Howard Walter Gilmore was born in Selma, Alabama, on 29 September 1902. He enlisted in the Navy at the age of eighteen; two years later he scored high enough on the entrance examination to be accepted into the Naval Academy. He was commissioned in 1926 and sent to a battleship; in 1930 he volunteered for submarine duty. He served as executive officer of USS SHARK (SS-174), during whose shakedown cruise Gilmore and another officer had their throats slashed during a stop in Panama; although scarred, both survived. He took command of SHARK in 1941, but was transferred to the not-yet-commissioned USS GROWLER (SS-215) the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He and his new boat began their first war patrol on 29 June 1942, just three months after GROWLER joined the fleet.
After three successful patrols, Gilmore and GROWLER set off on their fourth on New Year’s Day of 1943. At about one o’clock in the morning on 7 February the boat made contact with what Gilmore believed was a converted gunboat that they had failed to sink the week before. (In actuality, it turned out to be Hayasaki, a provision ship.) Gilmore climbed to the bridge while the crew went to battle stations. What he failed to notice was that as GROWLER moved into position for an attack, Hayasaki sighted the sub and, as the patrol report says, “reversed course to attack.” Moments later, Gilmore, still on the bridge, sounded the collision alarm and yelled, “Left full rudder!” Instead of moving GROWLER out of Hayasaki’s path, however, the move put her directly in it. “GROWLER hit enemy vessel head on, swinging with left rudder, at 17 knots,” the patrol report reads, “striking him halfway between his bow and bridge. The impact was terrific….”
Almost immediately the Japanese manned their machine guns and put GROWLER in their sights. The two men on the bridge with Gilmore—the assistant officer of the deck and a lookout—were killed. Gilmore, injured and clinging to the frame of the bridge, shouted, “Clear the bridge!” Two lookouts, the officer of the deck, and the quartermaster obeyed; executive officer Arnold Schade dropped down into the boat and waited for his commanding officer at the bottom of the ladder. Gilmore’s Medal of Honor citation describes his next action: “Struck down by the fusillade of bullets and having done his utmost against the enemy, in his final living moments, Comdr. Gilmore gave his last order to the officer of the deck, ‘Take her down.’ ”
Schade, obviously torn, waited thirty more seconds before giving the order to submerge. As his boat sank beneath him, Gilmore floated away. There is no way of knowing how long he survived before succumbing to his wounds and the elements. His body and those of the other two men killed on the bridge were never found. Schade took command of the stricken GROWLER and got her back to Brisbane for repairs with eighteen feet of her bow bent at a right angle to the rest of the boat.
In his comments on the patrol, the commander of Task Force Forty-Two James Fife noted that Gilmore “fought his ship with complete disregard for personal safety and with only the one idea of inflicting maximum destruction upon the enemy.”
“GROWLER will be repaired and will fight again,” Fife continued. “Not so with Commander Gilmore. He has been one of the outstanding Submarine Captains in the Pacific war to date. His loss will be keenly felt by all who know him and will be consoling to the enemy. He cannot be replaced.”
In 1943, the Navy honored the fallen commander by naming the submarine tender USS HOWARD W. GILMORE (AS-16) after him; the vessel was sponsored by his widow. The Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History, Inc., ensured that his family would have a gravesite to visit by erecting a stone in his mother’s family plot at Magnolia Cemetery in Meridian, Mississippi.