In the early morning darkness of 6 July 1943, formations of U.S. and Japanese warships approached each other on a collision course in Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands. As they closed, the Japanese ships—the latest run of the “Tokyo Express” under Rear Admiral Teruo Akiyama—sent deadly Mark 93 torpedoes splashing into the water toward the American column, Task Group 31.6 under Rear Admiral Walden L. “Pug” Ainsworth.
Ainsworth, in the light cruiser USS Honolulu (CL-48), ordered “commence firing” at 0157. His three light cruisers unleashed a veritable storm of 6-inch shells, while four screening destroyers added 5-inch projectiles to the curtain of steel. The second and third cruisers were the Helena (CL-50) and her sister ship the St. Louis (CL-49). The Helena’s commander, Captain Charles P. Cecil, recorded that during the barrage her rate of fire was “the highest ever attained and maintained.” Akiyama’s flagship—the destroyer Niizuki—soon succumbed, taking down with her the admiral, his flag captain, and most of the crew.
In the meantime, however, torpedoes from the destroyers Tanikaze and Suzukaze had found their mark. The first punched into the Helena with an explosion that sent a waterspout higher than the mast, deluging the bridge. The forward part of the ship past Turret I disappeared, taking with it Lieutenant (junior grade) William J. “Swede” Hansen and his 1st Division. The Helena’s fire from other turrets continued unabated—the men topside unaware that Turret I was gone. The ship surged ahead, scooping water into the damaged areas and flooding. Two more torpedoes struck soon thereafter, holing the forward engine room. The Helena, mortally wounded, slowed to a stop, her soon-silent machinery and guns portending her doom. She remained afloat less than 30 minutes. Of her crew of slightly more than 1,100 that day, 198 did not survive.
Named for Montana’s capital, the Helena had been laid down on 9 December 1936 at the New York Navy Yard. Launched on 27 August 1938 to the applause of 20,000 onlookers, and christened by 18-year-old Elinor C. Gudger, granddaughter of the late Senator Thomas J. Walsh (D-Montana), the Helena was commissioned at her building yard on 18 September 1939, Captain Max B. DeMott in command. After her initial fitting-out, the ship visited Annapolis, Maryland, over Christmas, pushing on to Norfolk,Virginia, and steaming thence for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and points south.
Differing at first sight from their near-sisters of the Brooklyn class in the arrangement of the after control stations, with a light tripod mast being stepped aft of the number two funnel, the Helena and St. Louis shipped a heavier-caliber and differently arranged antiaircraft battery. Instead of open, pedestal-mount 5-inch/25-caliber guns arranged four per side on the main deck, the two ships carried 5-inch/38-calibers in enclosed gunhouses, two per side, mounted one deck higher. In common with the Brooklyns, they were equipped with two catapults, a handling crane at the fantail, and an enclosed hangar aft that could accommodate three full-size floatplanes (wings folded) and two disassembled aircraft.
The Helena continued her shakedown cruise, spending the final week of January 1940 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There her sailors met interned survivors of the scuttled German warship Admiral Graf Spee, hosting “several . . . for chow and a visit.” At Montevideo, Uruguay, the Helena paused briefly to visit the wreck of the Graf Spee, returning home in February for post-shakedown repairs.
Standing out of Hampton Roads on 16 September 1940, the Helena paused briefly at Guantanamo, set course for Panama, and arrived at Colón on the 21st to transit the Panama Canal. Clearing Balboa on the 23rd, the ship reported to Commander, Cruisers, Battle Force, for duty the following day. She paused in California at San Diego and San Pedro, spent five days at the Mare Island Navy Yard, returned briefly to San Pedro, and ultimately cleared that port on 14 October. Reaching Pearl Harbor on 21 October, she soon was assigned to Cruiser Division 9.
On 7 December 1941, the Helena lay alongside the minelayer Oglala (CM-4) at Ten-Ten Pier, Pearl Harbor Navy Yard. Very early in the Japanese attack, an aerial torpedo punched into the Helena’s side, the concussion from which seriously damaged the Oglala. Tugs removed the minelayer to a vacant berth aft, where she soon capsized. The light cruiser’s guns spoke in anger for the first time that morning.
When Captain Robert H. English, the Helena’s commanding officer, spoke to his crew four days later, he noted that although the Japanese had scored a torpedo hit early, that “was their last blow against the Helena. Our guns were in action so quickly and so furiously they didn’t any longer have the guts to face the music. . . . Every man did the right job at the right time . . . every man stood unflinchingly at his station.” He concluded with justifiable pride: “Let it suffice that the Helena has definitely won her place in history as a fighting ship which can give it always, and take it too when this must be done.”
After temporary repairs at Pearl, she proceeded to Mare Island for an overhaul that saw her antiaircraft battery considerably augmented—she was one of the first ships to receive the new quadruple-mount 40-mm Bofors automatic guns. Deployed to the war zone, the Helena spent the remainder of her life in the South Pacific. She screened the auxiliary carrier Long Island (ACV-1) to within range of Guadalcanal to bring in the first Marine aerial reinforcements in August 1942. The Helena later saw the Wasp (CV-7) torpedoed on 15 September, took part in the Battle of Cape Esperance on 11–12 October, saw the heavy cruiser Chester (CA-27) torpedoed on 20 October, bombarded Japanese troop concentrations on Guadalcanal, then survived the brutal close-range naval engagement there of 13 November.
The first U.S. Navy warship to employ the Mk. 32 proximity fuze in combat, the Helena splashed an Aichi Type 99 carrier bomber—a Val—on 5 January 1943, then participated in a succession of bombardments. She shelled enemy troops, shore batteries, airfields and other installations in January, May, and July, logging missions against Munda, Kolombangara, Enogai Inlet, Rice Anchorage, and Bairoko Harbor. Less than 24 hours after one such bombardment mission—covering landings at Rice Anchorage—she reversed course and headed back to Kula Gulf and her rendezvous with destiny.
Four months after the Helena was lost, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox on 6 November gave her name to another light cruiser, CL-113. When that ship was canceled, the name was assigned to the Baltimore-class heavy cruiser CA-75 exactly one year later.
“From Pearl Harbor on into the Solomons,” wrote then-Commander David L. G. King, who had served in the Helena for nearly three years as a junior officer, “there was always a spirit and pride about the ship that every man was brave and did his job. . . . The privilege to have served on board with the Helena crew from Pearl Harbor to Kula Gulf means more to me personally than the highest award.”