Friday, May 3, 2013

Work on the USS Helena

On today's date in 1943, crews from Dad's ship began working on the light cruiser, USS Helena, which was moored to its port side. Vestal will do various repairs, including the installation of new radar, until the 10th.

What neither crews of these 2 ships could have known, was that Helena had only a couple of months to live.

Launched in 1939, Helena was later present at Pearl Harbor during the surprise Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. When the attack came, Helena was in the berth normally assigned to the battleship Pennsylvania, thus becoming a prime target for the Japanese planes. Although hit by a torpedo, the ship was able to fire back at the attacking planes, while at the same time her crews effected damage control to keep her from sinking. After preliminary repairs at Pearl, Helena steamed to the West Coast for permanent repairs.

In 1942, Helena returned to action in the South Pacific. In September and October, she was part of the task force supporting transports carrying Marine reinforcements to Guadalcanal. In November, Helena participated in the climactic Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, as she escorted supply ships from Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal under an enemy air attack. Helena received only minor damage in the night action of November 13 when U.S. ships turned back the enemy and prevented an attack that would have been disastrous to the Marine troops ashore. However, 2 other ships received major damage, including the flagship USS San Francisco* and the Juneau.** Helena led the damaged ships back to Espiritu Santo.

Helena continued to operate in the Guadalcanal area in early 1943. After overhaul work in Sydney in March, Helena resumed operations out of Espiritu Santo. It was during this period (May) that Vestal installed Helena's radar.

In July, the Allies began the process of launching their next offensive in the Solomon Islands, having just landed troops on the island of Rendova as the first step to seizing the major Japanese airstrip on New Georgia Island. Helena was part the force escorting the transports carrying the initial landing parties. The ship moved into Kula Gulf just before midnight on July 4th and began a bombardment of the Kolombangara shore.

The troops were landed successfully by dawn on the 5th, but in the afternoon, word came that an enemy naval force was approaching. Helena's group turned north to meet it. By midnight, the Allied ships were off the northwest corner of New Georgia, confronted by 10 enemy ships, and the Battle of Kula Gulf began. Flashes from Helena's fire made her a target for the enemy. Within a few minutes of the battle, she was hit by a torpedo. Then moments later, she was struck by 2 more. The ship flooded rapidly, broke up, and sank. Of the nearly 900 men on board, 168 perished. Many of the survivors had to evade the enemy in the water and on small rescue boats. Those reaching land were forced to take refuge in the jungle to escape Japanese patrols. It wasn't until 10 days later the last survivors were finally rescued.

USS Helena
Source: NavSource Online

The USS Helena was the first ship to receive the Navy Unit Commendation for her actions in the Battles of Cape Esperance, Guadalcanal, and Kula Gulf. The ship also earned 7 Battle Stars for her WWII service.

* The San Francisco took a direct hit to the bridge, killing Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan and Captain Cassin Young, along with almost all of the bridge officers. Capt. Young was the commander of Dad's ship, Vestal, during the attack on Pearl Harbor the year before. For that action, he received the Medal of Honor. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his part in the Guadalcanal Campaign.

** En route to Espiritu Santo for emergency repairs, the Juneau was torpedoed and lost. About 100 survived the ship's destruction, although all but 10 died in the days afterward in the sea. Among the lost were the famous 5 Sullivan Brothers. Two (and maybe 3) of the brothers apparently survived the sinking, only to die in the water with other survivors from exposure to the elements and shark attacks.

Sources: USS Helena War Diary, November 1942, May 1943; After-Action report of USS Helena, July 30, 1943; USS Vestal War Diary, May 1943; Wikipedia

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