By Dave Werner, U.S. Pacific Fleet Public Affairs
Few ships can claim a history like that of USS Helena (CL 50). Her distinguished and storied World War II service began at Pearl Harbor and ended in a heroic and determined rescue seemingly too dramatic to be true. In between, she fought successfully in battles throughout the Pacific. Her crew’s contributions in the Battles of Cape Esperance, Guadalcanal, and Kula Gulf resulted in her recognition as the first-ever Navy Unit Commendation recipient. Provided below is a wave-top chronicle of her WWII service.
Dec 7, 1941: Moored at the east side of Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, Helena was inboard the minesweeper USS Oglala (CM 4). Docked in the berth normally assigned to the battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB 38), she unwittingly occupied a spot of keen interest for attacking Japanese pilots. Within minutes of the start of the attack on Ford Island a torpedo passed under Oglala and hit Helena. The blast was so violent Oglala incurred considerable hull damage as well.
On board Helena, wiring to the main and 5-inch batteries was severed. The crew fired up the forward diesel generator within a few minutes, which provided power to all mounts. While gun crews were taking aim at the attackers, damage control teams went to work securing boundaries and minimizing flooding. The attack resulted in 34 Helena Sailors killed and 69. Her crew’s quick offensive and damage control efforts minimized what could have been a much worse attack.
Sept. 15, 1942: Joining the USS Wasp (CV 7) Task Force, Helena was in support of six transports carrying Marine reinforcements to Guadalcanal. Without warning, Wasp was hit by three Japanese torpedoes and, with fires and damage uncontrollable, “abandon ship” was called within an hour. Helena rescued nearly 400 Wasp Sailors, while almost 1,600 were picked up by other ships in company.
Oct. 11, 1942: In the Battle of Cape Esperance, Helena supported of a movement of troop transports into Guadalcanal. Air attacks by American aircraft from Henderson Field had slowed the parade of Japanese ships supporting their troops in the area. The regular appearance of the Japanese flotilla was so routine it became known as “Tokyo Express.” Shortly before midnight, a U.S task force of four cruisers and five destroyers, under the command of Rear Adm. Norman Scott, surprised the Japanese cruisers and destroyers as they approached Savo Island. Helena, equipped with radar, was first to contact the enemy and first to open fire. When firing had ceased in this Battle of Cape Esperance in Iron Bottom Sound, Helena had sunk cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubuki. Another Japanese cruiser was badly damaged. For the Americans, the USS Duncan (DD 485) was sunk, and one cruiser and another destroyer were heavily damaged. The enemy retreated, abandoning their bombardment mission. The Battle of Cape Esperance provided a significant morale boost to the Navy.
Oct. 20, 1942: The following week, Helena again found herself under attack. On the night of Oct. 20, 1942, while patrolling between Espiritu Santo and San Cristobal, several torpedoes exploded near the ship. She was not hit.
Nov. 1942: Helena participated in a bombardment near Koli Point, Guadalcanal, on Nov. 4, 1942. In these early November days, the Japanese organized another convoy, embarking as many as 7,000 troops and their equipment. Japanese naval forces planned to bombard American-held Henderson Field in order to destroy U.S. aircraft that posed a threat to the Japanese ship movements. USS Helena rendezvoused with an American transport convoy off San Cristobal Nov. 11 and brought them safely into Guadalcanal. While off- loading, however, the Japanese commenced an air attack. During the afternoon of Nov. 12, superb maneuvering of the force, and its own antiaircraft fire, Helena helped break up the first attack, but a second damaged two ships. Helena was undamaged. All told, the task group brought down eight enemy planes. As day turned to night, Helena’s radar first located the enemy. Rear Adm. Daniel J. Callaghan’s task group (comprised of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers) engaged the Japanese force (which included two battleships). What ensued was savage, gun-and-torpedo night action at close-quarters. After nearly 40 minutes of brutal combat, the two sides broke contact and ceased fire. American forces paid a heavy price for what most historians agree was a U.S. strategic victory, suffering, either in the battle or subsequent to it, the loss of two light cruisers and four destroyers, as well as damage of varying levels to one heavy cruiser, two light cruisers, and two destroyers. The Japanese too emerged from the battle having suffered notable losses with mortal damage to a battleship along with the loss of two destroyers, with an additional five damaged. Ultimately, the valiant defense turned back the enemy and prevented the heavy attack on Henderson Field.
1943: Helena’s guns bombarded Japanese positions on New Georgia in January 1943. She then patrolled and escorted in support of Guadalcanal operations through February. One of her float planes shared credit in the sinking of Japanese submarine RO-102 on Feb. 11, 1943. After an overhaul in Sydney, Australia, she was back at Espiritu Santo a few weeks later supporting bombardments of New Georgia in advance of a planned invasion.
July 1943: Helena moved into the Kula Gulf late on July 4. The landing of troops was completed successfully by dawn. In the afternoon of July 5, however, the Tokyo Express was sailing to the area once again, and Helena and ships in company set course to intercept the Japanese. By midnight, Helena’s group, consisting of three cruisers and four destroyers, was off the northwest corner of New Georgia. Three groups of Japanese destroyers (totaling 10) comprised the enemy force. Four of the 10 diverted to support landing troops.
As she had so often before, Helena opened fire–furiously. Japanese witnesses later said she must have been armed with 6-inch machine guns. The fire from her guns lit her up literally and figuratively as a target, and she was hit within minutes by three torpedoes. The damage was calamitous.
Helena’s commanding officer, Capt. C.P. Cecil, detailed the extent of the damage in his report to leadership: “HELENA opened fire to port at 0157 Love, range 7050 yards. The first and second targets taken under fire had been sunk and HELENA had shifted to the third target when, at 0203 plus, she was struck by a torpedo near frame 32 port side. … the bow of the ship forward of number two turret was sheared off by this hit.” After being hit by two more torpedoes, he assessed, “The cumulative effect of the second and third hits was the breaking of the ship in the middle. The forward and after parts (less the bow) slowly jack-knifed at about frame 82, and the whole ship commenced slowly to sink, mid-part first. The ship was abandoned. Gradually the after part of the hulk assumed a vertical position and the forward part a forty-five degree angle to it. About 0225, the sinking was accelerated, and the hulk, still in the same attitude, disappeared beneath the surface. The bow was still floating late the next afternoon.”
Helena’s history closes with the almost incredible story of what happened to her crew in the hours and days that followed. As various rescue efforts got underway over the course of 10 days, amazing stories of Sailor toughness unfolded in which 732 of the 900 crew survived the sinking and were ultimately rescued. When her bow rose into the air after the sinking, many of them clustered around it, only to be fired on. Two American destroyers, the USS Nicholas (DD 449) and USS Radford (DD 446) were dispatched to rescue the surviving crew.
As the sun rose, the enemy remained within striking distance, and the two American vessels suspended rescue operations to pursue the Japanese. The survivors were amassed into two groups.
The first group of about 275 survivors was aided by volunteers and small boats left on scene by the two destroyers. Helena’s commanding officer, Capt. Cecil, who survived the sinking, organized a small flotilla of three motor whaleboats each towing a life raft, carrying 88 men each, to a small island–about seven miles. This group was rescued the next morning by USS Owin (DD 433) and USS Woodworth (DD 460).
The second group, numbering nearly 200, clung to the slowly sinking bow of Helena. When things were looking bleak, a Navy Liberator 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 a nearby island. Wind and current, however, carried them away from the island, and ever further into enemy waters. American search planes who eventually arrived could not locate the drifting flotilla, and some of the wounded began to perish under the harsh circumstances. Another night passed, and in the morning the island of Vella Lavella was within reach. Survivors landed safely on the island. Two coast watchers and loyal natives cared for the survivors as best they could, and radioed news of them to Guadalcanal. The remaining 165 Sailors took to the jungle to evade Japanese patrols. Finally, Nicholas and Radford, augmented by USS Jenkins (DD 447) and USS O’Bannon (DD 450) set off July 15, 1943 to sail further up the slot than had been attempted before. On the night of July 16, the rescue team brought out the 165 Helena men, along with 16 Chinese who had been in hiding on the island.
Helena started with a crew of 900 men. All but 168 had survived the sinking and eventual rescue.
In addition to becoming the first-ever recipient of the Navy Unit Commendation, Helena earned the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Medal with seven stars.
Today, Helena’s legacy of excellence and determination is embodied by the crew of the Los Angeles class fast-attack submarine USS Helena (SSN 725). Commissioned on July 11, 1987, the 360-foot ship has a current crew compliment of 16 officers and 134 enlisted Sailors. While Helena (CL 50) gave her all in fighting to achieve peace and stability, today’s Helena (SSN 725) has been tireless in ensuring both are preserved. During her most recent deployment in 2017, she steamed more than 35,000 nautical miles and conducted port visits in Haakonsvern, Norway; Faslane, Scotland, and Brest, France while remaining on station in support of U.S. security interests abroad.
“USS Helena (CL-50) was an exceptional ship whose impact on the path of the Pacific conflict in WWII cannot be over-estimated,” said Cmdr. Jason Pittman, Commanding Officer of the current USS Helena (SSN 725), a U.S. Navy fast attack submarine. “The ship survived the attack on Pearl Harbor; sustaining significant damage and the loss of many crew. However, she rapidly returned to action and established herself as a formidable adversary — participating in three of the most fiercely fought surface battles in the southwest Pacific and earning seven Battle Stars. Helena was lost to the sea in the most fitting way–boldly sailing into dangerous waters to engage the enemy.
If the foundation of the United States Navy is built on the best of its traditions and heritage, the Sailors of the USS Helena (CL 50) might be considered a cornerstone for those who follow. They exhibited throughout their service the core attributes of toughness, initiative, integrity and accountability.
“The crew of the current Helena strives every day to live up to the legendary actions of the first ship to be awarded a Navy Unit Commendation,” Pittman said. “We are proud to carry on CL-50’s legacy of excellence and we are humbled to know the final resting place of our namesake, and those who were unable to be rescued, has finally been identified. We owe many thanks to Mr. Allen and his team for bringing closure to this chapter in Helena’s storied history.”
Editor’s note: This post was derived chiefly from the U.S. Navy’s history of USS Helena found at: https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/h/helena-cl-50-ii.html. Other information and images included were pulled from www.history.navy.mil. Information on the submarine USS Helena (SSN 725) was pulled from the U.S. Navy web page and Flickr account.