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  USS Helena CL-50
USN
St. Louis class
Light Cruiser

13,327 Tons
608'4" / 61'8" / 25'10"
5x3 6"/47, 4x2 5"/38, 4x4 40mm, 20 20mm; 2 planes

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c1943
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July 6, 1943

Ship History
Built at the New York Navy Yard and lanuched on August 27, 1939. Comisssioned on September 18, 1939. 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. Of the 10 American cruisers lost in World War II, Helena was the second to last lost. The last being USS Indianapolis.

Pearl Harbor
Helena was at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked December 7, 1941, in a birth normally assigned to USS Pennsylvania. Hit by a torpedo on starboard side, quick damaged control and return fire saved the ship from further damage.  Afterwards, it was overhauled at Mare Island for repairs, then entred combat.

Guadalcanal Campaign
First, she escorted a detachement of US Navy SeaBees and an aircraft carrier from Espriritu Santo to Guadalcanal, then joined task force AV-7 around the USS Wasp, helping to rescue her survivors.

Rennell Island
She supported movement of transports into Guadalcanal. On October 11, 1942 the Japanese attacked Henderson Field, to bring heavy troop reinforcements during the night. The Japanese fleet closed and by 1810 was less than 100 miles from Savo Island.

During the Battle of Cape Esperance (Second Battle of Savo Island) USS Helena, equipped with 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 Iron Bottom Sound, Helena sank Furutaka and destroyer Fubuki.

Helena was next under attack on the night of 20 October 1942 while patrolling between Espriritu Santo and San Cristobal. Several torpedoes exploded near her but she was not hit.

Naval Battle of Guadalcanal
Helena saw the climatic Naval Battle of Guadalcanal from its beginning when she was assigned the job of escorting a supply echelon from Espriritu Santo to Guadalcanal. The ship made rendezvous with the convoy of transports off San Cristobal on November 11, 1942 and escorted them to Guadalcanal. During the afternoon of the 12th a coastwatcher reported: "enemy aircraft approaching." Immediately suspending unloading operations, all ships stood out to form an anti-aircraft disposition. When the attack came, superb maneuvering of the force, and anti-aircraft fire, broke up the first attack but the second damaged two ships. Helena was undamaged. The task group brought down eight planes in the 8 minute action.

As unloading resumed, an increasing stream of reports flowed in from patrolling aircraft. Helena, still steaming with Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan's Support Group, aided in shepherding the transports away from Guadalcanal, then reversed course back to Iron Bottom Sound.

The night of the 13th Helena's radar first located the enemy. She received only minor damage to her superstructure. The weaker American fleet had achieved the goal at heavy cost. Great valor had turned back the enemy and prevented the heavy attack that would have been disastrous to the Marine troops ashore.

New Georgia Bombardment
Helena was made shore bombardments of Munda and Vila during January 1943, hitting supply concentrations and gun emplacements. Continuing on patrol and escort in support of the Guadalcanal operation through February, one of her float planes shared in the sinking of Japanese submarine RO-102 on February 11, 1943.

After overhaul in Sydney, she was back at Espriritu Santo in March to participate in bombardments of New Georgia, soon to be invaded.

Battle of Kula Gulf
In the force escorting the transports carrying the landing parties at Rice Anchorage on New Georgia. Helena moved into Kula Gulf just before midnight 4 July, and shortly after midnight on the 5th, her big guns opened up in her last shore bombardment. The landing of troops was completed successfully by dawn, but in the afternoon of July 5, 1943, the Tokyo Express was anticipated and the escort group turned north to meet it.

Sinking History
Participated in the Battle of Kula Gulf, by midnight on July 5, 1943, Helena's group was off the northwest corner of New Georgia, including three cruisers and four destroyers. Racing down the slot to face them was three groups of Japanese destroyers, totaling ten enemy vessels. Four of them peeled off to accomplish their mission of landing troops. By 0157 Helena began blasting away with a fire so rapidly, the ship was a perfect target from her own gun flashes.

Seven minutes after she opened fire, Helena was torpedoed and sunk by IJN destroyers Suzukaze and Tanikaze off Kolombangara. Hit by a torpedo within the next 3 minutes, she was struck by two more. Almost at once she began to jackknife. Below, she was flooding rapidly even before she broke up, sinking in the early morning hours of July 6, 1943.

In a well drilled manner, Helena's men abandoned ship. Her bow rose into the air while sinking and was fired on, with many survivors clustered around.

Fates of the Crew
About a half hour after she sank, USS Nicholas (DD 449) and USS Radford (DD 446) came to rescue the crew. At daylight, the enemy was in range and again the destroyers broke off' their rescue operations in anticipation of an air attack and withdrew for Tulagi, carrying with them all but about 275 of the survivors. They left four boats manned by volunteers from the destroyers' crews to rescue more survivors.

Captain C. P. 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 seven miles from Rice Anchorage after a laborious all-day passage. This group was rescued the next morning by USS Gwin (DD-433) and USS Woodworth (DD-460).

The second group of nearly 200, clung to the bow of Helena, but it was slowly sinking. Luckily, a PB4Y Liberator that dropped life jackets and four lifeboats to the survivors. The wounded were placed aboard the lifeboats, while the able-bodied surround the boats and did their best to propel themselves toward nearby Kolombangara. But wind and current carried them further into enemy waters. Through the torturous day that followed, many of the wounded died.

American search planes missed them and Kolombaranga gradually faded away. Another night passed, and in the morning the island of Vella Lavella was nearby. By dawn, survivors in all three remaining boats made it ashore. Two coastwatchers and loyal natives cared for the survivors as best they could, and radioed news of them to Guadalcanal. The 166 sailors then took to the jungle to evade Japanese patrols.

Rescue of Survivors
Surface vessels were chosen for the final rescue, Nicholas and Radford, augmented by Jenkins (DD-447) and O’Bannon (DD-460) set off: 15 July 1943 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 Vella LaVella. Of Helena's nearly 900 men, 168 had died.

Remains Recovered
In 2006, remains were discovered at Ranonga Island with the dog tag of Seaman 1st Class, General Preston Douglas. In mid-September 2006, a team from JPAC recovered his remains. On January 26, 2007 he was buried next to his sister.

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Last Updated
February 15, 2013

 

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