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Medal of Honor Monday: Navy Cmdr. Howard Walter Gilmore

Navy Cmdr. Howard Walter Gilmore ordered many daring maneuvers while his submarine, USS Growler, prowled the waters of the Pacific Ocean during World War II. It was the last command he gave, however — given from atop the submerging vessel — that earned him a place in history and the Medal of Honor.

Gilmore was born in Selma, Alabama, on Sept. 29, 1902, to Walter and Vernon. He had a younger sister named Francis. According to the Chicago Tribune, he went to high school in Meridian, Mississippi, and in Texas before enlisting in the Navy.

A man in a white dress uniform and white cap looks forward.
Howard W. Gilmore
Navy Cmdr. Howard W. Gilmore, Medal of Honor recipient.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 220202-N-D0439-047

Known to be intelligent and ambitious, Gilmore served as a yeoman 2nd class before entering the Naval Academy through a competitive exam in 1922. Four years later, he graduated as an ensign. His first few years were spent on various assignments before going to submarine school in 1931.

In 1932, Gilmore married Hilda St. Raymond. They had two children, Howard Jr. and Vernon, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Meanwhile, in his career, Gilmore continued to climb the ladder. By the late 1930s he had become the executive officer and then commanding officer of the USS Shark. During that tenure, he survived having his throat cut while on shore in Panama, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.

A submarine sits on the surface of the ocean.
USS Growler
The USS Growler circa 1943.
Photo By: Navy/National Archives
VIRIN: 220202-N-D0439-048

By late 1941, Gilmore was named commander of the new submarine, the USS Growler, which set sail for the Pacific Theater in March 1942. A few months later, the Growler embarked on its first war patrol in the Aleutian Islands and quickly made a name for itself. The crew attacked three Japanese destroyers near Kiska Island; two of them were severely damaged and the third sank, while the Growler barely managed to dodge torpedoes fired by the ailing enemy ships.

The sub's second war patrol lasted nearly two months and was considered Gilmore's most successful, according to the National Medal of Honor Museum. The museum said Gilmore ordered the sinking of four merchant ships in the East China Sea near Taiwan and scored hits on one in every three torpedoes it fired. Gilmore's leadership during those first two patrols earned him two Navy Crosses.

While the Growler's third patrol was uneventful, its fourth would be devastating, and Gilmore's last.

On Jan. 1, 1943, the Growler set sail from its new home base of Brisbane, Australia, to continue patrolling for the enemy. Throughout January, the Growler boldly struck at its enemies, despite hostile air and anti-submarine patrols. According to his Medal of Honor citation, Gilmore ordered the sinking of a Japanese freighter and damaged another with torpedoes. During the battles, the Growler successfully evaded damage from depth charges the enemy deployed.

Unfortunately, Gilmore's luck ran out on Feb. 7. That night, the Growler surfaced somewhere between Micronesia and Papua New Guinea so it could attack a Japanese convoy. An enemy food supply vessel-turned gunship, the Hayasaki, noticed the Growler's movements, so it closed range and prepared to ram the American sub. Gilmore had the ship maneuver so it would avoid the crash, but it rammed the Hayasaki instead. The blow seriously damaged the Growler's bow and disabled its forward torpedo tubes.

Three sailors sit in a small boat alongside a damaged submarine, which is next to a larger ship.
USS Growler
A damaged USS Growler sits alongside USS Fulton at Brisbane, Australia, a few days after ramming a Japanese vessel in the South Pacific on Feb. 7, 1943. Growler's commanding officer, Cmdr. Howard W. Gilmore, lost his life during the battle.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 430217-N-D0439-018

Soon after, the Hayasaki's machine guns started firing at near point-blank range, killing two men on the Growler's bridge and injuring three more, including Gilmore.

There was little time to get those still on the bridge back inside the sub before they needed to dive to escape the onslaught. A few men had made it back down the conning tower when a seriously injured Gilmore realized the sub wouldn't make it if it waited for him to get back inside. Records show that's when he gave his now-famous order to "Take her down!" as he remained on the sub's surface.

Growler's executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Arnold Schade, was dazed from falling down the conning tower after pulling the remaining men on the bridge back inside. He hesitated for only a second before obeying his commander's orders and submerging the Growler.

The next day, Schade took the Growler back to the scene of the incident to find Gilmore, but the effort was fruitless. The bodies of the men who were killed by the Hayasaki's gunfire were also lost.

A man puts a medal around a woman's neck. Two small children stand beside them.
Medal of Honor
Hilda Gilmore is presented with the Medal of Honor for her late husband, Navy Cmdr. Howard W. Gilmore, by Navy Rear Adm. Andrew C. Bennett on Aug. 18, 1943. Standing by are the Gilmore's son, Howard Jr., and daughter, Vernon Jeanne.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 430818-N-D0439-017Z
A woman places a medal around a boy's neck. A girl and another man watch.
Medal of Honor
Hilda Gilmore transfers her late husband’s Medal of Honor to her son, Howard Jr., at the ceremony in which the medal was posthumously awarded to Navy Cmdr. Howard W. Gilmore.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 430818-N-D0439-018Z

Despite serious damage, the Growler made it back to Brisbane in one piece thanks to Gilmore's incredible leadership and courage. For his sacrifice, Gilmore became the first submariner of World War II to earn the Medal of Honor. It was presented to Gilmore's wife, Hilda, on July 13, 1943, during a ceremony in New Orleans. Schade, who commanded the Growler to safety once Gilmore gave his last order, earned the Navy Cross.

The Growler went on seven more war patrols in which it sank several more enemy ships and rescued Allied war prisoners from a sunken Japanese "hell ship," the Navy said. By Nov. 8, 1944, its time had run out; the Growler was sunk in battle while on its eleventh war patrol off the Philippine coast.

While Gilmore's body was never recovered, his name is listed on the Wall of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines. The submarine tender USS Howard W. Gilmore, which was commissioned in May 1944, was named in his honor.

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.

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