Howard Gilmore was born in Alabama, and joined the navy when he turned 18. For an enlisted man to become an officer was a rarity at the time, but after 2 years he was appointed to Annapolis following competitive examinations.
He was, as a fellow officer described him, "one of the finest men I ever knew, but he was born under an unlucky star." While ashore in Panama during the shakedown cruise of the submarine U.S.S. Shark, he was attacked by local thugs and had his throat cut. He survived, but was left with a bad scar.
A few years later his first wife died, at a young age, from a disabling disease.
The day after the Pearl Harbor attack he was assigned to command the U.S.S. Growler, a submarine that was nearing completion. He supervised her during commissioning, and then took her through the Panama canal to fight in the Pacific.
Through 4 patrols, he led his crew on a series of successes. In July, 1942 Growler single-handedly attacked 3 Japanese destroyers, sinking one and badly damaging the other two. He was awarded the Navy Cross for this action. On a second patrol later that year he sank 4 Japanese merchant ships.
Shortly after Growler left on her 4th patrol, his 2nd wife fell down a flight of stairs and was in a coma for several months. Because his sub had already left, this information wasn't relayed on.
In early February, 1943, Growler was hunting off the Solomon islands, sinking one freighter and damaging another. Just after 1:00 a.m., in the early morning of February 7, 1943, she was stalking a Japanese convoy and preparing for a surface attack. Gilmore and 6 others were out on the bridge, planning strategy, when they were spotted by the enemy.
A convoy escort, Hayasaki, came after them, intending to ram the sub. In the darkness the course change wasn't immediately seen, and the enemy vessel got quite close before being detected. Gilmore ordered a sharp turn... but it was too late.
Growler struck the Hayasaki amidships. The collision bent the submarine's bow sharply to the left and destroyed her forward torpedo tubes. As Gilmore ordered the crew to clear the bridge and get below, they were raked with machine gun fire. Two crewmen were killed, and Gilmore was wounded.
The Japanese vessel, undamaged, raced away and turned around, intending to ram the submarine again and send her to the bottom. Gilmore, wounded and now the only living person on the bridge, couldn't get to the hatch quickly and realized the submarine had to dive immediately if she were to have any hope of surviving. He yelled "Take her down!", repeating the order to make sure he was understood. He knew this would leave him on the surface to drown.
Growler's executive officer, Arnold Schade, hesitated for a few seconds, but realized the situation, too. He followed the commander's last order and submerged to avoid the oncoming ship.
After hiding deep to escape Hayasaki for several hours, Schade brought Growler to the surface. The Japanese ship had left, and the submarine slowly cruised around the area looking for Gilmore while the crew carried out makeshift repairs. Though badly damaged, she was able to make it to Brisbane.
Commander Gilmore was never found. His posthumous Medal of Honor was presented to his widow when she recovered from her injury.