Location: Memphis, Tennessee, United States

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

When Duty Calls - The rescue of the crew of the USS Helena.
Part I - "The Set-Up"

“Battle stations, battle stations!” Weary sailors jump to their feet, don life vest and man their post. A boggie, Jap zero, had been spotted by someone in the task force; just a ‘look see’, it never ventures within gun range. Seaman Clarence Hile secures from general quarters and resumes checking out his 30 caliber machinegun. He’s got a big night ahead of him.

With a brisk nod, Hile acknowledges the presence of the Boat Officer, Ensign Rollo Nuckles, approaching the LPCR. “Mister Nuckles, any idea how many Japs are on that island?” Nuckles grinned as he looked over at the seventeen-year-old sailor wiping down the barrel of his machinegun. “All I know for sure is that Vella Lavella has a Jap barge staging base there. Captain Wilhielm says to be ready for anything,” referring to the commanding officer of APD-9, the USS Dent.

The Dent along with her sister ship the USS Waters, both WWI vintage destroyers that had been converted to APD’s, destroyer transports, had been assigned the dangerous mission of going deep into Japanese held territory and rescuing survivors from a torpedoed light cruiser, the USS Helena, from the Japanese occupied island of Vella Lavella. Admiral R.K. Turner, commander of the Solomons offensive, had organized a task force of destroyers to rescue the group of sailors and Marines who were stranded on the island, having spent several days afloat at sea after the sinking of their ship.

To this point in time the Helena survivors had the local Melanesian natives to thank for their well being. Coastwatchers had witnessed the crew floating down the ‘slot’ and had sent loyal natives out in their canoes to bring the men ashore. The coastwatchers had radioed Guadalcanal as to the location of the marooned sailors. “We’ve got to get those men off; that’s all there is to it,” said Adm. Turner, as he briefed his staff about the operation. “This mission is for the moral of all the men in the fleet; it means a lot when you’re fighting under the conditions our men fight under out here, to know that if the worst happens, and you get blown off your ship and washed ashore somewhere, the Navy isn’t going to forget you.”

Nine days since the Helena had gone down in the darkness of night, during the pitch battle of Kula Gulf, the Navy was sending a task force of ships, no heavier than destroyers, into the enemy’s stronghold in the Solomon Islands, to execute the rescue. The ships were venturing into waters controlled by a concentration of Japanese air bases off the southern tip of Bougainville, to make a daring run ashore and attempt to save the service men that had endured a week of hiding from Japanese patrols in the mountains of Vella Lavella. The Melanesian natives had shared their food and built crude shelters for the sailors; they had tended to the salt-water sores and gashes inflicted by the sharp coral that infested the waters as best they could. Some had died and others would follow if medical care were not obtained for them immediately.

Ens. Nuckles was to lead the Higgins boats, LPCR’s, from the Dent through the poorly charted coral infested waters of Paresco Bay, up the mouth of the Paresco River to pick up the survivors. Hiles was familiar with the adrinaline rush of transporting Marines from the Dent to the beach, having crewed his LPCR on several amphibious landings, but this was something new. Under the cover of darkness, the Higgins boats were to sneak up to a Japanese held island, navigate up a river and covertly take on passengers, all without charts or guides. “I was a couple of shades past being scared,” Hiles recalled.


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