USS Helena (CL-50)
USS Helena in the South Pacific, 1943
(note: radar antennas have been brushed out by censors)
|Career (United States)|
|Builder:||Brooklyn Navy Yard|
|Laid down:||9 December 1936|
|Launched:||27 August 1939|
|Commissioned:||18 September 1939|
|Fate:||Sunk, Battle of Kula Gulf, 6 July 1943|
|Class & type:||St. Louis-class light cruiser|
|Displacement:||10,000 long tons (10,000 t)|
|Length:||608.3 ft (185.4 m)|
|Beam:||61.7 ft (18.8 m)|
|Draft:||19.8 ft (6.0 m)|
|Speed:||33 kn (38 mph; 61 km/h)|
|Complement:||888 officers and enlisted men|
|Armament:||15 × 6 in (150 mm)/47 cal guns (5x3)
8 × 5 in (130 mm)/38 cal dual purpose guns (4x2)
8 × .50 in (12.70 mm) anti-aircraft machine guns
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 participated in several battles in the Pacific War. Sunk by a surface-fired torpedo at the battle of Kula Gulf in 1943, she was one of three U.S. light cruisers to be sunk during the war.
Helena was the first ship to be awarded the Navy Unit Commendation.
- 1 Construction and Commissioning
- 2 Inter-war period
- 3 World War II
- 4 Awards
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Construction and Commissioning
Helena, the second Navy ship named after the city of Helena, Montana, was launched on 27 August 1939 by the New York Navy Yard, sponsored by Ms. Elinor Carlyle Gudger, granddaughter of Senator Thomas J. Walsh of Montana, and commissioned on 18 September 1939, Captain Max B. Demott in command.
After sea trials in December 1939, the shakedown cruise starting on 27 December took Helena to South America. In January 1940, she arrived in Buenos Aires and on 29 January Montevideo, Uruguay, where her sailors boarded the wreck of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee.
World War II
Attack on Pearl Harbor
Helena — assigned to the Pacific Fleet, was at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, when the Japanese attacked. The Helena was under the command of Robert Henry English at the time. She was moored at 1010 Dock Navy Yard on the base (southeast)side of the harbor. Outboard was the minelayer Oglala. By chance, Helena was in the berth normally assigned to the battleship Pennsylvania, and thus became a prime target for the Japanese planes.
Within three minutes of the time the first bomb of the attack fell on Ford Island, a lone torpedo bomber launched a torpedo that passed under Oglala, and hit Helena on the starboard side almost amidships, just as the crew raced to battle stations. Twenty men were killed. One engine room and one boiler room were flooded. Wiring to the main and secondary batteries was severed, but prompt action brought the forward diesel generator up within two minutes, making power available to all mounts. Immediately, they sent up a heavy fire that kept her free of further damage. The first Japanese plane was sighted at 07:57. Helena's guns were in action at 08:01. Outstanding damage control work — and the fact that watertight integrity was promptly insured by the closing of the doors and hatches throughout the ship — kept Helena afloat.
After preliminary overhaul at Pearl Harbor, Helena steamed to Mare Island Navy Yard in California for permanent repairs. In 1942, she sailed to enter action, escorting a detachment of Seabees and an aircraft carrier rushing planes to the South Pacific. She made two quick dashes from Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal, where the long and bloody battle for the island was then beginning, and having completed these missions, joined the task force formed around the aircraft carrier Wasp.
This task force steamed in distant support of six transports carrying Marine reinforcements to Guadalcanal. Mid-afternoon on 15 September, Wasp was suddenly hit by three Japanese torpedoes. Almost at once, she became an inferno. Helena stood by to rescue nearly 400 of Wasp's officers and men, whom she took to Espiritu Santo.
Helena's next action was near Rennell Island, again in support of a movement of transports into Guadalcanal. Air attacks from Henderson Field had slowed down the Tokyo Express for several days, so on 11 October the Japanese poured everything they could deliver against the airstrip, hoping to neutralize air operations long enough to bring heavy troop reinforcements during the night. The Japanese fleet closed and by 18:10 was less than 100 mi (160 km) from Savo Island.
Helena, equipped with superior radar, was first to contact the enemy and first to open fire at 2346. When firing had ceased in this Battle of Cape Esperance in Ironbottom Sound, Helena helped sink the heavy cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubuki.
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 the job of escorting 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 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. The night of 13 November, Helena's radar first located the enemy. In the action that followed, the tropical night was lit again and again by the flashes of her big guns. She received only minor damage to her superstructure during the action. Daylight found a tragic scene in the grisly slot. The weaker American fleet had achieved the goal at heavy cost. The US had turned back the enemy and prevented the heavy attack that would have been disastrous to the Marine troops ashore.
Now the senior American officer in the task force because of the death of the task force commander in action, Helena's skipper — Captain Gilbert Hoover — commanded the task force's retirement to Espiritu Santo from the battle area. On the way, light cruiser 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. Aircraft surveillance counted at least sixty survivors of Juneau's sinking, ten were later rescued. For this, 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".
Helena 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 the light cruiser Helena, shot down a Japanese 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
Shore Bombardment of New Georgia
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.
Engagement with Japanese Destroyers
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". 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.
Seven minutes after she opened fire, Helena was hit by a torpedo. Within the next three minutes, she was struck by two more. Almost at once, she began to jackknife. Below, she was flooding rapidly even before she broke up and sank stern first. In a well-drilled manner, Helena's men went over the side.
Rescue of the crew and aftermath
Helena's history closes with the almost incredible story of what happened to her men in the hours and days that followed. When her bow rose into the air after the sinking, many of them clustered around it, only to be fired on there. About 30 minutes after she sank, two American destroyers came to the rescue.
At daylight, the enemy was in range once more, and again destroyers 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. 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 sailors 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.
Helena was the first ship to receive the Navy Unit Commendation. Her actions in the Battles of Cape Esperance, Guadalcanal, and Kula Gulf were named in the citation. Helena also earned the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Medal with seven stars.
- This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. The entry can be found here.
- Naval History & Heritage Command
- Pearl Harbor Account by ship's personnel