Tuesday, January 17, 2012
USS Helena (CL-50)
Figure 1: USS Helena (CL-50) anchored in President Roads, Boston, Massachusetts, 15 June 1940. Taken by a USS Wasp (CV-7) photographer. Courtesy of the US Naval Institute Photograph Collection, Annapolis, Maryland. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 2: USS Helena (CL-50) at anchor in President Roads, Boston, Massachusetts, 15 June 1940. Taken by a USS Wasp (CV-7) photographer. Courtesy of the US Naval Institute Photograph Collection, Annapolis, Maryland. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 3: USS Helena (CL-50) photographed circa 1940. Courtesy of the US Naval Institute Photograph Collection, Annapolis, Maryland. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 4: Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941. View from Pier 1010, looking toward the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard's dry docks, with USS Shaw (DD-373) in floating dry dock YFD-2 -- and USS Nevada (BB-36) burning at right. In the foreground is the capsized USS Oglala (CM-4), with USS Helena (CL-50) further down the pier, at left. Beyond Helena is Dry Dock Number One, with USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) and the burning destroyers Cassin (DD-372) and Downes (DD-375). Official US Navy Photograph, National Archives Collection. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 5: Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941. View looking down Pier 1010 toward the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard's Dry Dock Number One, in center, which holds the battleship Pennsylvania (BB-38) and the burning destroyers Cassin (DD-372) and Downes (DD-375). Alongside Pier 1010, in the center middle distance, are the light cruiser Helena (CL-50), listing slightly from a torpedo hit, and the capsized minelayer Oglala (CM-4). Official US Navy Photograph, National Archives Collection. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 6: USS Helena (CL-50) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, following battle damage repairs and overhaul, 1 July 1942. This image has been retouched to censor radar antennas from the gun directors and masts. Courtesy of the US Naval Institute Photograph Collection, Annapolis, Maryland. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 7: USS Helena (CL-50) at a South Pacific base, between battles, circa 1943. This image has been retouched to remove radar antennas from the gun directors and masts. Courtesy of the US Naval Institute Photograph Collection, Annapolis, Maryland. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 8: Munda-Vila Bombardment, 13 May 1943. USS Helena (CL-50) firing during the night bombardment, as seen from USS Honolulu (CL-48). Gunfire causes wavy pattern of tracers. Collection of Vice Admiral Walden L. Ainsworth. Official US Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 9: Central Solomons Campaign, 1943. Light cruisers maneuvering off Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, during exercises on 20 June 1943, ten days before the invasion of New Georgia. Ships are USS Saint Louis (CL-49), at left, USS Helena (CL-50), at right, and USS Honolulu (CL-48) in the center distance. Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 10: Battle of Kula Gulf, 5-6 July 1943. USS Helena (CL-50), in the center, firing during the Battle of Kula Gulf, just before she was torpedoed and sunk. The next ship astern is USS Saint Louis (CL-49). Photographed from USS Honolulu (CL-48). Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 11: Battle of Kula Gulf, 5-6 July 1943. Wet and oil-covered survivors of USS Helena (CL-50) go over papers after their rescue from the waters of the Central Solomons, 6 July 1943. Photographed on board another US Navy warship, possibly USS Nicholas (DD-449). Helena was sunk by Japanese torpedoes the previous night. Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 12: Battle of Kula Gulf, 5-6 July 1943. Marines aboard USS Honolulu (CL-48) fire a salute during funeral services for a casualty from the sunken USS Helena (CL-50), following the Battle of Kula Gulf. Note chaplain at right and audio equipment in left center, atop the cruiser's hangar cover. Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.
Named after the capital of Montana, the 10,000-ton USS Helena (CL-50) was a Saint Louis class light cruiser built at the New York Navy Yard, New York, and was commissioned on 18 September 1939. The ship was approximately 608 feet long and 61 feet wide, had a top speed of 33 knots, and had a crew of 888 officers and men. Helena was armed with 15 6-inch guns, eight 5-inch guns, and eight .50-caliber machine guns.
After being commissioned, Helena was assigned to the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet. Helena was based at Pearl Harbor and was there when the Japanese attacked on 7 December 1941. She was moored at Pier 1010 on the east side of the harbor, a spot normally reserved for the battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38). As a result of this unfortunate coincidence, 1010 Dock became a prime target for Japanese aircraft that fateful morning.
Moored alongside Helena was USS Oglala (CM-4), flagship of the Pacific Fleet Mine Force and the Navy‘s principal minelayer. A few minutes after the first bombs started falling on Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, a Japanese aircraft dropped a torpedo that ran underneath Oglala and hit Helena on the starboard side almost amidships. A tremendous explosion rocked the ship as the crew was still running to their battle stations. Soon water came pouring into the ship and one engine room and one boiler room were flooded. The wiring to the 5-inch batteries was severed, but quick action on the part of the crew brought the forward diesel generator on line within two minutes, making power available to all gun mounts. As soon as power was restored, the ship’s guns sent up a heavy and accurate curtain of fire that protected her from any further air attacks. Thanks to excellent damage control performed by the crew, plus the fact that all watertight doors and hatches were quickly secured throughout the ship, Helena was able to remain afloat. Oglala, unfortunately, was not so lucky. The massive torpedo explosion that damaged Helena also tore a huge hole in Oglala amidships and the minelayer started to flood rapidly. A bomb also exploded next to Oglala, causing even more underwater damage. As the old ship began to sink, Oglala was moved aft of Helena so that it would not pin the cruiser against the dock. Two hours after being hit, Oglala rolled over to port and sank adjacent to Pier 1010.
Once the attack on Pearl Harbor ended, preliminary repairs were made to Helena. The ship then was sent to the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, for more permanent repairs. After the repairs were completed in June 1942, Helena escorted several ships steaming to the South Pacific. Helena then made two quick trips from Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Once these trips were completed, Helena joined the task force that was being built around the carrier USS Wasp (CV-7).
Soon Wasp’s new task force was ordered to escort six transports filled with Marine reinforcements to Guadalcanal. But on 15 September 1942, Wasp was suddenly hit by three torpedoes from a Japanese submarine. The explosions caused enormous fires throughout the ship and soon the carrier had to be abandoned. Helena stood by to rescue survivors and eventually picked up 400 of Wasp’s officers and men. Helena brought the survivors back to Espiritu Santo.
Helena encountered Japanese warships on 11 October 1942, during the Battle of Cape Esperance. The Japanese sent warships and troop transports to try and neutralize Henderson Field, the American air strip on Guadalcanal, but an American task force that included Helena was there to stop the enemy assault on the island. In the naval battle that followed, Helena assisted in sinking a Japanese cruiser and a destroyer. Helena then came under attack on the night of 20 October 1942, while on patrol between Espiritu Santo and San Cristobal Islands. Several torpedoes were fired at the ship, but none of them hit. Helena then went on to bombard Japanese positions near Koli Point, Guadalcanal, on 4 November.
On 11 November 1942, Helena safely escorted a convoy of transports off San Cristobal Island, which is at the southern edge of the Solomon Islands. The convoy then made its way to Guadalcanal, but during the afternoon of 12 November a warning was issued that “enemy aircraft were approaching.” Unloading operations on Guadalcanal were halted and all of the ships moved away from the island to meet the oncoming Japanese attack. Once the Japanese aircraft arrived, the transports were basically in a tight formation while being protected by the escorting American warships. Because of the excellent maneuvering during the attack, the transports managed to avoid most of the bombs falling from the Japanese aircraft. The Japanese did damage two transports, but no ships were sunk. Helena’s antiaircraft gunners shot down eight of the attacking aircraft while sustaining no damage herself.
But as soon as the air battle of 12 November 1942 ended, some disturbing reports were received on Guadalcanal from patrolling American aircraft. Another major Japanese task force was headed for Guadalcanal, which meant that the Japanese Navy was intending to assault the American warships defending the island. Helena was attached to Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan’s task force and the two opposing forces collided on the evening of 13 November 1942, the bloody “Friday the 13th” battle off Guadalcanal. During the battle, Callaghan was on the bridge of the cruiser USS San Francisco (CA-38) when incoming Japanese shells killed him and most of his staff. Earlier in the battle, Rear Admiral Norman Scott had also been killed on board the cruiser USS Atlanta (CL-51), meaning that most of the senior staff in the American task force had been wiped out. Yet despite these losses, all of the American ships charged into the attacking Japanese warships. Helena received only minor damage to her superstructure during the battle. But Helena’s guns scored solid hits on several of the Japanese warships. The battle was a wild melee of shells flying in every direction because ships from both fleets steamed right next to each other, sometimes firing at point-blank range at an opponent. Added to this was that not all of the ships had radar, making shooting at targets at night even more confusing. With daylight came the end of the battle. The US Navy lost two cruisers and four destroyers, while the Japanese lost one battleship, one cruiser, and two destroyers. But the American warships had prevented the Japanese from pushing them away from Guadalcanal, which was a major strategic victory. The Japanese were forced to retreat and, once again, the Marines on Guadalcanal were safe (at least for a few more days). Both Admirals Callaghan and Scott were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for their roles in the battle.
After this battle, Helena went on the offensive. In January 1943, Helena bombarded Japanese positions on New Georgia, also in the Solomon Islands. Her guns hit vital Japanese supply depots and artillery emplacements. Helena continued her participation in the Battle for Guadalcanal through February 1943, usually by escorting merchant ships and bombarding Japanese positions. After completing a brief overhaul in Sydney, Australia, Helena went back to Espiritu Santo in March and eventually took part in another bombardment of New Georgia.
On 5 July 1943, US Navy intelligence received word that Japanese warships were heading for the Solomon Islands once again. By midnight on 5 July, the task force Helena was in was steaming off the northwest corner of New Georgia. It consisted of three cruisers and four destroyers. Heading straight for them was a Japanese task force of ten destroyers. At 0157 on the morning of 5-6 July, the Battle of Kula Gulf had begun and Helena started blasting away at the Japanese warships. Unfortunately, Helena’s guns were firing so quickly that night that the flashes from her guns lit her up like a ball of fire, making her a perfect target for the Japanese ships. Seven minutes after she opened fire, Helena was hit by a torpedo from one of the Japanese destroyers. Within the next three minutes, Helena was hit by two more torpedoes. The ship began to jackknife into the air and then broke into three parts. Helena was flooding rapidly as crewmembers started abandoning ship. As the bow section of the ship rose into the air, many crewmen in the water clustered around it, only to be fired on by the Japanese. Roughly half an hour after she sank, the destroyers Nicholas (DD-449) and Radford (DD-446) started picking up the survivors.
As daylight broke, the two destroyers stopped their rescue operations because of a possible Japanese air attack. They returned to Tulagi carrying most of the crew except for roughly 275 survivors. One group of men still in the water organized themselves into three motor lifeboats, each towing a life raft. Among these 88 survivors was Captain C.P. Cecil, Helena’s commanding officer. This group made it to a small island and were rescued a day later by the destroyers USS Owin (DD-433) and USS Woodworth (DD-460).
For another group of almost 200 sailors, Helena’s shattered bow, which was torn from the rest of the ship by the torpedo explosions, acted as their life raft. But the bow was sinking slowly and soon these men would have nothing to cling to. Fortunately, a US Navy patrol bomber spotted them and dropped some life jackets and rubber life rafts to the struggling men in the water. The wounded were placed into the rafts while the able-bodied men held on to the boats while still in the water. The survivors tried to push themselves toward the nearby island of Kolombaranga, but wind and currents carried them away from the island and further into enemy waters. During a horrible day in the water, many of the wounded died. Evidently, American search planes had lost track of the survivors and could not find them. After spending another night in the water, the Japanese island of Vella Lavella appeared before them. Because the survivors were in no shape to remain in the water, they headed for it, regardless if it meant being murdered by the Japanese (who were not too fond of prisoners). By dawn, the survivors managed to pull the remaining three life rafts to shore. Fortunately, two Allied coastwatchers and friendly natives found the survivors and radioed news of them to Guadalcanal. Soon the destroyers Nicholas and Radford, augmented by the destroyers Jenkins (DD-447) and O’Bannon (DD-450), steamed towards the island to rescue the remaining crewmembers. On the evening of 16 July 1943, the ships arrived and rescued the last 165 members of Helena’s crew. Of Helena’s roughly 900 crewmembers, 168 perished during the battle or were lost at sea.
USS Helena was the first ship to receive the US Navy’s 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 and seven battle stars.