The light cruiser USS Helena, named after Montana’s capital city, was sunk during the Battle of Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands during the night of July 6, 1943 as it fired on several Japanese ships. The Helena, illuminated by the constant muzzle flashes of its’ guns, was an easy target, and was soon struck by three Japanese torpedoes, which broke the back of the ship. It sank in 860 meters of water. On March 23, 2018, nearly 75 years after the USS Helena was sunk, Microsoft founder Paul Allen announced that his R/V Petrel team had located the wreckage.
The Helena was badly damaged during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was towed to Mare Island California, where it underwent extensive repairs, including installation of a state-of-the-art radar. While it underwent repairs, the ship’s crew honed their gunnery skills. After the invasion of Guadalcanal, the Helena was sent to the Solomon Islands, where it participated in two major sea battles, the Battle of Cape Esperance and the Battle of Guadalcanal during the fall of 1942. The new radar and the gunnery skills of the crew made the Helena a fearsome adversary, and the Japanese Navy was fooled into believing that the Americans had developed fully automatic naval guns.
Named after Montana’s Capital City, the light cruiser Helena was barely two years old when it was struck by a torpedo at Pearl Harbor.
At 7:57 on December 1941 Seaman C.A. Flood spotted five planes over Ford Island, and recognized them as Japanese. The officer of the deck sounded general quarters and called for live ammunition. Crewmen ran for their duty stations as a Japanese plane strafed the ship. Seconds later a second plane dove straight for the Helena, releasing its torpedo in mid-channel. The torpedo passed under the ancient USS Oglala, ripped a forty-foot hole in the Helena’s hull, and tore into the engine room. The blast roared through the open
passageways of the ship, incinerating sailors.
The USS Helena was patched back together and managed to limp under the power of a single engine to a shipyard at Mare Island, California, where the ship underwent months of repairs. The Helena was then sent to the Solomon Islands to help in the Guadalcanal campaign. On September 19, 1942 the Helena helped rescue 400 seamen from the torpedoed USS Wasp.
On the night of October 11, 1942 the Helena’s new radar picked up several oncoming Japanese ships, and the gunners opened fire. With modern guns that used brass cases instead of powder bags, the Helena could fire 150 rounds per minute, and within minutes had sunk a Japanese cruiser and a destroyer. Tokyo Rose would dub the Helena the “machine gun ship.”
Only a few weeks later the Helena repeated its performance at the Battle of Guadalcanal, which an American admiral would describe as the “the fiercest naval battle ever fought.” The crack gunners promptly set a Japanese cruiser ablaze and then opened fire on three other enemy ships, including a much larger battleship. The battleship was so close that it couldn’t depress its guns enough to hit the Helena. “The range was so close its fourteen inch shells were now passing over our heads: emitting a chugging sound from the compression waves,” remembered radarman Ray Casten.
On July 6, 1943 an American fleet steamed into Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands, where ten Japanese ships were soon encountered. Once again the Helena sank a destroyer and crippled another. The speed of the gunners made the Helena an awesome sight in battle, but the constant muzzle flashes also made the cruiser a well-lit target. Nine minutes after opening fire, a Japanese “Long Lance” torpedo slammed into the bow of the Helena near the No. 6 turret, killing everyone in the forward engine room. Radio officer C.G. Morris picked himself off the deck, “in total bewilderment, unable to believe we had been hit.” Two more torpedoes struck the Helena, and the order was given to abandon the ship.
USS Helena survivors after being rescued in the aftermath of the Battle of Kula Gulf.
A second USS Helena (CA-75) was launched in April 1945, and participated in the Korean War.