William Harrison Standley was born in Ukiah, California, on December 18, 1872, the son of Jeremiah M. "Doc" Standley who was the Mendocino County Sheriff at the time, and of Sara Jane Clay Standley. After attending school in California and Maryland, Standley entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1891 and graduated in 1897.
During his long naval career, Standley rose from ensign to the rank of Admiral. He served in a variety of assignments during this career, the most notable included Commandant of Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) (1933-1937), Acting Secretary of the Navy (1933-1937), and a member of the United States delegation to the London Naval Conference (1935-1936). Retiring in January 1937, Admiral Standley returned to active duty in February 1941, first serving as naval representative on the planning board of the Office of Production Management, then as part of the Beaverbrook-Harriman Special War Supply Mission to the U.S.S.R. (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), and lastly as a member of the Navy Board for Production Awards. He also was a member of the first Roberts Commission (1941-1942), a fact-finding commission which investigated the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Subsequently recalled to active duty one last time, in March 1944, Standley served in the Office of Strategic Services throughout the remaining period of the war. He was relieved of all active duty on August 31, 1945.
In addition to his naval career, Admiral Standley was for a time U.S. Ambassador to the U.S.S.R., appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1942-1943). He wrote about this period in Admiral Ambassador to Russia with Admiral Arthur A. Ageton, published in 1955.
Admiral Standley was honored with many awards, citations, and commendations both during his lifetime and posthumously. These honors included the Distinguished Service Medal (World War II); Commendation Letter Baler Reconnaissance Expedition (1901); Commendation Letter as Captain of the USS California (1926); Cavaliers Di Gran Groce (Italy, 1934); Star of "Abdon Calderon" First Class (Ecuador, 1936); Honorary Degree, Doctor of Law, University of California (1944); Honorary Degree, Doctor of Laws, University of Southern California (1952); Award of Merit, Daughters of the American Revolution (1957); Golden Nurse Award, American National Red Cross (1963); the USS William Harrison Standley DG 32 (1964); the Admiral William Standley State Recreation Area in Northern California; and the William H. Standley Middle School, San Diego, CA.
Admiral Standley lived in final retirement in San Diego, California, until his death on October 25, 1963.