Today is the 80th anniversary of a very brave, self-sacrificial act that is well known by all American submariners. The story I talk about below occurred on February 7th, 1943, when America was at war against Japanese imperialists. It took place aboard the USS Growler, a Gato-class submarine. The hero of the story is Commander Howard W. Gilmore. Let’s take a look.
My first brush with the story of the Growler occurred when I was very young, and was playing a game called “Gato” (made by Spectrum Holobyte) on the Macintosh computer that my parents bought for my older brother. In the game, you played as the commander of the USS Growler. COMSUBPAC (Commander of Submarines in the Pacific) would send me missions, and I would execute them. I was able to find an online version that ran in Microsoft’s Edge browser on archive.org.
So, here is an article from the Submarine Force Museum about the USS Growler and Commander Howard W. Gilmore.
Howard Walter Gilmore was born in Selma, Alabama on September 29, 1902. He enlisted in the Navy on November 15, 1920 and was appointed to the US Naval Academy in 1922. In 1926 he was sent to his first station on the battleship USS Mississippi (BB-41). By 1930, Gilmore was seeking something new and exciting and underwent submarine training in New London.
[…]By March of 1942, construction of the Growler was finished, and Gilmore and his crew would operate out of Pearl Harbor in the Pacific theater.
Their first war patrol would come in late June 1942 in the Aleutian Islands. During this patrol, Gilmore once again narrowly escaped disaster, avoiding two torpedoes that were fired at him during an attack by three Japanese destroyers. In August, they would leave for their second patrol in the East China Sea near Taiwan. During what would end up being Growler’s most successful war patrol, they sunk four merchant ships totaling 15,000 tons. Her third patrol was quiet, and she would remain in Brisbane, Australia for the rest of 1942.
The Growler and her crew left Brisbane on New Year’s Day 1943 for her fourth war patrol. Her mission was to target Japanese shipping lanes in the Bismarck Archipelago. In early February, while charging her batteries on the surface, Gilmore spotted a provision ship and prepared for a surface attack. The 900-ton provision ship Hayasaki saw the on-coming submarine and attempted to ram the Growler. In the darkness, Gilmore “sounded the collision alarm and shouted, ‘Left full rudder!’-to no avail.
Perhaps inadvertently, Growler hit the Japanese adversary amidships at 17 knots, heeling the submarine 50 degrees, bending sideways 18 feet of her the bow, and disabling the forward torpedo tubes.” The Japanese crew began firing at the bridge, killing the assistant officer and a lookout who were on deck. Gilmore and two other men were also wounded during the burst of gun fire. Gilmore, without thinking, called for the bridge to be cleared. Gilmore realized that if they dove, the Growler could be saved, but there was no time for him to make it below. Despite this, he gave the call to “Take her down!”
LCDR Arnold Schade, shaken and unsure, followed the last order his captain would ever give him. Schade would surface the ship a few hours later but found no sign of the Hayasaki. There was also no sign of Gilmore. Schade and the crew were able to keep the battered ship together long enough to make it back to Brisbane on February 17th. Gilmore’s death would unfortunately not be the only tragedy for the Growler. On her 11th war patrol in 1944, she was lost at sea. By her end, The Growler received eight battle stars for her role in the Pacific War.
CDR Howard Gilmore was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his sacrifice to save his ship.
Whenever I see that someone has earned a Medal of Honor – the highest military award that can be given – I always look up their Medal of Honor citation.
There’s a good episode of “The Silent Service” about Gilmore:
As a Christian, I try to make the words of the Bible more practical by reading stories that parallel some of the teachings of Jesus. In this case, Gilmore is pretty clearly living out that command to “love your neighbor as yourself” and “in humility consider others more important than yourselves” and “greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”. What’s interesting to me about this story is that it’s not an enlisted man or a lower officer who is doing it, it’s the Commander of the boat.
If you’re at all interested in getting started in learning military history, a good place to start is with the American submarine commanders in the Pacific. The enemy we fought was very clearly evil, and treated civilians and prisoners horribly. They attacked us first at Pearl Harbor. I have found the commanders to be mostly men of extraordinary intelligence and character. I especially recommend the books “Wahoo” and “Clear the Bridge!” by Richard O’Kane, and “Thunder Below” by Eugene Fluckey. Right now, I am reading Charles Lockwood’s “Sink ‘Em All”. Those can all be obtained as audio books, too. I just got “Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War against Japan” in the mail.
If you like board games, there is a good board game called “Silent Victory”, but it’s out of print. The manufacturer is trying to collect 500 orders in order to do a third printing. If you prefer computer games, “Crash Dive 2” puts you in command of a Gato-class submarine, and it’s not too complicated.