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H-Gram 015: "Take Her Down!" and "Remember the Maine!" 

6 February 2018 

Contents

1. “Take Her Down!”— Commander Howard Gilmore and USS Growler (SS-215)

2. Guadalcanal Campaign: Battle of Rennell Island and Operation Ke

3. "Remember the Maine!"

 

75th Anniversary of World War II

“Take Her Down!”— Commander Howard Gilmore and USS Growler (SS-215)

"For distinguished gallantry above and beyond the call of duty." In the night of 7 February 1943, Commander Howard Gilmore, USN, sacrificed his life to save his boat and his men, becoming the first submariner in World War II to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Gilmore had already been awarded two Navy Crosses for his valor on the first two war patrols of USS Growler (SS-215), including sinking the Japanese destroyer Arare and damaging two other destroyers (and barely dodging their torpedo counter-attack) in one attack on his first patrol near Kiska in the Aleutians. Prior to the war, as executive officer of the submarine Shark (SS-174), Gilmore had survived having his throat cut while ashore in Panama. Gilmore's luck ran out on Growler’s fourth patrol. While approaching a Japanese convoy for a night surface attack in the shipping lane between Truk and Rabaul, an alert Japanese ship (the food supply vessel Hayasaki) spotted and attempted to ram Growler. In the brief melee that followed, Growler actually rammed the Hayasaki instead, resulting in serious damage to the submarine’s bow and disabling her forward torpedo tubes. At near-point-blank range, Japanese machine-gun fire hit Growler’s bridge, killing the junior officer of the deck and a lookout, and wounding two other men and Gilmore. Gilmore's wounds were serious.  In the interval it took to get the wounded men and bridge team below, Gilmore realized he could not get off the bridge in time for Growler to escape, and gave the order to "Take her down!" with him still topside. The executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Arnold Schade, dazed as a result of falling from the conning tower, hesitated only momentarily before obeying his skipper's order and submerging the boat. Both vessels actually survived the encounter (Hayasaki survived the war and was turned over to the Soviet Union as reparations). Schade took Growler back at daylight to the scene of action in a vain attempt to find his skipper.

Growler made it back to Brisbane, Australia, where she was repaired with a refabricated bow decorated with two nickel kangaroos, earning her the nickname "Kangaroo Express." Schade was awarded a Navy Cross for his action in bringing the severely damaged boat to safety; he would go on to complete 11 war patrols, eight as commanding officer, earning a Silver Star and eventually retiring as a vice admiral. Thanks to Gilmore's sacrifice, Growler made seven more war patrols, sinking the destroyer Shikinami, the frigate Hirado, and several cargo vessels, and rescuing Allied prisoners-of-war from a sunken Japanese "hell ship." Growler’s luck ran out on 8 November 1944 during her 11th war patrol, when she was lost while attempting to attack a Japanese convoy off Mindoro, Philippines. The submarine was probably sunk by the convoy's escorts, two coastal defense ships and the destroyer Shigure (a storied ship that had been sole survivor of several brutal battles, although her luck ran out on 24 January 1945, when she fell prey to Blackfin (SS-322)), although it is also possible that Growler was sunk by one of her own torpedoes.  Please see attachment H-015-1 for Commander Howard Gilmore's Medal of Honor citation.

Guadalcanal Campaign: Battle of Rennell Island and Operation Ke

In late January 1943, all the intelligence indicators strongly pointed to another major Japanese effort to retake Guadalcanal similar to the pushes in September, October, and November that had all resulted in horrific battles ashore, at sea, and in the air. In response to the Japanese build-up at Truk and Rabaul, Admiral Nimitz committed virtually the entire operational U.S. Pacific Fleet to Vice Admiral Halsey's South Pacific Force. Both operational carriers (the repaired USS Enterprise (CV-6)—and USS Saratoga (CV-3)) three modern battleships, additional cruisers (including three new-construction Cleveland-class light cruisers) waited south of Guadalcanal to counter, or preferably ambush, the reconstituted Japanese carrier force when it came. Three times in the first week of February 1943, a force of over 20 Japanese destroyers (the "Reinforcement Group") steamed to Guadalcanal, fighting off long-range U.S. air attacks at dusk, and the first night engaging in a vicious fight with U.S. PT-boats that resulted in the loss of three PT-boats and one Japanese destroyer. Intelligence provided to U.S. Army Major General Alexander Patch (who had relieved Marine Major General Alexander Vandegrift and the 1st Marine Division in command of U.S. forces on Guadalcanal) suggested the Japanese had landed at least a regiment of troops on the island (which wasn't much compared to U.S. troop strength that would soon reach 50,000). It wasn't until 7 February that advancing U.S. Army troops realized that they were only being opposed by Japanese troops who couldn't walk, armed only with a rifle, poison pills, and orders to do what they could to slow down the U.S. troops, with their names meticulously recorded by the Japanese so their sacrifice would never be forgotten. Only then did the Americans realize we'd been had by one of the most effective deception operations by any side in the war. Operation Ke was an evacuation, not a reinforcement, and the Japanese successfully withdrew over 10,000 troops without significant loss from the island, albeit leaving behind over 20,000 dead and a handful of dying (and another 10,000 who had been previously lost at sea, including about 3,800 Japanese Imperial Navy sailors.)

The weeks between the U.S. debacle at the Battle of Tassafaronga on 30 November 1942 and the start of Operation Ke were marked by several largely forgotten but bloody battles between the U.S. and Japanese navies. With the loss of a heavy cruiser and three more heavy cruisers put out of action for months at Tassafaronga, the U.S. stopped sending large ships into Ironbottom Sound, leaving the PT-boat squadrons (Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla One) based at Tulagi to oppose further efforts by the Japanese "Tokyo Express" to get supplies to their troops on Guadalcanal. On the next Tokyo Express run after Tassafaronga, on 3 December, the U.S. PT-boats accomplished the same thing as the U.S. cruisers had (preventing the resupply effort) at far less cost. The Japanese only attempted one more  supply run, this one more successful, on 11 December. In January, U.S. surface ships began to venture for the first time up "The Slot" toward the central Solomon Islands to bombard a Japanese airfield being constructed (and soon abandoned) on Munda. A Japanese air attack following the bombardment mission saw the combat debut of the highly secret variable-time (VT) fuze ammunition for the 5-inch/38-caliber guns aboard the new U.S. cruisers. With the 5-inch VT fuze and the Bofors 40-mm guns (which had made their debut at the Battle of Santa Cruz on October 1942), U.S. surface ships finally had reliable anti-aircraft guns that could knock down Japanese aircraft prior to weapons' release, while the increasingly dense thicket of Oerlikon 20-mm guns on U.S. ships ensured that many Japanese aircraft that got through the 5-inch and Bofors wouldn't come back a second time.

At end of January, the Japanese got in two more severe blows on the U.S. Navy. The Japanese deployed two elite squadrons of G4M Betty bombers that had been extensively trained to conduct night torpedo attacks, and on the night of 29 January, the Bettys hit the heavy cruiser USS Chicago (CA-29)—survivor of the Battle of Savo Island—with two torpedoes near Rennell Island, southwest of Guadalcanal. Through valiant damage control efforts by Chicago's crew, the crippled ship was kept afloat and was being towed from the battle area by USS Louisville (CA-28). However, a series of tactical blunders, which caused even the normally even-tempered Nimitz to blow his stack, left the Chicago vulnerable to air attack late the next afternoon. Despite heavy losses, Japanese bombers hit the cruiser with four more torpedoes, sending her to the bottom, and also damaged the destroyer La Vallette (DD-448) with a torpedo. On 1 February, Japanese dive bombers caught the destroyer De Haven (DD-469) off the north shore of Guadalcanal, hitting her in the forward magazine and causing a massive explosion that sent her to the depths of Ironbottom Sound with most of her crew, including her skipper, Commander Charles Tolman. De Haven wouldn't be the last; in April 1943, Japanese bombers would sink the destroyer Aaron Ward (DD-483)—survivor of the Battle of Friday the 13th—off Guadalcanal.

With the Battle of Rennell Island and the end of Operation Ke, the Guadalcanal campaign was effectively over (although the last Japanese holdout on the island didn't surrender until October 1947). After six months of some of most vicious combat in the history of naval warfare, the increasingly strong U.S. Navy was in possession of the waters around the eastern Solomons. The cost to both sides had been extremely heavy, and roughly even at sea and in the air. On land, Japanese army casualties greatly exceeded those of the U.S. Marines and U.S. Army. The Battle of Midway stopped the Japanese advance, but the Guadalcanal campaign was the true turning point of the war in the Pacific. The cost to the U.S. Navy included two aircraft carriers, five heavy cruisers (plus one Australian heavy cruiser), two light cruisers, 15 destroyers, three destroyer-transports, and one transport, plus about 615 aircraft (of all services, including 90 carrier-based) and just under 5,000 Sailors killed (including 130 naval aviators and air crew, plus 92 Australian and New Zealand naval personnel, but not including 49 Marines embarked aboard ship). Almost three times as many American Sailors died at sea defending Guadalcanal as American Marines and Army personnel died on it. During the brutal six-month campaign, the U.S. Navy "abandoned" the U.S. Marines for a grand total of four days, yet that myth lives on. However, to the Corps’ credit, they remember and venerate the extraordinary sacrifice and valor of the Marines who held that embattled disease-ridden island against repeated Japanese attacks, while the U.S. Navy has largely forgotten the extraordinary sacrifice and valor of those Sailors who enabled the Marines to hold fast. For more on the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, please see attachment H-015-2.

120th Anniversary of Spanish-American War

Remember the Maine!"

On the evening of 15 February 1898, in the harbor of Havana in the Spanish colony of Cuba, a forward magazine on the second-class battleship USS Maine exploded, sinking the ship. The catastrophic event killed 253 of the ship's 355 crewmen; eight others died later from wounds or shock. Of the 94 survivors, only 16 were uninjured. Despite multiple investigations, what caused the magazine to explode has never been conclusively determined. An internal coal fire is the most common explanation in modern literature, but there are some serious weaknesses in that explanation as well. Other U.S. Navy ships narrowly avoided such disaster from spontaneous combustion of bituminous coal during this time frame, but this was a well-known danger, with procedures in place to counter it. Regardless, U.S. newspapers immediately jumped to the conclusion that the Maine had been destroyed by a mine planted by the Spanish. Tensions between the United States and Spain at the time were very high, as American public opinion had been inflamed by reports of Spanish atrocities (some true, most not) committed against the Cuban population that was attempting to gain its independence. The Maine had been sent to Havana as a show of force in support of U.S. interests in Cuba during the rebellion. When the United States declared war on Spain two months later in April 1898, the destruction of the Maine was not listed as a cause for war. Nevertheless, the phrase "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!", which accurately reflected widespread American public opinion, certainly affected the vote of Congress in favor of war.

Most investigations on the loss of the Maine have focused on the technical evidence to prove or disprove the mine theory, which generally remains inconclusive. Much less has been written on "what did Spain have to gain by such an action?" The Spanish clearly understood the technical and numerical inferiority of their navy at the time; they had no interest in getting into a war with the United States. After the event, Spain repeatedly offered to conduct a joint investigation into the sinking. No evidence has ever surfaced as to who would have mined the Maine, how they did it, and why they did it. If it was a plot by someone, they covered their tracks exceedingly well. Not surprisingly, the current communist government in Cuba claims that the United States deliberately blew up their own ship as a pretext to go to war with Spain and take over Cuba as an American colony. There is no actual evidence for this theory either.

In Naval Academy lore, the Maine is claimed to be the longest ship in the Navy because the mainmast is at Arlington National Cemetery (along with most of the crew) and the damaged foremast is at the Naval Academy. As it turns out, there are guns and other parts of the Maine scattered in cities all over the eastern United States, including at the Washington Navy Yard (currently undergoing conservation and restoration). For more on the sinking of the Maine, please see attachment H-015-3.

Published:Thu Mar 15 13:29:48 EDT 2018