders from his new chief, Rear Admiral Mark Bristol, a prickly, hard-driving officer with piercing eyes and a volcanic personality. Bristol was the U.S. High Commissioner in Turkey and the Navy’s senior officer there; he ran U.S. affairs in Turkey the way a machine boss runs a city.
In 1919, Congress had appropriated about $100 million for relief of non-enemy countries of Europe, stipulating expressly help for Armenians, Syrians, Greeks, and other Christian and Jewish population groups of Asia Minor. Now Russians would be added to that list. Hoover’s ARA took steps to deliver foodstuffs and medical supplies to key ports in Ukraine and Russia. A separate group, the American Committee for Relief of the Near East, poured in supplies for stricken areas in Asia Minor. So did the American Red Cross.6 The job of coordinating shipments into the Black Sea ports fell on Admiral Bristol. When cargo ships began arriving at Constantinople in 1920–21, he ordered U.S. naval vessels under his command—six destroyers, a cruiser, and eight subchasers—to escort the ships.
Mission to Odessa
For months, Ghormley, on board the Sands, patrolled the troubled areas of the Black Sea, north and south, impoverished port cities along the Russian and Ukrainian coasts and similarly stricken ports dotting the northern rim of Asia Minor. When he returned from his patrols, he was always relieved and cheered to find his wife, Lucile, waiting for him. To ease the excruciating loneliness that sometimes gripped her husband, she had followed him to Constantinople in late 1921, bringing with her their two children, nine-year-old Dyer and seven-year-old Alicia. Ghormley was elated. Lucile and the kids stayed for months, clearly enjoying themselves. Bristol and his wife took the Ghormleys to dinner. The commander seemed to be in favor.
He may have been, but this didn’t render him immune from Bristol’s harsh judgment when the admiral subjected the Sands to one of his rigorous “white glove” inspections. The destroyer was not “up to the mark,” Bristol ruled. He ordered Ghormley to make corrections, and he told the young officer his ship would be subjected to another inspection on his return from his next mission: a protracted expedition to Russian-area waters in the north and northeast regions of the Black Sea. That sounded like a threat. Ghormley might have been excused for thinking this mission might make or break his career.
With Bristol’s warning hanging over his head, Ghormley, on 8 May, took the Sands into the Black Sea and headed for Odessa. Before the Great War, Odessa had been a beautiful city with a population of 600,000. But after the war the city had been engulfed in a civil conflict in which the Russian White Army had been vanquished by the revolutionary Bolsheviks, the Reds. When the Sands showed up in Odessa’s harbor, the city had been devastated by the effects of war and famine, its population cut in half.7 Hundreds of inhabitants were dying each day, many of them children. “For tales of unburied dead no place surpasses the city of Odessa,” according to one eyewitness account. “Here they are on view in various poses and states of dress, sitting, lying or standing, alone or in pairs, in groups small or large, with families or without.”8
Ghormley’s relief ship might have been a welcome sight. But Odessa was now run by people suspicious of the United States and skeptical of its relief mission. They didn’t like getting aid from capitalist America. When Odessa’s Bolsheviks blocked the Sands’ relief activity, Ghormley’s men took matters into their own hands. “The American sailors were so upset upon seeing so many dying and dead Russians on the streets as well as bodies ‘stacked like cordwood’ in the cemeteries that they saved a portion of their own rations and started feeding the Russians on the pier where the Sands was moored,” Robert Ghormley Jr. wrote years later in his biography of his father. “The Bolsheviks were so outraged that so many of their people were getting help from the hated ‘capitalists’ that they made the Americans stop rendering aid.”9
Ghormley moved on, taking the Sands eastward around the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, through waters in which 100 years later, in yet another deadly twist of Black Sea history, a Russian cruiser would be destroyed by two Ukrainian missiles. Ghormley kept moving, soon reaching battle-scarred Novorossiysk, then Russia’s largest port on the Black Sea. This time he was welcomed by the local Bolsheviks, probably because they knew they had no other way of obtaining the supplies brought in by the Sands. Local Bolsheviks gave Ghormley trouble only when they spotted the destroyer’s officers taking pictures of children at the harbor lined up for food. The picture-taking was stopped, and the Sands’ crew got on with the task at hand: distributing food.
Trouble off Samsun
The Bolshevik ports behind him, Ghormley moved on again, back to the coast of Asia Minor, where new troubles awaited him. He passed by the once embattled city of Trebizond, on the southeastern shore of the Black Sea; finding it quiet, he proceeded 200 miles westward to Samsun, once a flourishing port city, now in ruins. The place was ruled by the forces of Mustafa Kemal, the revolutionary leader who two years earlier had launched the Turkish nationalist movement from Samsun; his army had routed Greek and Armenian forces, killing and deporting thousands.
Ghormley brought the Sands into the port and went ashore. He wanted to meet with Americans stranded in the city; many were volunteers serving in various relief capacities. While he conferred with the military governor, word came in that Greek ships—a flotilla consisting of a battleship, a cruiser, two destroyers, and two trawlers—were advancing on the city, apparently with the intention of bombarding it. Ghormley directed all Americans in Samsun to assemble in a place that would be far from the line of fire.10
Back on board the Sands, he got the ship under way and stood out toward the Greek fleet; he interposed his destroyer between the oncoming Greek vessels and Samsun. Signaling that he wanted to talk, he was allowed on board the flagship of the Greek fleet, the cruiser Naxos, and met with the senior officer present, a Captain Vriacos. Ghormley urged Vriacos to call off the assault, letting him know there were many Americans and other foreigners in the city who would be imperiled. Vriacos ignored Ghormley’s plea, instead giving him a letter to convey to the military governor in Samsun; the letter said the Greek force would open fire on the city unless the Turks ceased the atrocities they were said to be committing against the Christian population.11
After reading the Greek commander’s letter, delivered by Ghormley, the Samsun governor prepared a strongly worded reply, denouncing as “a dream” Vriacos’ charges that Turkish forces had committed atrocities. He also asserted that since Samsun was an unfortified city, any attack on it would be a violation of international law. “Therefore,” he wrote, “I protest any action you may make against the city.” He wanted Ghormley to deliver the message, an insistence that put the American captain in a difficult spot; he didn’t want to be this chieftain’s errand boy. The governor exerted pressure on Ghormley by rejecting the captain’s strong request that he be allowed to evacuate the Americans. In effect, they were being held hostage.
Ghormley took the Sands back out to the Greek flotilla, again interposing her between the warships and the city. The Greek commander read the governor’s reply and stated that, in view of his refusal to meet Greek demands, he would bombard Samsun, and he told Ghormley to move his destroyer out of the line of fire. Ghormley wired to Bristol the answer he gave Vriacos: “I PROTEST BOMBARDMENT UNFORTIFIED TOWN IN NAME OF HUMANITY AND UNTIL SUCH TIME AS I AM ASSURED ALL AMERICANS AND OTHER NEUTRALS ARE IN SAFETY.”12
Under Bristol’s previously stated orders, Ghormley did move the Sands out of the way; he didn’t really have a choice. The commander already had stretched his orders to the limit; he was in the waters of Asia Minor to observe and assist in relief efforts, not to be a combatant. When he shifted his ship to the far side of the harbor, the Greek ships opened fire. Turkish shore batteries replied; it turned out that Samsun wasn’t totally unfortified. The exchange continued for about three hours, with the Greek ships doing most of the shooting. Then, late in the afternoon, the cannonade ended. The Greek commander, apparently satisfied he had made his point, withdrew all his ships. None had been sunk or even much damaged.
Ghormley went ashore to inspect the damage. He found a lot of destruction; oil storage facilities had been blown up along with some ammunition sites, and many public buildings and private homes had been either destroyed or badly mauled. There had been some loss of life. Four Turks were killed and three wounded. But no Americans had been injured. Ghormley effected their evacuation without harm to any.
A Decisive, Quick-Thinking Officer
Back in Constantinople, Bristol was impressed. Drawing on Ghormley’s report, he devoted no fewer than five pages of his war diary to the deeds and decisions of the Sands’ captain. Not that he filled those pages with praise of this officer; that wasn’t Bristol’s style. He mentioned Ghormley just once, referring to him only by title: “the commanding officer of the Sands.” He recounted the captain’s actions chronologically, hour by hour, and let those actions speak for themselves. The picture that emerged was that of a quick-thinking officer acting decisively, displaying courage, exercising sound judgment, and, of best of all, saving American lives. The diary told the story in “just-the-facts” language. It was clear that Ghormley was back in Bristol’s good graces. The admiral had no problems with Ghormley’s leadership.
The good mood lasted. Reinspecting the Sands, the admiral found “a most decided improvement” and declared the ship “in satisfactory condition.” Out from under a cloud, Ghormley could breathe easy. His Near East tour had been completed. He was pulling out at a good time, because events on the northern and southern shores of the Black Sea were spinning out of control. The Bolsheviks in Russia’s Black Sea ports were becoming more obstreperous. “[No] Communist ever doubted that we had some sinister purpose in all this activity,” Hoover wrote years later.13 Still, he was pleased by the role ARA had played providing relief during the 1920–22 famine. “In the acute period of the spring [of 1921] we were giving food to 18,000,000 persons,” he noted in his memoirs.14 By the summer of 1922, disputes between the relief administration and the Soviets had ruptured the program. The ARA shut down its Russia operations in July 1923.15
Greek, Armenian, and Turkish forces would fight until 1923, when the armies of Kemal—soon to be known as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—would vanquish his foes and establish the Republic of Turkey. The Allied occupation of Constantinople ended on 4 October 1923, and the former capital of the Ottoman Empire would be transferred to the new republic. By that time Ghormley was gone. On 8 July 1922, he exited Constantinople and took the Sands westward. By mid-August the ship was at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, where she was due for an overhaul. Change was also in the works for Ghormley. On 30 August, he was relieved of his command and ordered to shore duty. Another high Navy official, this one Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Navy, wanted him to serve as his personal aide.
Ghormley’s Rise and Fall
During the next 20 years, Ghormley would command another ship just once: the USS Nevada (BB-36), in 1935–36. While he would have other periods of sea duty, Ghormley would spend the bulk of those two decades behind a desk. The jobs he held were important. After a stint at the Navy War College in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1937–38, he served as director of war plans, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), in Washington, in 1938–39, followed by a spell as assistant CNO, 1939–40, during which time he ascended to rear admiral. In August 1940, the Navy ordered him to London, where he served as Special Naval Observer of Britain’s naval and strategic plans; he was now a vice admiral.
Several months after the United States entered World War II, he was appointed Commander, South Pacific Area, a position he assumed in June 1942. Regarded as a skilled naval strategist, he seemed ideal for the job. Nimitz relieved him of that post five months later, on 18 October, midway through the Guadalcanal campaign, amid rumors he had failed to exert strong leadership.
If Admiral Bristol had been around in 1942 (he died in 1939), he might have asked, What happened to the “Black Sea Ghormley?” Critics might have pointed out that the admiral hadn’t skippered a ship in five years, let alone a task force; he had been too valuable in Washington. The question arises whether Ghormley might have been better prepared for his task in the South Pacific had he spent more time at sea, commanding ships, and less time holding down all those important staff jobs and serving as somebody’s aide.
1. Harold H. Fisher, The Famine in Soviet Russia, 1919–1923: The Operations of the American Relief Administration (New York: Macmillan, 1927), 258.
2. Ghormley to Lucile Ghormley, 21 January 1921, Robert L. Ghormley Papers, Joyner Library Special Collections, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC.
3. Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Cabinet and the Presidency 1920–1933 (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 23.
4. Bertrand M. Patenaude, The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine Year of 1921 (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 151–52.
5. USS Sands I (Destroyer No. 243) 1920–1945, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Naval History and Heritage Command (hereafter NHHC).
6. Henry F. Beers, “U.S. Naval Detachment in Turkish Waters, 1919–1924,” Office of Records Administration, Navy Department, 1943.
7. Fisher, The Famine in Soviet Russia, 258.
8. Patenaude, The Big Show in Bololand, 230–31.
9. Robert Ghormley Jr., unpublished biography of his father, VADM Robert L. Ghormley, Robert L. Ghormley Papers, 8–9.
10. RADM Mark Bristol, war diary, May, June, July 1922 folders, Boxes 3–4, Mark L. Bristol papers, Library of Congress.
11. Bristol, war diary, May, June, July 1922.
12. Bristol, war diary, May, June, July 1922.
13. Hoover, Memoirs, 24–26.
14. Hoover, 24–26.