Retired Vice Adm. Robert Ward Hayler, 89, a cruiser commander in the Pacific during World War II who became one of the Navy's most decorated officers by virtue of three Navy Crosses and numerous other citations, died of pneumonia Monday in a retirement home in Carmel, Calif.
When the United States went to war in 1941, Adm. Hayler was a captain who had spent most of his career as a torpedo and gunnery officer. He had spent his whole professional life, in fact, preparing to fight surface actions between ships armed with heavy guns and torpedoes. He was to play a notable part in some of the last such battles ever fought.
In July 1942, he was appointed skipper of the light cruiser Honolulu and took her into the South Pacific. At the time, the Japanese advances had reached their farthest limit and the fortunes of the United States and its allies were close to their nadir.
The future admiral's first war service was in the Solomon Islands in connection with the capture by the Americans of Guadalcanal. The Solomons operation proved to be one of the turning points in the fortunes of war.
One of the many naval engagements of the campaign was the Battle of Tassafaronga, fought on Nov. 30, 1942. There Capt. Hayler won his first, Navy Cross, a decoration that ranks second only to the Medal of Honor. The citation called attendion to his "extraordianary heroism and courage."
Eight months later, he won his second Navy Cross during the fighting for the Central Solomons. The citation said he "skillfully led a column of cruisers in submarine infested waters and effectively bombarded enemy shore batteries in the face of intense enemy fire."
While under Capt. Hayler's comand, the Honolulu received a Navy Unit citation.
In March 1944, Capt. Hayler was promoted to rear admiral and assumed command of Cruiser Division 12. In October of that year, he was present at the Battle of Surigao Strait, and earned his third Navy Cross.
The citation read in part, "He delivered a smashing naval bombardment from his men-of-war, surprising the enemy. Detached from his task force to pursue fleeing warships, he resolutely held to an undeviating course which brought the decisive action to a close and completed the annihilation of a large and vital portion of the Japanese fleet."
Adm. Hayler's other decorations included the Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, two Bronze Star Medals, and a commendation letter from the secretary of the Navy.
In March 1945, Adm. Hayler was transferred to Washington to serve as a member of the Navy Department's General Board. Two years later, he became senior member on the board of decorations and medals. He commanded the 6th Naval District in Charleston, S.C., before retiring from active duty in 1951.
He had lived in Carmel since the 1950s.
Adm. Hayler was a native of Sandusky, Ohio, and a 1914 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He served abroad battleships during World War II, he commanded destroyers.
His wife, the former Nola Agnes Birch, died in 1974.
Adm. Hayler's survivors include two sons, retired Navy Capt. Robert W. Jr., of Arlington, and retired Navy Capt. William B., of Vallejo, Calif.: two sisters, Dorothy Worley of Wayne, Pa., and Winifred Hertel of Knoxville, Tenn., and four grandchildren.