Location: Memphis, Tennessee, United States

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

When Duty Calls - Part II - The sinking of the Helena

On the night of July 6, 1943, the light cruiser, the USS HELENA, was sunk during the Battle of Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands. She took three torpedo hits in a matter of minutes, jackknifed and sank.

Of the approximately 1,000 crewmen of the Helena, 168 perished. Destroyers picked-up the bulk of the crewmen from the dark waters throughout the night while the battle ragged around them. But a group of about 170 were taken by the current and washed up the 'slot' deep into Japanses held waters, and after several days adrift at sea, made landfall on the enemy garrisoned island of Vella Lavella.

"My general quarters station was at amidships," said Jim Layton, a Pharmacists Mate aboard the Helena, "The torpedoes hit us at amidship and it broke there. I was already knee deep in water when I went to the deck." As Turret Officer on #5 Turret aboard the Helena, Lt. JG Bin Cockran described his reaction to being torpedoed. "(I) could feel the ship lurch... then two concussions close together made the first one seem mild." Cockran went on to say, "Turret-five was the last turret aft. The middle of the ship went underwater and we were separated from the forward part of the ship. By the time I got out of the turret they were throwing the rafts overboard."

That summer night, the sky was black as coal with the only illumination being provided by the starburst effect the big guns gave off when shooting a salvo. Damage to the Helena occurred underneath the waterline and no fireball, which often accompanied a catastrophic hit, materialized when she sank. Other warships in the task force were busy engaging the Japanese and didn't realize for some time that the Helena had been sunk.

The bow, sticking up in the air, served as a life raft for approximately 200 sailors after the Helena was torpedoed, but it too was slowly sinking. A Navy Liberator (B-24) came to their aid by flying over and dropping lifejackets and their own life rafts. The wounded were placed aboard the rafts and the able-bodied survivors encircled the rafts and attempted to swim them free of the sinking wreckage.

When her bow was discovered, the destroyers USS Nicholas and Radford were ordered to pickup survivors. This rescue mission continued throughout the night, saving over 750 men from the gulf waters. Sending out their boats and dropping cargo nets over the sides, the destroyers pulled sailors covered in oil from the dark seas.

Several times during this mission of mercy the destroyers were forced to break-off from the rescue to defend themselves from Japanese warships who came within gun and torpedo range. "My group was along side a ship at one point in the night, but they had to leave us," Cockran said. "I had to leave the raft and swim hard to get clear of the screws, that happened twice."
Layton added, "I was fifty- feet from getting aboard a rescue ship. They yelled down to stay clear that they were ordered to get underway, and the next thing you know they are off chasing the Japs."

Lingering until dawn, the destroyers were finally required to leave the area, being only sixty miles from the Japanses airstrip at Buin and exposed to air attack, but not before giving up their own whaleboats to the sailors still floating in the sea.


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