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"Take 'Er Down!": The Story of Commander Gilmore

One of the most notable stories of individual heroism in World War II belongs to Commander Howard Walter Gilmore, husband of Hilda (née St. Raymond) Gilmore, Jeff Vitter's 1st cousin 1x removed. During a surface battle at sea while commander on the submarine USS Growler, Commander Gilmore was hit by machine-gun fire. Unable to get below in time, but determined to save his crew, he yelled his now-famous final order, "Take 'er down!" — a command since ubiquitous in Navy lore and used routinely by submarine commanders. For his ultimate sacrifice, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration.

Photo 1: U. S. Navy Commander and WWII hero Howard W. Gilmore. Photo 2: Rear Admiral Carl Bennett presents Commander Gilmore's Medal of Honor to his widow Hilda St. Raymond Gilmore, flanked by their children.

Commander Gilmore was born in 1902 in Selma, Alabama and also lived in Meridian, Mississippi, where he is buried, and New Orleans. He joined the United States Navy, and then during a competitive examination was admitted to the United States Naval Academy, where he graduated 34th out of 436 in the Class of 1926. He was assigned to the USS Mississippi and then served in a number of submarine and support roles.

He endured several hardships during his lifetime. While executive officer of the USS Shark, he almost died while on a shore excursion in Panama when some thugs attacked him and cut his throat. It is said that he had a first wife who died young from a disease, although we cannot find a record of that marriage. At the time he died at sea, his wife Hilda was in a coma from a fall down the stairs.

Commander Gilmore assumed command of the USS Growler the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was well-liked by his men and effective as strategist and leader. During his first three patrols, the Growler damaged and/or sank numerous Japanese destroyers and merchant ships, and for his prowess Commander Gilmore was awarded the Navy Cross and (in lieu of a second Navy Cross) a gold star.

The climactic scene (16:00 mark) of the movie The Growler Story, made by the Department of Defense in 1958 (click to play, and double-click to enlarge).

During his fateful fourth patrol on board the Growler, Commander Gilmore and crew cautiously approached a Japanese convoy for a surface attack. Suddently, the convoy escort Hayasaki began to close in and prepared to ram the Growler. Commander Gilmore skillfully maneuvered the Growler away and was instead able to ram the attacking ship. As the Hayasaki began to sink, it sprayed the Growler with machine gun fire. Commander Gilmore ordered everyone to "Clear the deck!", but he got hit and fell wounded.

Unable to get to the hatch, he then yelled his famous command, "Take 'er down!", sacrificing himself for the good of his crew. After a moment's hesitation, the executive officer complied and the Growler submerged. To make sure there were no more depth charges, the Growler remained submerged for about an hour and then resurfaced, but there was no sign of either Commander Gilmore or the Hayasaki. Inspired by the memory of their heroic commander, the crew of the Growler was able to get the sub safely back to port.

Commander Gilmore received numerous decorations during his naval career:

  • Medal of Honor,
  • Navy Cross with gold star,
  • Purple Heart,
  • Combat Action Ribbon,
  • Navy Unit Commendation,
  • American Defense Service Medal with service star,
  • American Campaign Medal,
  • Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with four bronze campaign stars,
  • World War II Victory Medal,
  • Navy Rifle Marksmanship Ribbon, and
  • Navy Pistol Marksmanship Ribbon.
Commander Gilmore's life and story inspired a half dozen books and movies, including

On 16 September 1943, the submarine tender USS Howard W. Gilmore was christened in his memory, and it served ably for the U.S. Navy, primarily in waters around the East Coast, Caribbean, and Mediterranean, until decomissioned on 30 September 1980. Jeff Vitter's sister Donna remembers going when she was a child to a ceremony in New Orleans for the USS Howard W. Gilmore, most likely during a deployment of the ship to New Orleans one weekend in November 1955 (coincidentally the same month Jeff was born!).

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