Howard Walter Gilmore was born in Selma, Alabama on September 29, 1902. Upon graduating from the US Naval academy in June 1926, Gilmore served aboard the battleship Mississippi and the destroyer Perry (DD-340). After qualifying for submarines, he served aboard the USS S-48 (SS 159) and the SHARK (SS-174).
Gilmore was appointed Captain in 1941, while his ship, the Growler (SS-215), was still under construction at Electric Boat in Groton, CT. Growler launched on 2 November 1941, (five weeks prior to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor) and breezed through her sea trials. Gilmore quickly received their orders – Growler was headed to Pearl Harbor.
While Growler was on route to Pearl Harbor, Naval Intelligence had cracked the Japanese naval code and gathered details of “Operation MI” – ADM Yamamoto’s plan to seize the Island of Midway and force the US Navy into battle, which he hoped would break down American sea power. ADM Nimitz, having the advantage of knowing Japan’s plans, formulated his own plans. Included in these plans was the formation of a defensive line of submarines situated in a 300 mile arc, which would essentially block Hawaii from Japanese attack. However, while Hawaii sat well-protected, Yamamoto’s fleet attacked the Aleutians and occupied the islands. In response, ADM Nimitz sent seven submarines, including the Growler, up to Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, to handle this threat.
Nestled within a bank of thick fog, Nimitz’s group started flexing its muscles. USS Triton sighted and sank the Japanese destroyer, Nenchi, on the fourth of July. Not to be outdone, Gilmore and the Growler had three destroyers in their sights as they emerged from the port of Kiska. Targeting the three vessels was unheard of, as the rate of success was negligible, but Gilmore had faith in his boat and his crew. Bringing Growler to the proper bearing, range, and speed, Gilmore aimed one torpedo at the two lead destroyers and an additional two at the third vessel. The first shot missed its mark, alerting the enemy to Growler’s presence. The destroyer immediately dropped two torpedoes of its own. Gilmore called for the Growler to retreat and the crew to prepare for attack. Depth charges exploded around her, all miraculously missing their mark. At the end of the attack, Growler returned to periscope depth where Gilmore could see that the other three torpedoes he had initially sent out, had reached their targets. The Japanese destroyer Arare, had been sunk and a second destroyer was damaged and had to be towed back to Japan for repairs. So impressive was Gilmore’s attack, a Japanese Admiral told his superiors that it “was a daring and skillful attack,” that was “admirably executed.”
Growler was next sent to Formosa, where during her 13 day stay, she sank four supply ships. Only on her second patrol, Growler had already racked up an impressive tally.
Growler’s 4th patrol began on 16 January, 1943 in Guadalcanal, where US presence and fighting had been heavy. Gilmore wasted no time….Growler intercepted a Japanese convoy, sending a transport ship to the bottom. Three nights later, Growler would successfully torpedo another vessel. It seemed that Gilmore was unstoppable.
Tides began to turn however, with Growler experiencing problems with her underwater weapon system. The last seven convoys attacked by Growler would result in zero hits. This was a devastating and frustrating blow to a crew used to success. Not to be held down, Gilmore pushed ahead.
On the night of 31 January, Gilmore, resting in his cabin, was urgently called to the bridge. They had come across an enemy gunboat. With Gilmore at the watch, he brought the boat in the sights and closed in for a close attack – necessitated by Growler’s persistent underwater weapon ails. At 4,000 yards out, the gunboat spotted Growler and swung its gun turret in her direction. Luck would continue to smile upon Gilmore as Growler was able to escape the ensuing attack without damage.
By the 4th of February, Gilmore and his crew were running patrol in Steffen Strait. Once again, Growler would find itself under the attack of a Japanese destroyer. Gilmore’s luck would once again hold out, as Growler managed to escape with only a ruptured manhole gasket, despite the full and relentless attack by the destroyer. Gilmore and his crew were able to mend the gasket, allowing Growler to continue on.
In the early hours of 7 February, an echo suddenly flashed on Growler’s sonar screen. Looking through his glasses, Gilmore could barely make out the shadow of a patrol boat off his starboard bow. Gilmore called for a hard left rudder. Without the advantage of radar, the patrol boat was unaware of Growler’s presence. However, as the patrol boat unknowingly passed by, it got caught in Growler’s wake, causing it to rise and fall. The pitching alerted the Japanese watch to the submarine. The gunboat turned hard starboard, right into Growler’s path. Before any steps could be taken to avert, the boat’s bow bore down on Growler. Gilmore hit the siren, warning his crew of the impending collision. As the crew prepared down below, Growler slammed into the gunboat, causing her to come to an abrupt stop. Gilmore and his bridge crew were thrown to the deck by the sudden impact. The sound of Growler’s bow scraping the length of the gunboat was deafening. As Gilmore and his crew rose to their feet, the Japanese opened fire, scattering the bridge with bullets. The fallout was immediate and devastating – Fireman Third Class Kelley was hit in the chest, Ensign Williams was badly injured, and two lookouts were wounded as bullets splintered the bridge. Gilmore, with his arm hanging uselessly by his side, gave the order to “Clear the bridge!” He helplessly leaned on the periscope for support as his wounded crew was brought below. As his Lieutenant and Quartermaster returned for Gilmore, he motioned them away. He had been hit again by bullet fire and knew that the time he had to save his crew was short. The two men, fighting their instinct to remain, followed Gilmore’s orders to get below. The Executive Officer, waiting at the bottom of the ladder, heard Gilmore’s fateful order to “Take ‘er down!” By doing so, Gilmore would give Growler a chance to escape, but he would also seal his own fate.
Miraculously, Growler survived. Thanks to Gilmore’s selfless order, Growler and his men would return to combat. After repair, Growler would sink an additional 33,000 tons of Japanese shipping vessels. She would also go on to carry out a “double” by sinking two destroyers – the Hirato and Shikinami – on the same day. (Sadly, two months later, she would be depth charged by Japanese escorts, sending Growler and her crew to the bottom of the Pacific.)
For his heroics Gilmore was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
*Information from Captains of War: They Fought Beneath the Sea by Edwyn Gray*