USS Helena in the South Pacific, 1943
|Namesake:||City of Helena, Montana|
|Builder:||New York Naval Shipyard, Brooklyn, New York|
|Laid down:||9 December 1936|
|Launched:||27 August 1938|
|Commissioned:||18 September 1939|
|Fate:||Sunk, Battle of Kula Gulf, 6 July 1943|
|General characteristics (As built)|
|Class and type:||St. Louis-class light cruiser|
|Length:||608 ft 8 in (185.52 m)|
|Beam:||61 ft 5 in (18.72 m)|
|Speed:||32.5 kn (60.2 km/h; 37.4 mph)|
|Complement:||888 officers and enlisted men|
|Sensors and |
|SG surface search radar|
|Aircraft carried:||4 × SOC Seagull floatplanes|
|Aviation facilities:||2 × stern catapults|
|General characteristics (1942 refit)|
USS Helena (CL-50) was a St. Louis-class light cruiser of the United States Navy. Completed shortly before World War II, she was damaged in the attack on Pearl Harbor and was at the center of three significant battles during the Solomon Islands campaign of the Pacific War. She was sunk by three surface-fired torpedoes at the battle of Kula Gulf in 1943. She was one of three U.S. light cruisers to be sunk during the war.
In March 1945, for actions in October and November 1942, and in her final engagement on 5 July 1943, Helena became the first US Navy ship to be awarded the Navy Unit Commendation.
On 11 April 2018, her wreck was discovered in the Solomon Islands by Paul Allen's research ship RV Petrel.
As the major naval powers negotiated the London Naval Treaty in 1930, which contained a provision limiting the construction of heavy cruisers armed with 8-inch (200 mm) guns, United States naval designers came to the conclusion that with a displacement limited to 10,000 long tons (10,000 t), a better protected vessel could be built with an armament of 6 in (150 mm) guns. The designers also theorized that the much higher rate of fire of the smaller guns would allow a ship armed with twelve of the guns to overpower one armed with eight 8-inch guns. During the design process of the Brooklyn class, which began immediately after the treaty was signed, the navy became aware that the next class of Japanese cruisers, the Mogami class, would be armed with a main battery of fifteen 6-inch guns, prompting them to adopt the same number of guns for the Brooklyns. After building seven ships to that design, additional changes were incorporated, particularly to the propulsion machinery and the secondary battery, resulting in the St. Louis class, of which Helena was the second member.
Helena was 608 feet 4 inches (185.42 m) long overall and had a beam of 61 ft 9 in (18.82 m) and a draft of 22 ft 9 in (6.93 m). Her standard displacement amounted to 9,767 long tons (9,924 t) and increased to 12,207 long tons (12,403 t) at full combat load. The ship was powered by four Parsons steam turbines, each driving one propeller shaft, using steam provided by eight oil-fired Babcock & Wilcox boilers. Unlike the Brooklyns, the two St. Louis-class cruisers arranged their machinery in the unit system, alternating boiler and engine rooms. Rated at 100,000 shaft horsepower (75,000 kW), the turbines were intended to give a top speed of 32.5 knots (60.2 km/h; 37.4 mph). The ship had a cruising range of 10,000 nautical miles (19,000 km; 12,000 mi) at a speed of 15 knots (28 km/h; 17 mph). Her crew numbered 868 officers and enlisted men.
The ship was armed with a main battery of fifteen 6 in /47 caliber Mark 16 guns[a] in five 3-gun turrets on the centerline. Three were placed forward, two of which were placed in a superfiring pair facing forward, with the third directly begin and pointed aft; the other two turrets were placed aft of the superstructure in another superfiring pair. The secondary battery consisted of eight 5 in (127 mm) /38 caliber dual purpose guns mounted in twin turrets, with one turret on either side of the conning tower and the other pair on either side of the aft superstructure. As designed, the ship was equipped with an anti-aircraft battery of eight 1.1 in (28 mm) guns, but her anti-aircraft battery was revised during her career. The ship's belt armor consisted of 5 in (130 mm) on a layer of .625 in (15.9 mm) of special treatment steel and her deck armor was 2 in (51 mm) thick. The main battery turrets were protected with 6.5 in (170 mm) faces and they were supported by barbettes 6 inches thick. Helena's conning tower had 5-inch sides.
Construction and early career
The keel for Helena was laid down on 9 December 1936 at the New York Navy Yard. Her completed hull was launched on 28 August 1938, and after completing fitting-out, she was commissioned into the fleet on 14 December 1939. World War II had broken out in Europe in September that year, but for the time being, the United States remained neutral. After entering service, the ship was occupied with sea trials and initial training, and she embarked on a major cruise abroad on 27 December, bound for South American waters. She stopped in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on the way, before arriving in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 22 January 1940; from there, she continued on to Montevideo, Uruguay on 29 January. While in the latter port, the crew inspected the wreck of the German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee that had recently been scuttled after the Battle of the River Plate the previous month. Helena got underway again in mid-February to return to the United States, again passing through Guantanamo Bay on the way.
She took part in training exercises and sea trials over the next several months until September, when she was transferred to the Pacific Fleet. She passed through the Panama Canal toward the end of the month and arrived in San Pedro, California on 3 October. From there, she continued on to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to join the rest of the fleet, arriving there on 21 October. Over the course of the next year, the fleet spent its time conducting training exercises and shooting practice as tensions with Japan rose over the latter's war against China. Helena was slated to be dry-docked for periodic maintenance in December 1941, and was moored in port with the minelayer Oglala tied alongside on 6 December, awaiting her turn in the shipyard. The ships happened to be moored in the berth normally reserved for the battleship Pennsylvania, which was currently in the dry-dock. The ship's commander was at that time Captain Robert Henry English.
World War II
Attack on Pearl Harbor
On the morning of 7 December, the Japanese launched their surprise attack on the American fleet with a first wave of forty torpedo bombers, fifty-one dive bombers, and fifty high-level bombers, escorted by forty-three fighters. The Japanese expected Pennsylvania to be in her normal berth. Three minutes into the attack, which had begun at 07:55, a Nakajima B5N torpedo bomber dropped its torpedo at what its pilot expected to be the battleship. The torpedo passed underneath Oglala and exploded against Helena's hull on the starboard side, nearly amidships. The blast tore a hole in the hull that flooded the starboard engine and boiler rooms and severed wiring for the main and secondary guns. The ship's crew raced to their battle stations and two minutes after the torpedo hit, the backup forward diesel generator had been turned on, restoring power to the guns. Oglala was less fortunate than Helena, as the blast effect loosened hull plates on the minelayer and caused her to capsize.
The first pilot had mistaken the superimposed silhouettes of the two ships, backlit by the sun, to be Pennsylvania. The second torpedo bomber in the wave closed to within 600 yd (550 m) of Helena and Oglala when the pilot realized the first pilot's mistake, breaking off his attack run and causing two more pilots to do the same. Four other pilots pressed their attacks, but all of their torpedoes missed; by this time, the ship's anti-aircraft guns were beginning to engage the Japanese attackers, forcing one of the bombers to drop their torpedo before they reached an ideal launch position. One of the torpedoes went wide and hit a transformer station, while the other three ran deep and embedded themselves in the harbor floor. During these attacks, one of the fighters strafed the ship, causing little damage.
At the same time that the first wave had begun their attacks, the Japanese aircraft carriers launched a second wave consisting of eighty-one dive bombers, fifty-four high-level bombers, and thirty-six fighters. As Helena's anti-aircraft guns got into action, they helped to fend off further attacks from the second strike wave while other men worked to control flooding by closing the many watertight hatches in the ship. The heavy anti-aircraft fire was credited with disrupting the aim of several Japanese bombers, which failed to hit the vessel with an estimated four near misses. Of these, one struck the pier while the other three landed in the water on her starboard side.
Helena's anti-aircraft battery provided a heavy barrage of fire during the attack; she fired approximately 375 shells from her 5-inch guns, around 3,000 rounds from her 1.1-inch guns, and about 5,000 rounds from her .50-cal. guns. She was credited with shooting down six Japanese aircraft, out of a total of twenty-nine aircraft downed in the raid. Twenty-six men were killed in the initial attack and another five later died of their wounds, while another sixty-six were injured but recovered. A significant number of the casualties were the result of the torpedo hit, with many of the remainder from bomb fragments from the near misses.
Three days after the attack, Helena was moved into dry dock No. 2 in Pearl Harbor for an inspection and temporary repairs to allow her to return to the west coast of the United States. Steel plates were welded over the torpedo hole, and since her half-sisters Phoenix and Honolulu were still serviceable, Helena disembarked her 1.1-inch guns so they could be used to strengthen those ships' anti-aircraft batteries. Helena thereafter got underway for the Mare Island Navy Yard in California for permanent repairs and modifications. SG surface search radar was installed, along with a new anti-aircraft battery of 20 mm and 40 mm guns. The ship's armored conning tower had proved to inhibit good all-around visibility, and so on English's recommendation, it was removed and an open bridge was erected in its place. The conning tower, along with those of several of the Brooklyn-class cruisers that were also rebuilt in 1942, were later installed on the reconstructed battleships that had been sunk at Pearl Harbor.
The repair and modernization work was completed by mid-1942, and she departed Mare Island in July, moving to San Francisco, where she joined six transports bound for the south Pacific. The transports carried a contingent of Seabees to Espiritu Santo. There, Helena joined Task Force (TF) 64, then in the midst of the fighting around Guadalcanal.
Over the course of the next two months, Helena and the rest of TF 64 were occupied with covering reinforcement convoys to support the Marines fighting on Guadalcanal and escorting carrier battle groups in the area. While Helena operated with the carrier Wasp on 15 September, a Japanese submarine attacked the fleet and hit Wasp with three torpedoes, inflicting fatal damage. Helena picked up some four hundred survivors from Wasp and carried them back to Espiritu Santo. Shortly thereafter, Captain Gilbert C. Hoover came aboard the ship to replace English. By this time, the task force consisted of Helena, her sister ship Boise, the heavy cruisers San Francisco and Salt Lake City, and the destroyers Farenholt, Duncan, Buchanan, McCalla, and Laffey.
Following the Actions along the Matanikau in late September and early October, the decision was made to send further reinforcements to the island, and so the 164th Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division embarked on a pair of destroyer transports; TF 64 provided the close escort for the vessels, screening them to the west to prevent Japanese forces from intercepting them. By this time, the unit was commanded by Rear Admiral Norman Scott, who conducted one night of battle practice with his ships on 8 October before embarking on the operation. The ships patrolled to the south, just out of range of Japanese aircraft based in Rabaul over the course of 9 and 10 October and each day at 12:00 Scott took his ships north to Rennell Island, where they would be in position to reach Savo Island to block a Japanese squadron if it was detected by air. On 11 October, American aerial reconnaissance detected Japanese vessels moving toward the island carrying their own reinforcements, and Scott decided to try to intercept them.
Battle of Cape Esperance
Unknown to Scott, the Japanese had sent a group of cruisers and destroyers to bombard the American garrison on Guadalcanal; this unit, commanded by Rear Admiral Aritomo Gotō, consisted of the heavy cruisers Aoba, Kinugasa, and Furutaka and the destroyers Fubuki and Hatsuyuki. As the two squadrons approached each other in the darkness shortly before 22:00 on 11 October, three of the four American cruisers launched their floatplanes, but Helena did not receive the instruction from Scott aboard his flagship San Francisco, and so her crew dumped the aircraft overboard to reduce the risk of fire in the event of a battle. By 22:23, the American ships had arranged themselves into a line in the order Farenholt, Duncan, Laffey, San Francisco, Boise, Salt Lake City, Helena, Buchanan, and McCalla; this was despite the fact that Helena and Boise both carried SG radar, which was significantly more effective than the SC sets carried by the other vessels. The distance between each ship ranged from 500 to 700 yd (460 to 640 m). Visibility was poor because the moon had already set, leaving no ambient light and no visible sea horizon.
At 23:30, Vice Admiral Aritomo Gotō's ships emerged from the last rain squall and began appearing on the radar scopes of Helena and Salt Lake City. The Japanese, however, whose warships were not equipped with radar, remained unaware of Scott's presence.
At 23:32, Helena's radar showed the Japanese warships to be about 27,700 yd (25,300 m) away. At 23:35, Boise's and Duncan's radars also detected Gotō's ships. Between 23:42 and 23:44, Helena and Boise reported their contacts to Scott on San Francisco who mistakenly believed that the two cruisers were actually tracking the three U.S. destroyers that were thrown out of formation during the column turn. Scott radioed Farenholt to ask if the destroyer was attempting to resume its station at the front of the column. Farenholt replied, "Affirmative, coming up on your starboard side," further confirming Scott's belief that the radar contacts were his own destroyers.
By 23:45, Gotō's ships were only 5,000 yd (4,600 m) away from Scott's formation and visible to Helena's and Salt Lake City's lookouts. The U.S. formation at this point was in a position to cross the T of the Japanese formation, giving Scott's ships a significant tactical advantage. At 23:46, still assuming that Scott was aware of the rapidly approaching Japanese warships, Helena radioed for permission to open fire, using the general procedure request, "Interrogatory Roger" (meaning, basically, "Are we clear to act?"). Scott answered with, "Roger", only meaning that the message was received, not that he was confirming the request to act. Upon receipt of Scott's "Roger", Helena—thinking they now had permission—opened fire, quickly followed by Boise, Salt Lake City, and to Scott's further surprise, San Francisco.
Gotō's force was taken almost completely by surprise. At 23:43, Aoba's lookouts had sighted Scott's force, but Gotō assumed that they were Rear Admiral Takatsugu Jōjima's ships. Two minutes later, Aoba's lookouts identified the ships as American, but Gotō remained skeptical and directed his ships to flash identification signals. As Aoba's crew executed Gotō's order, the first American salvo smashed into Aoba's superstructure. Aoba was quickly hit by up to 40 shells from Helena, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Farenholt, and Laffey. The shell hits heavily damaged Aoba's communications systems and demolished two of her main gun turrets as well as her main gun director. Several large-caliber projectiles passed through Aoba's flag bridge without exploding, but the force of their passage killed many men and mortally wounded Gotō.
When firing had ceased in this Battle of Cape Esperance in Ironbottom Sound, Helena helped sink the heavy cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubuki. Due to the proficiency of the gunners, Japanese radio announcer Tokyo Rose referred to Helena as the "machine gun ship."
However, conditions and the confusion of battle helped prevent an accurate U.S. assessment of Japanese skills and tactics in naval night fighting. The U.S. was still unaware of the range and power of Japanese torpedoes, the effectiveness of Japanese night optics, and the skilled fighting ability of most Japanese destroyer and cruiser commanders. Incorrectly applying the perceived lessons learned from this battle, U.S. commanders in future naval night battles in the Solomons consistently tried to prove that American naval gunfire was more effective than Japanese torpedo attacks. This belief was severely tested just two months later during the Battle of Tassafaronga. A junior officer on Helena later wrote, "Cape Esperance was a three-sided battle in which chance was the major winner."
Helena was next under attack on the night of 20 October while patrolling between Espiritu Santo and San Cristobal. Several torpedoes passed near her, but she was not hit.
Helena saw the climactic Naval Battle of Guadalcanal from its beginning when she was assigned to escort a supply echelon from Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal. The ship made rendezvous with the convoy of transports off San Cristobal on 11 November, and brought it safely into Guadalcanal. During the afternoon of 12 November, word came from a coast watcher, "enemy aircraft approaching." Immediately suspending the unloading operation, all ships stood out to form an antiaircraft disposition. When the attack came, superb maneuvering of the force, and its own antiaircraft fire, broke up the first attack but the second damaged two ships. Helena came through without a scratch, and the task group brought down eight enemy planes in the eight-minute action.
As unloading resumed, an increasing stream of reports flowed in from patrolling aircraft. Ominously, the Japanese forces sighted contained no transports, and their intention was thus read as one of being pure offense. Helena—still steaming with Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan's Support Group—aided in shepherding the transports away from Guadalcanal, then reversed course to Ironbottom Sound. His force comprised two heavy cruisers (San Francisco and Portland), three light cruisers (Helena, Juneau, and Atlanta), and eight destroyers: Cushing, Laffey, Sterett, O'Bannon, Aaron Ward, Barton, Monssen, and Fletcher. Admiral Callaghan commanded from the San Francisco.
Five of Callaghan's ships, including Helena, had the new, far-superior SG radar, but Callaghan's deployment put none of them in the forward part of the column, nor did he choose one for his flagship. Callaghan also did not issue a battle plan to his ship commanders for the night of 13 November 1942.
At 0124 hours on the night of 13 November, Helena's radar first located the enemy from the rear center of the allied single column of ships just behind Portland. She had trouble communicating the information to Callaghan because of his inexperience operating the ships as a cohesive naval unit, and there were additional problems with their radio equipment and a further lack of discipline regarding their communications procedures. Another message was sent and received but it did not reach Callaghan in time to process and use given his ignorance of radar and an appreciation of its accuracy—especially the reliability of ranges and bearings so obtained—along with the lack of practice coordinating radar information to visual data.
Admiral Callaghan wasted further time trying to reconcile the ranges and bearing information reported by radar from Helena and other ships with his limited sight picture to no avail, mostly because the radar operators, without the direction of a modern combat information center (CIC), were reporting on vessels that were out of sight, and Callaghan was trying to coordinate the battle from the bridge, not the CIC.[b]
Several minutes later, both forces visually sighted each other approximately simultaneously, but both Callaghan and Japanese Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe hesitated on ordering their ships into action. Abe apparently was surprised by the proximity of the U.S. ships and with decks stacked high with high explosive (vs. armor penetrating) munitions could not decide if he should momentarily withdraw to give his battleships time to change from bombardment ammunition to anti-ship ammunition or to continue onward. He decided to continue onward. Callaghan apparently intended to attempt to cross the T of the Japanese, as Scott had done at Cape Esperance, but—confused by the incomplete information he was receiving, plus the fact that the Japanese formation consisted of several scattered groups—he gave several confusing orders on ship movements, and overall, just delayed too long in acting at all.
The U.S. ship formation began to fall apart, apparently further delaying Callaghan's order to commence firing as he first tried to ascertain and align his ships' locations. Meanwhile, both forces' formations began to intermingle with each other as the individual ship commanders on both sides anxiously awaited permission to open fire.
At 01:48, Akatsuki and Hiei turned on large searchlights and lit up Atlanta only 3,000 yd (2,700 m) away—almost point-blank range for large naval artillery. Several of the ships on both sides spontaneously opened fire. Realizing that his force was almost surrounded by Japanese ships, Callaghan issued the confusing order: "Odd ships fire to starboard, even ships fire to port" (save that no pre-battle planning had assigned any such identity numbers to reference, and the formation was already chaotic). Most of the remaining U.S. ships, including Helena, then opened fire, although several had to quickly change their targets in order to comply with Callaghan's order. As the ships from the two sides intermingled, they battled each other in an utterly confused and chaotic mêlée at close distances where the superior Japanese optics and well-practiced Japanese drill at optically sighted night aiming proved to be deadly effective. Afterward, an officer on Monssen likened it to "a barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out".
At least six of the U.S. ships—including Laffey, O'Bannon, Atlanta, San Francisco, Portland, and Helena—fired at Akatsuki, which drew attention to herself with her illuminated searchlight. Akatsuki was hit repeatedly and blew up and sank within a few minutes.
During the almost point-blank melee and unable to fire her main or secondary batteries at the three U.S. destroyers causing her so much trouble, Hiei instead concentrated on San Francisco which was passing by only 2,500 yd (2,300 m) away. Along with Kirishima, Inazuma, and Ikazuchi, the four ships made repeated hits on San Francisco, disabling her steering control and killing Callaghan, Captain Cassin Young, and most of the bridge staff. The first few salvos from Hiei and Kirishima consisted of the special fragmentation bombardment shells, which reduced damage to the interior of San Francisco and may have saved her from being sunk outright. Not expecting a ship-to-ship confrontation, it took the crews of the two Imperial battleships several minutes to switch to armor-piercing ammunition. Nevertheless, San Francisco, almost helpless to defend herself, managed to momentarily sail clear of the melee. However, she landed at least one shell in Hiei's steering gear room during the exchange, flooding it with water, shorting out her power steering generators, and severely inhibiting Hiei's steering capability. Helena followed San Francisco to try to protect her from further harm.
Amatsukaze approached San Francisco with the intention of finishing her off. However, while concentrating on San Francisco, Amatsukaze did not notice the approach of Helena which fired several full broadsides at Amatsukaze from close range and knocked her out of the action. The heavily damaged Amatsukaze escaped under cover of a smoke screen while Helena was distracted by an attack by Asagumo, Murasame, and Samidare.
After nearly 40 minutes of the brutal, close-quarters fighting, the two sides broke contact and ceased fire at 02:26 after Abe and Captain Gilbert Hoover (the captain of Helena and senior surviving U.S. officer at this point) ordered their respective forces to disengage. Admiral Abe had one battleship (Kirishima), one light cruiser (Nagara), and four destroyers (Asagumo, Teruzuki, Yukikaze, and Harusame) with only light damage and four destroyers (Inazuma, Ikazuchi, Murasame, and Samidare) with moderate damage. The U.S. had only one light cruiser (Helena) and one destroyer (Fletcher) that were still capable of effective resistance. Although perhaps unclear to Admiral Abe, the way was clear for him to bombard Henderson Field and finish off the U.S. naval forces in the area, clearing the way for the troops and supplies to be landed safely on Guadalcanal.
However, at this crucial juncture, Abe chose to abandon the mission and depart the area. Several reasons are conjectured as to why he made this decision. Much of the special bombardment ammunition had been expended in the battle. If the bombardment failed to destroy the airfield, then his warships would be vulnerable to CAF air attack at dawn. His own injuries and the deaths of some of his staff from battle action may have affected Abe's judgment. Perhaps he was also unsure as to how many of his or the U.S. ships were still combat-capable because of communication problems with the damaged Hiei. Furthermore, his own ships were scattered and would have taken some time to reassemble for a coordinated resumption of the mission to attack Henderson Field and the remnants of the U.S. warship force. For whatever reason, Abe called for a disengagement and general retreat of his warships, although Yukikaze and Teruzuki remained behind to assist Hiei. Samidare picked up survivors from Yūdachi at 03:00 before joining the other Japanese ships in the retirement northwards.
Daylight found a tragic scene in the grisly slot. The weaker American fleet had achieved the goal at heavy cost. Helena and other U.S. ships had turned back the enemy and prevented the heavy attack that would have been disastrous to the Marine troops ashore.
The U.S. ships Portland, San Francisco, Aaron Ward, and Sterett were eventually able to make it back to rear-area ports for repairs. Atlanta, however, sank near Guadalcanal at 20:00 on 13 November. Departing from the Solomon Islands area with San Francisco, Helena, Sterret, and O'Bannon later that day, Juneau was torpedoed and sunk by Japanese submarine I-26 (Coordinates: ).
Now the senior American officer in the task force because of the death of the task force commander Callaghan in action, Helena's skipper — Captain Gilbert Hoover — commanded the task force's retirement to Espiritu Santo from the battle area. On the way, Juneau was torpedoed and sunk by submarine. Despite observed survivors, Captain Hoover assessed that the task force lacked the means to conduct a search and rescue in its current location and condition, the battle leaving two ships with antisubmarine capacity on hand (one heavily damaged) and other ships too damaged to remain in the area.
Juneau's 100+ survivors (out of a total complement of 697) were left to fend on their own in the open ocean for eight days before rescue aircraft belatedly arrived. While awaiting rescue, all but ten of Juneau's crew died from their injuries, the elements, or shark attacks. The dead included the five Sullivan brothers. For this inaction of rescue, Halsey removed Hoover from command of Helena, which he later regretted as a grievous mistake, writing in his memoirs that "Hoover's decision was in the best interests of victory".
Operations in 1943
Helena later found a measure of revenge when she was assigned to the several bombardments of Japanese positions on New Georgia in January 1943. On 5 January 1943 Lt. "Red" Cochrane, commanding the aft 5" battery on Helena, shot down a Japanese Aichi D3A "Val" dive-bomber with the second of three salvos of VT-fuzed shells, near Guadalcanal. The fuzes were manufactured by the Crosley Corporation and this was the first kill of enemy aircraft. Helena's guns rocked the enemy at Munda and Vila Stanmore, leveling vital supply concentrations and gun emplacements. Continuing on patrol and escort in support of the bitter Guadalcanal operation through February, one of her floatplanes shared in the sinking of the submarine Ro-102 on 11 February.
Battle of Kula Gulf
After overhaul in Sydney, Australia, she was back at Espiritu Santo in March to participate in bombardments of New Georgia, soon to be invaded. The first goal on New Georgia proper was Rice Anchorage. In the force escorting the transports carrying the initial landing parties, Helena moved into Kula Gulf just before midnight on 4 July, and shortly after midnight on the 5th, her big guns opened up in her last shore bombardment.
The landing of troops was completed successfully by dawn, but in the afternoon of 5 July, word came that the Tokyo Express was ready to roar down once more and the escort group turned north to meet it. By midnight on 5 July, Helena's group was off the northwest corner of New Georgia, three cruisers and four destroyers composing the group. Racing down to face them were three groups of Japanese destroyers, a total of 10 enemy ships. Four of them peeled off to accomplish their mission of landing troops. By 01:57, the Battle of Kula Gulf had begun, Helena began blasting away with a fire so rapid and intense that the Japanese later announced in all solemnity that she must have been armed with "6 inch machine guns". The gunners fired 2,000 six-inch rounds and 400 smaller rounds during the battle. Ironically, Helena made a perfect target when lit by the flashes of her own guns, which was compounded by the fact that Helena had fired all her flashless powder in the preceding bombardments and was left with standard smokeless powder, which produced immense flames when fired.
Helena opened fire to port at 0157 hours. About seven minutes after she opened fire at about 0203 hours, Helena was hit by a torpedo. The first Japanese Type 93 torpedo, also called a "Long Lance", could travel at 48–50 knots (56 to 57 Mph, 89 to 93 Km/h) and impacted Helena on the port side just below number one turret (near frame 32), tearing off the bow of the ship. The following explosions by two more torpedoes that hit under the second stack, port side, (near frame 82 and about frame 85) less than two minutes later at about 0205, caused catastrophic and terminal damage. The forward movement of the ship along with the massive structural frame damage caused the ship to twist and jackknife around the damaged area. The ship, still under momentum, went past her own bow and began to flood. The center part twisted to 45 degrees port sinking first. It dragged the rear of the ship down until the stern was vertical. About 22 minutes after the ship was first hit the ship sank at about 0225. In the meantime, the crew abandoned ship by going over the side after cutting free all the surviving life rafts into the ocean. Between the forward momentum of the ship the survivors were scattered over several hundred yards, at night, amidst a raging naval battle. Later currents would separate them even more. The bow would finally sink later the next day.
Within 30 minutes two destroyers, Nicholas and Radford, were picking up survivors of Helena. While many of the cruiser's survivors were picked up before morning, many were not saved until 11 days later. At daylight approached, the enemy was in range once more, and again Nicholas and Radford broke off their rescue operations to pursue. Anticipating an air attack, the destroyers withdrew for Tulagi, carrying with them all but about 275 of the survivors. To those who remained they left four boats, manned by volunteers from the destroyers' crews, who collected those still in the water. Captain Charles Purcell Cecil, Helena's commanding officer, organized a small flotilla of three motor whaleboats, each towing a life raft, carrying 88 men to a small island about 7 miles from Rice Anchorage after a laborious all-day passage. This group was rescued the next morning by destroyers Gwin and Woodworth.
For the second group of nearly 200, the bow of Helena was their life raft, but it was slowly sinking. Disaster was staved off by a Navy PB4Y-1 (B-24) Liberator that dropped lifejackets and four rubber lifeboats. The wounded were placed aboard the lifeboats, while the able-bodied surrounded the boats and did their best to propel themselves toward nearby Kolombangara. But wind and current carried them ever further into enemy waters. Through the torturous day that followed, many of the wounded died. American search planes missed the tragic little fleet, and Kolombangara gradually faded away to leeward. Another night passed, and in the morning the island of Vella Lavella loomed ahead. It seemed the last chance for Helena's men and so they headed for it. By dawn, survivors in all three remaining boats observed land 1 nmi (1.2 mi; 1.9 km) distant and all who were left were safely landed. Two coastwatchers and loyal natives cared for the survivors as best they could, and radioed news of them to Guadalcanal. The 165 remaining crew of Helena then took to the jungle to evade Japanese patrols.
Surface vessels were chosen for the final rescue, Nicholas and Radford, augmented by Jenkins and O'Bannon, set off on 15 July to sail further up the Slot than ever before, screening the movement of two destroyer-transports and four other destroyers. During the night of 16 July, the rescue force brought out the 165 Helena men, along with 16 Chinese who had been in hiding on the island. Of Helena's nearly 900 men, 168 had perished. Later during the investigation of the sinking, the officer and crew of Helena were commended for their actions.
A memorial to Helena (CL-50 & CA-75) is located in Helena, Montana.
Discovery of the wreck
- Whitley, pp. 248–249.
- Gardiner & Chesneau, p. 116.
- Bonner, pp. 55–56.
- Bonner, p. 56.
- Rohwer, p. 122.
- Bonner, pp. 56–57.
- Zimm, p. 182.
- Zimm, p. 160.
- Helena Report.
- Bonner, p. 57.
- Frank, p. 294.
- Gardiner & Chesneau, p. 92.
- Bonner, pp. 57–58.
- Hornfischer, pp. 141–143.
- Bonner, p. 58.
- Frank, p. 297.
- Frank, pp. 292–296.
- Frank, pp. 294, 296–298.
- Cook, pp. 20, 26, 36.
- Morison, pp. 152–153.
- Cook, pp. 58–60.
- Frank, p. 299.
- Cook, pp. 42–43, 45–47, 51–53.
- Frank, pp. 299–301.
- Morison, pp. 154–156.
- Cook, pp. 42–50, 53–56, 71.
- Frank, pp. 300–301.
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