The following is a copy of a letter, 12 pages in length , sent to me years ago. I no longer remember who provided it. (Ed.)
In reply address not the signer of this
letter, but Bureau of Naval Personnel,
Navy Department, Washington, D.C.
Refer to No.
662 18 13 P-5323a-reg
BUREAU OF NAVAL PERSONNEL
Washington 24, D. C.
7 October 1944
Mrs. Katherine Agnes Heinrich
Dear Mrs. Heinrich:
The Navy Department has had numerous requests for information
concerning the loss of the USS HELENA (CL 5O).
An account of the exploits of that ship was written for publication. Believing that the relatives of the officers and men would like to have it, it was requested that it be reproduced.
This Bureau is pleased to forward a copy herewith. It is believed that you will find strength and pride in the knowledge that the gallant fight waged by the officers and men of the USS HELENA
against great odds in keeping with the finest traditions of
By direction of the Chief of Naval Personnel.
Captain U. S. N. R.
Director of the Dependents Welfare Division
HOLD FOR RELEASE IN
MORNING PAPERS OF SUNDAY,
OCTOBER 24, 1943, NOT APPEARING
ON THE STREET BEFORE 8 p.m (E.W.T.),
OCTOBER 23, 1943
THE STORY OF THE USS HELENA
Snatched from the sea and the steaming yap-infested South Pacific jungle, nearly 1,000 men of the lost USS HELENA today stand fit and ready to fight again.
The story of their rescue by destroyers after their ship went down fighting to the end in Kula Gulf July 7, 1943, which has been told in part, like the history of the HELENA herself, will live always as an inspiration to new generations of American sea-fighters.
Perhaps a new HELENA will join the fleet to avenge her namesake --but the new ship will have to step lively to be worthy of the traditions of the old one which, in her brief, hell-roaring life, fought in 13 engagements in the Southwest Pacific before Jap hits sent her to the bottom at the close of a brilliant American naval victory that saw nine Nip warships turned into flame-swept, sinking wrecks and five others badly battered.
On that fateful early morning when Captain Charles P. Cecil, U.S.N., of Flat Rock, North Carolina, reluctantly ordered "Abandon ship," his battle-begrimed crew began a new fight -- this time against the oil-coated sea and the ever-present peril of capture, or of strafing enemy planes, for the battle took place deep in jap-controlled waters.
At the same time there was ended the imperishable saga of the HELENA, one of the "fightingest" men-o'-war that ever scoured the seas in conformity with the stirring order to "Seek out and destroy the enemy."
The HELENA's war record discloses that she turned the terrific punch of her batteries upon Lunga, Koli and Kokumbona Points on Guadalcanal Island ; and on Vila, Munda, Kolombangara, Enogai Inlet and Bairoko Harbor in the New Georgia group, blasting enemy airfields, gun positions and troop areas alike; that she participated in two of the most fiercely-fought surface actions in the Southwest Pacific and came out of them with but minor material damage and the loss of only one man; and that when not wreaking death and destruction upon the enemy, she was busy escorting troops and supply ships and aircraft carriers bearing men, planes, tanks and other implements of war to establish or reinforce the South Pacific bases from which the United States has carried the fight to the Japanese.
On one occasion, Japanese propagandists unwittingly complimented the HELENA's gun crews. Following a bombardment of Kolombangara, the Tokyo radio announced that United States Naval forces employed "a new secret weapon- -a 6-inch machine gun." It was a well-deserved tribute to the proficiency of the personnel manning the HELENA's guns.
Commissioned at the New York Navy Yard on September 18, 1939,
the HELENA was on her shakedown cruise under the command of Captain Max B. DeMott, U.S.N., of Jamestown, Rhode Island, now retired, when she had her first sight of the violence of naval warfare.
Putting in at Montevideo, Uruguay, the HELENA passed close aboard the German pocket battleship GRAF SPEE, which her crew had scuttled rather than face the British Royal Navy units which had damaged and chased the GRAF SPEE into Montevideo and then stood off the harbor awaiting her reappearance. A portion of the GRAF SPEE's superstructure, jutting above the water, marked the spot where the ship had gone down.
The HELENA was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese struck on December 7, 1941. Her antiaircraft batteries opened with a roar and during the raid six enemy planes were downed by her guns.
The HELENA was hit, but temporary repairs were made to the ship, and she was sent to the Mare Island, California, Navy Yard for permanent repairs.
During the time she was out of action the HELENA underwent three changes in command. The late Rear Admiral Robert H. English, U.S.N., of Washington, D. C., who had relieved. Captain DeMott, was her Pearl Harbor
"skipper" who fought the ship on that fateful Sunday morning. Next command the cruiser was Commander Gerald P. Linke, U.S.N., Plainfield, New Jersey now a Captain, who served as Acting Commanding Officer until Captain, now Rear Admiral, Oliver M. Read, U.S.N., Yemassee, South Carolina, took ever. Commander Linke remained aboard as Executive Officer.
When the repairs needed to put the HELENA back into the war were finished, the cruiser stood out from San Francisco for the South Pacific.
It was with a comparatively new company that she returned to the war zone. It was, however, a ship's company that was anxious to learn the ways of war -•- and it learned them quickly, as the Japanese discovered.
After reaching her South Pacific destination, the HELENA made two runs to Guadalcanal. Her next mission was to escort the aircraft corner USS HORNET and later she joined the force with which the USS WASP was operating.
She was present when the latter carrier was torpedoed September 15
Wet through, many of them oil-soaked, the WASP survivors were in need of dry clothing when destroyers that picked them up transferred all of them to the HELENA. The latter's men broke out their sea bags and provided a pair of shoes apiece.
The HELENA deposited the WASP's survivors at a United States base and was back at sea searching for enemy forces on September 23, 1942,
when word came that Captain Read was detached to take over a new command.
The new "skipper" was commanding the Destroyer Squadron escorting the HELENA at the time and he came aboard immediately by the only available means -- a coal bag rigged to a line running from his destroyer flagship to the cruiser.
He was Captain Gilbert C. Hoover, U.S.N., of Bristol, Rhode Island, who already held the Navy Cross for "extraordinary heroism" as Commander of the Destroyer Squadron, and who was to win Gold Stars emblematic of second and third Navy Crosses while serving in the HELENA.
It was back to Guadalcanal for the cruiser in early October, then another brief stay with the HORNET - - and then the HELENA sailed into her first major engagement.
On October 11 a strong force of Japanese cruisers, destroyers and troop transports headed southward in an attempt to reinforce the Japanese units which the Marines were battling on Guadalcanal. A Task Force under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott, U.S.N., who was later killed in the Battle of Guadalcanal, was ordered to intercept.
Rear Admiral Scott's ships steamed off to engage the enemy in one of the few night surface engagements ever fought between rival forces of virtually equal strength.
The story of the Battle of Cape Esperance has been told . . . . .how
Admiral Scott's force turned back the enemy without a landing . . . . how it sank four cruisers, four destroyers and a transport with the loss of but one of its own destroyers....and how United States airmen swarmed over the fleeing Japanese ships the next day, damaging another cruiser and probably sinking a destroyer.
However, security reasons prevented the revealing of the contribution the HELENA made in that victory, and it was a major contribution.
The enemy was engaged at 14 minutes before midnight; exactly 98 seconds later the HELENA's guns paused momentarily as the destroyer on which she had them trained caught fire. Explosions occurred all over the enemy ship and she sank.
The HELENA's gun crews then turned their attention to a second vessel
a cruiser. Fire was checked four and a half minutes later when the cruiser, flaming from bow to stern, disintegrated.
The ship's lookouts strained to distinguish between friend and foe in the melee that was taking place between the rival ships .
A Japanese cruiser and a United States cruiser were swapping punches nearby. The HELENA's batteries turned on the enemy and the combined fire-power of the two United States ships put the enemy craft under.
A Japanese destroyer sneaked in and fired a torpedo at the HELENA, but her lookouts spotted it and the cruiser swung sharply, the "tin fish" passing harmlessly 75 yards ahead.
The destroyer wheeled in an attempt to flee the scene. One United States ship already had it under fire when the HELENA joined in. The enemy craft was blasted to bits.
The action was broken off with the surviving enemy ships in retreat.
In their first battle the HELENA'S gun crews had fired at four ships and had either destroyed or helped to destroy four ships, attesting to the efficient training they received at the bends of their Gunnery Officer, Commander Rodman D. Smith. U.S.N., of Bainbridge Georgia.
The HELENA was not hit, nor did she suffer any casualties,
Captain Hoover received the Gold Star emblematic of his second Navy
Cross for that action.
The HELENA's next mission was a sweep off Guadalcanal on the night of October 15-16 with a task force set to intercept any Japanese units which might attempt to reinforce Guadalcanal, arid literally praying the enemy would put in an appearance.
United States battleships under Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee, Jr., U.S.N., had joined up with the cruisers and destroyers. The night passed uneventfully, however,for the Japanese, did not show up.
Five nights later the HELENA underwent a submarine attack while escorting a convoy, but skillful seamanship saved her from harm.
Japanese 6-inch shore batteries on Noll Point felt the fury of the HELENA's guns on the morning of November 4, 1942, when the Japs opened up on United States transports landing fresh troops at Guadalcanal.
Sending her scouting planes aloft, the HELENA steamed up to Koli Point, turned her guns on the enemy batteries and let go, The shore batteries were silenced and large fires were started among the gun emplacements.
The HELENA put in the busiest day of her career on November 12, 1942, beginning at dawn, when Japanese shore batteries near the mouth of the Kokumbona River opened fire on transports unloading more United States troops at Guadalcanal.
The HELENA was again called into action, and again she poured
hundreds of shells into Japanese positions. The enemy guns were knocked out.
Still hoping to prevent a mass landing of new United States forces, the Japanese sent in three flights of torpedo bombers, escorted by Zero fighters, to attack the transports that afternoon.
Nine enemy bombers were shot down by antiaircraft fire from the United States ships, with four credited to the HELENA. Twenty-one enemy planes were downed by fighters from Guadalcanal. Only one was seen to escape.
Three Japanese planes got in close enough to let go their torpedoes,
but not a hit was scored. One plane crashed on the deck of a United States ship.
(The U. S. S. San Francisco 30 killed)
The Battle of Guadalcanal was begun that night. Thwarted time and again in efforts to drive American ground forces from the area, the Japanese chose; the night of November 12-13, 1942, to initiate a desperate, all-out effort to regain control of the Solomons. They failed. They were turned back a beaten and crushed foe, and one of the prime reasons they were beaten and crushed was the punishment the HELENA and her sister ships dealt the Japanese in the opening round.
The HELENA was the first to sight the enemy force as it neared Savo Island. Holding their fire while closing the range, the United States craft moved steadily toward their unsuspecting foe and steamed between the enemy's two flanks before the Japanese detected their presence.
A cruiser stabbed the darkness with her searchlight, found the HELENA and opened fire.
The HELENA's main battery, meanwhile, had been trained on the same cruiser and had gotten the range. The HELENA, as in the Battle of Cape Esperance, was the first United States ship to fire.
A full salvo burst from her guns and struck home. The Japanese cruiser, a heavy one bearing 8-inch guns, burst into flames, lighting the entire area and enabling the United States destroyers to race in and launch torpedoes at the enemy force.
Rapid, continuous fire was maintained on the enemy cruiser. Practically all of the shots appeared to score hits. Flames raged forward and amidships and the cruiser began to sink.
The HELENA's main battery subsided, but the secondary battery, which had selected a destroyer, pounded its target and hammered it into the sea.
The HELENA had claimed two victims.
Fifteen minutes after the enemy was engaged, the HELENA observed six enemy ships on her starboard hand fleeing northward, retreating from the battle.
One of the enemy vessels, a cruiser, was hurling shells at the SAN FRANCISCO, which, it was learned later, had damaged a Japanese battleship
in a fierce slugging match and had herself been damaged, one of the enemy's salvos killing, among others, Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan, U.S.N.,
Task Force Commander, and Captain Cassin Young, U.S.N., the SAN FRANCIS-CO's "skipper."
The HELENA's main battery opened fire on this cruiser. It was sunk. The secondary battery trained on a destroyer in the six-ship formation, sinking it. Four ships down.
A Japanese ship passed the HELENA on a diverging course while the main and secondary batteries were engaged in sinking the cruiser and destroyer, and the HELENA's lighter guns pumped shells into the craft's bridge.
The guns of the HELENA were silent while she cleared several friendly vessels and then they opened fire on another ship among the retreating Japanese vessels. The target was set afire.
The secondary battery then scored hits on a Japanese destroyer and its target was soon on fire.
Remnants of the battered Japanese force fled northward, some actually firing: at each other in confusion as they retreated. When dawn lighted the battle area next morning, United States aircraft -from Guadalcanal attacked damaged Japanese ships stilt on the scene.
Captain Hoover was awarded the Gold Star in lieu of a third Navy Cross for his service in this engagement.
The HELENA's next missions were to soften up enemy airfields, troop areas and shore batteries in the New Georgia Islands, helping to pave the way for the subsequent Allied landings.
Munda was the destination on the night of January 4-5, 1943, and the HELENA pumped shells into the airfield and airfield facilities.
Vila was hit on the night of January 24-25. Fires were started among the fuel and ammunition dumps on Stanmore Plantation, where Japanese ships
coming down from the north at night deposited men and supplies to be carried on to Munda by barges and then raced back to their bases in the north before daybreak to avoid air attack.
Shore positions on Kolombangara and at Enogia Inlet and Bairoko Harbor were pummeled on the night of May 13. Large fires were started. Shore batteries fired on the vessels, but the fire was both weak and ineffective.
Returning to base from two of these bombardments, the United States tack force was attacked by enemy aircraft. In a daylight attack the HELENA shot down two planes the two remaining airships fled.
On July 5 the HELENA was one of the combatant craft which convoyed troops landing at Rico Anchorage and helped to cover the landing force.
The following night American and Japanese ships tangled in the Battle of Kula Gulf, an engagement which cost the Javanese an estimated nine to 11 cruisers and destroyers and the United States one vessel -- the HELENA.
The United States force caught the Japanese ships landing troops for the reinforcement of Munda.
Action began at l:55 a.m. on the morning of July 7. The HELENA'S
main battery fired on one of the larger enemy ships, sinking it. The secondary battery fired on a destroyer and sank it, shifting immediately to another destroyer and sinking it.
Both main and secondary batteries had shifted to new targets and had inflicted damage on two enemy ships when Japanese destroyers closed in and launched a torpedo attack. Torpedoes crashed into the HELENA's hull.
The ship went clown twenty minutes later.
Captain Cecil, who already held the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism as Commanding Officer of a destroyer group was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second Navy Cross for the calm, efficient manner in which he directed the abandonment of his ship and subsequent rescue work, which he directed from a small life raft.
He spent five hours in oil-covered water and 10 more on the raft before reaching a beach. Shipmates said he refused to be rescued by an American destroyer, preferring to stay in the water in order to see to it that men who could not be rescued immediately reached shore safely.
Then began the new fight for many of her survivors. For 10 days afterwards, first in enemy-patrolled waters and later on enemy-held Vella LaVella Island, they struggled to avoid capture and to survive.
On the following morning, when rescue ships had departed with most of their surviving shipmates, 166 of the HELENA's company found themselves swimming alone or in small groups on a lonely, hostile sea. They were rescued by one of the outstanding navigational feats in United States Navy annals.
Among these survivors were Lieutenant Commander John L. Chew U.S.N.
15 Southgate Avenue, _ Annapolis, Maryland; Lieutenant Commander
Warren Boles, U.S.N.R., Marblehead, Massachusetts; and Major Bernard T. Kelly, U. S. M. C.,
55 South Campbell Avenue, Chicago Illinois commander of the HELENA'S Marine Detachment.
Lieutenant Commander Chew collected a group and kept it together for the mutual safety of its members. Frequently men who had been injured drifted away and had to be brought back by stronger shipmates. Later an American
B-24 flew over the scattered dots of survivors and dropped three rubber
boats. Lieutenant Commander Chow's group managed to salvage two of the boats. Two wounded men were placed in them and about 50 other survivors slowly gathered about their rims. Planes, enemy as well as friendly ones, frequently passed over the men, but they were not strafed. Toward evening an attempt was made to reach Kolombangara, but so heavily encumbered were the little boats that no progress could be made against the adverse currents.
Next day, Lieutenant Commander Chew's party was joined by Major Kelly and five Marines who had been in the water without rafts or boats for 30 hours. It was decided to attempt to reach Vella LaVella, which, while
farther away than Kolombangara, was in the direction of the wind and current. The natives there were known to be friendly and there were presumably fewer Japanese than on Kolombangara.
With the help of an improvised sail and constant paddling, headway was made at about one and a half knots. The men were beginning to tire, and
occasionally a man would fall away from one of the boats and was not seen again. Happily, a case of potatoes floated by, and. the men found that chewing
on them helped greatly to lessen their thirst. The water was warm and there
were no sharks.
That night a few more men disappeared. Some just seemed to fall asleep, and then slide under the water. The survivors could rarely recall their identity, because everyone was covered with oil and looked alike, and the whole company by that time was suffering from severe physical exhaustion and occasional mental relapse. One of the boats made land that night. The one bearing Lieutenant Commander Chew and Major Kelly drifted on.
The following day Lieutenant Commander Chew and Lieutenant Commander Boles set out to swim for the shore of Vella LaVella not far away. Lieutenant Commander Chew was picked up by a native in a boat, about a mile from the beach. Lieutenant Commander Boles and the other, men, either in or clinging to the boat, arrived soon afterwards. Friendly natives guided them to a picturesque village, where they were fed and rested. Some of the men were nearly naked, and makeshift clothes were found them. All were filthy with oil. Some required medical treatment, but they grew strong on the simple, first-aid care and nursing which their shipmates and the natives provided.
(How do they think the Natives knew that they were out there? Natives sent every dugout they had to pick up our people.) (About 165 men)
A day later a semi-permanent camp, sheltered by giant banyan trees from enemy ships and planes, was set up in the bush close by the sea. The
wounded were put to bed in the house of a hospitable Chinese. Medical
supplies and emergency rations collected from some of the ship's rafts
which had drifted ashore furnished dependable fare for the injured. Natives
brought to the camp a daily supply of potatoes, tapioca, yarns, papaw and other
tropical foods. A stew, consisting of four cans of meat and native vegetables,
was cooked twice daily and provided the chief article of diet. Fortune obligingly saw to it that the U.S. Navy still bad its inexhaustible supply of coffee! Five 25-lb. cans of coffee were washed up on the beach, providing an ample supply for all hands.
Japanese patrols and scouting parties were on Vella LaVella, and planes bearing the red spot of the Japanese sun were a common sight overhead. The possibility of discovery and capture of the HELENA's unarmed survivors was uppermost in everyone's mind. Major Kelly organized a guard from the five Marines and a few of the sailors. The natives produced seven old rifles, including one of Japanese make, and a shotgun. Enough ammunition was rounded up to provide a few shots for each weapon. Guards were posted nightly.
The natives assisted in protecting the camp by reporting Japanese activities. On one occasion, it was reported, “four Japanese approached too closely and they were disposed of by the natives.”
Within a few days communication was established with the United States Naval forces at Tulagi. Immediately plans were initiated at Tulagi to rescue the men in Lieutenant Commander Chew's group and a smaller group similarly stranded a few miles away. It was a bold and difficult scheme, for not only was the enemy in control of Vella LaVella, Kolombangara and all of the waters around them, but available charts were unreliable for negotiating the narrow and crooked channels through which rescue ships must pass.
In addition, nearly all United States ships were engaged night and day, in supporting landing operations being made on New Georgia and Rendova Islands. Moreover, the rescue dash must be made at night, because daylight would expose the ships to air attack by the enemy.
Captain Francis X. McInerney U.S.N., of Cheyenne, Wyoming, commander of a Destroyer Squadron, was placed in charge of the rescue expedition. He ordered destroyer-transports (converted over-age destroyers) to handle the actual rescue work. They were to be covered by an inner escort screen of modern destroyers while taking off the HELENA survivors and by an outer screen also composed of destroyers, operating independently of both of the other forces.
Captain Thomas J. Ryan, Jr., U.S.N., 4607 Connecticut Avenue, N. W. Washington, D. C., commanded the escort and Commander John B. Sweeney, U.S.N., Belmont, Massachusetts, the destroyer-transports.
The transports and their escort departed from Guadalcanal at noon on July 15 There were two destroyer-transports: the U SS DENT, Lieutenant
.Commander Ralph A. Wilhelm, U.S.N.R., 2515 5th Avenue West; and the USS Waters, Lieutenant Commander Charles J. McWhinnie, U.S.N.R., 435 Teresita Boulevard, San Francisco, California; with Commander Sweeney in the DENT. t Four destroyers made up the escort: the USS TAYLOR, Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Katz, U.S.N., 6 Ellswerth Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the USS MAURY, Lieutenant Commander Gelzer L. Sims, U.S.N., of Orangeburg, South Carolina; the USS GRIDLEY, Lieutenant Commander Jesse H. Motes, U.S.N., of
Mountville, South Carolina; and the USS ELLET, Lieutenant Commander Thomas C. Phifer, U.S.N., of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Captain Ryan was in the TAYLOR.
The force proceeded toward its destination, keeping New Georgia to starboard. As far as Rendova the course was familiar, because some of the ships had participated in operations near that island. But beyond Banyetta Point, at the western extremity of Rondova, the sea, the islands, and their
many reefs were unknown territory. The night was clear with bright moonlight,
which greatly aided navigation.
It was then after midnight, and the rendezvous hour was near. The ships inched their way cautiously toward land, taking frequent soundings. At 1:30 a.m. Commander Ryan ordered the transports to "feel" their way inshore. Although everything indicated, that navigation had, been correct, no signal came from shore and there was fear that something had gone amiss. Precisely at 2:00 a.m., however, the signal was seen and the transports moved shoreward
while the escort destroyers patrolled outside.
When the transports had gone as far as they dared in the shallow, coral-studded waters, boats were lowered and moved toward shore, guided through the night first by the signals of those onshore, and later by their voices. Finally the noise of the returning boats was, heard aboard the transports, and within a few minutes the HELENA's men climbed aboard. A few had to be lifted over the side; some appeared as strong AND hearty as they were before their arduous experience, but all wore suffering from coral cuts suffered on the Vella LaVella beach, for none had shoes.
The evacuation from shore had been covered by the Marines, who stood guard between the party and possible Japanese patrols. They were the last to
The DENT and WATERS, screened by the destroyers, then proceeded southeast through moonlighted waters to another point where the second group
of 61 men was rescued at 5:00 a.m. A Japanese plane flew directly overhead
while the transports were taking them on board, but the ships withhold fire, and the Jap departed without detecting the ships.
The force which was to cover the return of the rescue ships consisted of four destroyers: the USS NICHOLAS, Lieutenant Commander William K. Romoser, U.S.N., Middletown, Rhode Island; the USS JENKINS, Lieutenant
Commander Madison Hall, Jr., U.S.N., Ruston, Louisiana, and the USS
O'BANNON, Lieutenant Commander Donald I. McDonald, U.S.N., 110 East 87th Street, New York City, with Captain McInerney in the NICHOLAS.
Being faster than the main group, the covering force did not leave Guadacanal-Tulagi until mid-afternoon of July 16. While off Kolombangara, at about 11:00 p.m., it was sighted by Japanese reconnaissance planes which shadowed it rest of the night.
The planes could not be shaken, and with this unwelcome escort, Captain McInerney's force arrived in position soon after midnight and patrolled in readiness for a possible attempt by enemy ships to interfere.
The planes followed the destroyers, frequently dropping flares to illuminate the ships and twice dropped bombs, but they did no damage. The enemy's preoccupation with the covering force led him to ignore completely the main group. The planes were not fired on because Captain McInerney reasoned that gunfire would attract the attention of submarines or surface craft believed to be in the vicinity.
After the second party of survivors had been embarked. the entire force joined up and returned to Tulagi-Guadalcanal. The Japanese planes had retired, and the return voyage was uneventful except for the rescue of some enemy survivors of the second Battle of Kula Gulf, and the sighting of others who suicidally declined to be rescued.
On the afternoon of July 17 the ships reached Guadalcanal.
(Biographies available in Reference Section, Office of Public Relations, Washing-ton, D. C. Photographs available in Photographic Section.)