THE DEATH OF A LADY:
THE AFTERMATH OF THE SINKING OF THE
LIGHT CRUISER U.S.S. HELENA CL5O
It has been said that it's hard to keep a good woman down... And so it was the U.S.S. HELENA,
the 10,000 ton light cruiser launched in 1938 by the U.S. Navy. After sustaining extensive damage
at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, she was restored to her great fighting power at the Mare
Island Navy Yard in San Francisco. Reassigned, she headed to sea and joined a scouting Task
Force consisting of three cruisers and six destroyers.
I was a Navy gunner's mate on the HELENA, assigned to the Task Force.
The mission of this force was to search out Japanese forces in the area. The mission was generally
carried out in the dead of the night. Our instructions were to intercept any Japanese ships moving
south toward Guadalcanal and engage them at all costs. We were the type of scouting force that
was considered expendable. We could not permit the Japanese to reinforce their troops or supplies
and retake Guadalcanal. The area at which we operated was called "The Slot". Because many
ships had been sent to their watery graves in this area, it was better known as the Ironbottom Bay.
Most of our battles involved bombarding enemy installations north of Guadalcanal,
New Georgia Island, Santa Isabel, Choiseul, Rendova, and Munda. We engaged
Japanese transports, as well as the finest of their destroyers. A Japanese destroyer was usually 300
feet in length and could knife through the water at 30 knots or more. A Japanese destroyer carried
sixteen torpedoes, eight of which could be fired at two second intervals and could be reloaded in eight
minutes. Their torpedoes (which we called Fish) were far superior to those of the American forces.
The Japanese torpedoes were of much longer range than the best of the American or British torpedoes.
They operated on oxygen fuel, were much faster, and left no wake on the surface. The design of their
torpedoes was a well guarded secret. Not until after the war was over did the U.S. Navy learn its full
design and characteristics.
Obviously, the Japanese were to be much feared during a surface battle, especially in a night
engagement surrounded by pitch blackness in unfamiliar waters.
Captain Tameichi Hara, one of the finest Japanese destroyer captains in the Imperial Navy and
author of Japanese Destroyer Captain claimed to have sunk the U.S.S. HELENA and U.S.S.
JUNEAU as well as the cruiser flagship SAN FRANCISCO on November 12, 1942 while serving
as captain of the destroyer AMATSUKAZE (Heavenly Wind).
I was on the HELENA during that great sea battle. My responsibility was to point the gun and
fire the "Twin 5" batteries on each side.
On the night of November 12, we rendezvoused south of Guadalcanal with the cruisers
SAN FRANCISCO, PORTLAND, ATLANTA, AND U.S.S. JUNEAU. On the port and starboard
sides we were accompanied by the destroyers O'BANNON, AARON WARD, U.S. BARTON,
FLETCHER, LAFFEY, MONSSEN, STERRET, and GUSHING. All were experienced in prior
battles. Our mission was to patrol the waters off Savo Island.
The Cruiser SAN FRANCISCO served as the flagship and led our battle force into action on that
fateful night. She was equipped with gunnery radar only; she had no surface search radar. Her
commanding officer was Admiral Cassin Young.
We engaged the Japanese forces at approximately 11 o'clock on the night
of November 12 when the HELENA'S radar reported enemy ships at 27,000 yards and at
35,000 yards. We encountered fourteen Japanese destroyers and several cruisers. It was a
fierce battle, punctuated by rapid fire on both sides. Our forces were fortunate due to our recent
perfection of radar. The Japanese did not have radar at that time and had to use flares and
searchlights to seek us out.
This encounter known as the first Battle of Guadalcanal, was one of the most fierce, close
range surface battles of the war, with over twenty ships involved. After several hours of battle
between what many judged to be the two greatest naval forces in the world, the battle
subsided as dawn materialized. Our losses were more than we had anticipated. Lost or
sunk on the American Forces were as follows:
Sunk were destroyers U.S.S. BARTON, LAFFEY, CUSHING, MONSSEN, and the cruiser
ATLANTA. Damaged at that time was our flagship SAN FRANCISCO, with all hands dead
above deck, including Admiral Callahan, Task Force Commander. The U.S.S. JUNEAU was
disabled but not sunk as Captain Hara recalled. The PORTLAND was heavily damaged
and had no steerage.
With ships on fire all around us and the dead floating amid all the wreckage and debris
that littered the seas, we searched for survivors and headed south toward Espiritu Santu
to assess our losses. We buried our dead shipmates at sea by encasing them in canvas
bags and sliding them over the side of the ship. The HELENA had superficial damage to
the area amidships and damage to the smoke stacks. A few were
wounded and we sustained the loss of no one. The SAN FRANCISCO did not fare as
well. She had her complete topside wiped out. She had no stearing and could only travel
about four knots. Astern of us was the JUNEAU, also afloat. The HELENA'S doctor was
sent over to assist their wounded and help bury the dead. During all this time, we were
traveling at an extremely slow speed and were vulnerable targets for the Japanese submarines.
Being the senior surviving officer, Captain Gilbert Hoover was in command
of our convoy. We headed south through Indispensable Strait and had just cleared the channel
when, from seemingly nowhere, lookouts spotted Japanese torpedoes. The HELENA narrowly
escaped a direct hit; while at the same time, two torpedoes hit the starboard side of the JUNEAU.
Within twenty seconds, she was blown apart. Not a piece of her was left. Over 700 men were
assumed dead; we spotted no survivors and certainly could not remain in the area in our present
condition. Later reports were received indicating that as many as 100 men may have survived
the initial blast. Ultimately 10 men were rescued and were the only survivors. On the JUNEAU
were the five sons of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Sullivan of Waterloo, Iowa--all perished.
Captain Hara did not sink the HELENA or SAN FRANCISCO at that time as
he claimed in his book. While we did sustain damage, we remained afloat and eventually made
it to Sydney, Australia, where we spent two weeks on repairs at their navy yard.
When our repairs were complete, we regrouped with our scouting forces and resumed our mission.
We were to eventually meet Captain Hara and do battle with him and his destroyer squadron once
again. However, we were not to meet him until July 5, 1943. In the interim, we joined with a new
cruiser force (Task Force 36.1) under the command of Admiral Walden "Pug" Ainsworth. The
cruisers included the HONOLULU and ST.LOUIS. Some of the destroyers in our force were our
friends from previous battles, the U.S.S. RADFORD, the NICHOLAS, the O'BANNON and
So we returned once again to The Slot, and again resumed bombarding enemy supplies and
installations north of the canal at Kolombangara, and Vangunu. Under the cover
of night, we dodged Japanese torpedo boats and enemy artillery fire from these strongholds.
We knew some day soon our number would be called. We all had this feeling
of foreboding. We realized that our luck could not hold forever as we continued to meet the
enemy face to face and ship to ship. We often refueled at Tulagi Harbor. This canal was already
partially secured by American forces. At the mouth of the harbor was a huge billboard which read:
KILL JAPS! KILL JAPS!
It was Admiral Halsey who personally boarded the HELENA and presented our crew with the
KILL MORE OF THE YELLOW BASTARDS!
(signed) Admiral William (Bill) Halsey
Navy Unit Citation for Valor after our November 1942 battle.
After we refueled in Tulgai Harbor on July 5, 1943 (receiving only half the capacity we needed),
we received the report from reconnaissance planes that the "Tokyo Express" had been
spotted north near the Vela Gulf. It was early evening.
Again, feeling the tenseness and exhilaration of an upcoming surface battle in Japanese
territory, we left Tulagi Harbor and joined Admiral Ainsworth's Task Force.
We headed northeast at flank speed with three cruisers and twelve destroyers to engage
the enemy in what became known as the Battle of Kula Gulf. The enemy consisted of ten
destroyers and was headed down the slot, bringing reinforcements to the ill-pressed defenders
By 1:30 a.m. on July 6th, our force was off the mouth of Kula Gulf, racing up the slot at 25 knots.
To our port side loomed the towering volcanic island of Kolombangara.
At 1:40 a.m. our radar made contact - seven to ten ships were coming out of Kula Gulf hugging
the Kolombangara shore. At 2:15 a.m. Admiral Ainsworth gave the message to open fire.
We opened rapid fire with all guns aboard ship including the 40mm arsenal which proved
effective at close range.
We were concentrating on an enemy destroyer quickly bearing down on us from the port side.
On our radar screen, we were scoring hits on her, but she had already launched her torpedoes.
Although we did not know it at the time, this destroyer was equipped with "Long Lance"
torpedoes that could carry half-ton war heads more than twenty miles, leaving no sign on the surface.
At 2:40 a.m., a tremendous explosion hit the HELENA as the first torpedo found its mark,
completely tearing off the ship's bow. Twenty seconds later, the second hit amidships. Almost
immediately, the third hit amidships. The HELENA died at 2:41 a.m., her back broken amidship.
All power and communications went dead; all guns were silent. Out of the dark of night came
Captain Charles Cecil's orders, "Abandon ship." I dove off the top of a five foot gun turret with
my Mae West life jacket on and luckily cleared the sinking HELENA. I turned for a last look at
the great fighting lady. The bow and stern rose in the form of a "V". With the grinding and
rumbling of torn metal, she slid straight into the dark depths of the Kula Gulf. The HELENA
sank that dark moonless morning at approximately 3:15 a.m. It took three Long Lance torpedoes
to take her down. One hundred sixty-nine men went to their grave with her. The affection and
respect that her crew had for her did not die, however. To this day, we think of her as one great lady.
For the next hour, close to one thousand men bobbed in the water, praying to be rescued.
Sometime approaching dawn Admiral Ainsworth dispatched the destroyers U.S.S. NICHOLAS and
U.S.S. RADFORD to search for survivors This mission had to be completed before the sun rose. At
that time, rescuers would be too vulnerable to Japanese artillery fire and aircraft. By eight a.m. the
two rescue destroyers had picked up about 745 survivors when they spotted enemy destroyers on
their radar. Their departure must have diverted the Japanese; they made no effort to return to our
area at that time.
Dawn had arrived. I swam to a nearby raft. Aboard the raft and hanging onto the lines in the water
were six others of our crew. One of my closest friends, Ross Egge, was badly wounded. His one
eyelid was cut and was hanging over his eye. He was delirious and hallucinating. Others at the raft
were George Rowan, Harry Geatruex, George Gintowt and two others whom I did not recognize. We
were all dressed identically in white shorts, t-shirts, and rec. shoes. There were other rafts speckling
the water; many were in same condition as we were, some were worse. I would estimate that close
to 300 men still remained in the water.
Around noon, George Gintowt left our raft and swam away, never to be seen again. Ross Egge had
no sight in his left eye. The other men and myself were in fair shape. In the afternoon, we broke out
some food supplies--Spam, malted milk balls and Lucky Strike cigarettes. We were in the open sea
and it was very hot. We floated in the water, at the mercy of the sea, the sun, and the enemy.
Later in the afternoon we sighted three fighter planes approaching us. They were Japanese Zeroes.
They made two passes at us. On the second pass, they fired a few rounds. We had fortuitously left
the raft and swam about 50 to 75 feet away. When they left, we reclaimed our raft.
On the second day we began to drift closer to the island of Kolombangara and drew small arms
from the enemy on the island. We quickly paddled away from that area. We didn't know where
to go. All these islands were under Japanese control!
That afternoon an American B-25 Liberator Bomber dropped two rafts, one of which did not inflate.
It landed too far away from us and we decided not to expend our strength trying to reach it.
On the third day adrift, we were all very short-tempered with each other and knew we could not
expect rescue. We knew the decision had been made that we were expendable. No more forces
would be risking their lives looking for us. We sat in the raft and sang
"God Bless America and screw the Japanese."
On the 4th day, saltwater contaminated our small kegs of water and the outlook was getting bleak.
We were getting saltwater sores and the hot tropical sun was cracking our skin.
It was late in the morning of the fifth day that we decided we had to get ashore somewhere, but
where? We knew Kolombangara housed 40,000 Japanese troops. We also knew they would
not take prisoners. We decided the island of Vella Lavella, approximately 12 miles away, would
provide us with the best chance of survival. We began our tortuous journey toward that island,
not knowing what to expect when and if we ever got there. Luckily half way there we hit a current
that helped move us in the general direction of the island.
By this time our eyes were swollen almost closed from the sun and our lips were festered from the
saltwater. We were dehydrated and beginning to get weaker as the hours passed and our
Finally we neared the island. Our raft became impaled on a coral reef about 400 feet from the beach.
We had lost our shoes many days before; we walked barefoot over the coral reef, knee deep in
saltwater, to get to the beach. We watched our blood rising to the surface as the razor sharp
rocks cut through our skin like knives. It took almost an hour to cover that 400 feet. As we crawled
onto the beach of that beautiful tropical island, our lacerated feet were bleeding and raw.
Our first impression was of paradise - lush, rich jungle forest and cool, green palm trees. We
crawled into the cover of the jungle and fell asleep. We had no weapons of any kind with which
to defend ourselves. In the emaciated condition that we were in, I doubt that we could have even
if we had access to weapons. We had all lost weight and were extremely weak. My own weight
dropped from 150 pounds to 105 pounds during the ordeal.
The next morning we heard some movement coming through the jungle. We figured it had to be
Japanese scouting troops. We knew we would be killed. Imagine our surprise when fifteen island
natives emerged from the bush! For some short minutes, we wished we were back on the raft. We
had heard that on some of these islands the natives were still cannibalistic.They appeared
straight out of National Geographic, wearing nothing but loin cloths with bones through their
noses, wild-eyed, bushy haired, and carrying spears. They seemed as surprised as we were.
The leader tentatively approached and reached out to touch one of us. George Rowan said,
"I'm from Brooklyn. You heard of the Brooklyn Dodgers?", which seemed to calm our fears
and be funny at the time. Here we were, facing certain death, and we could make jokes?!
We repeated over and over, "We No Jap! - American", not knowing whether they were pro Jap
or pro American. Our luck held - they liked the Americans! The natives surrounded us and
shook hands and put their arms around us like old friends. Their leader spoke Pidgeon English
and took command of the group.
They lifted us upon their backs and proceeded to carry us nto the deep jungle undergrowth, away
from the beach. They carried us through mangrove swamps, jungle trails, and across rivers, for
what seemed miles. Occasionally they would stop and let us rest. They would scurry up a coconut
tree and cut down coconuts for us, which we would drink and eat.
That night we came to a small clearing in the jungle which contained some small deserted grass
huts on stilts. We slept in these, enjoying the aroma of the tropical flowers which appeared to grow
in abundance all over the island and listening to the noises of the monkeys and the sounds of the
tropical birds throughout the night.
All we had to eat was what the natives brought us-- coconuts, tropical wild fruit, and taro roots.
Due to the numerous Japanese patrols and the barge traffic, we had to leave at early dawn
toward the interior.
We were sometimes led and sometimes carried by the friendly natives through the jungle,
swamp, and along a trail that climbed up into the hills. We came to a clearing in which
stood a wooden shanty. As I passed the shanty, I saw a stream shooting out from an opening
above. I looked up and there stood our Lieutenant Commander Jack Chew urinating out the
window! I was never so surprised to see anyone in my whole life! He yelled, "Hey Cellozzi, are
we Jap prisoners or are we in a prison camp in Japan?" He was emaciated and hallucinating
from his ordeal in the water. The final day he swam 2 1/2 miles to shore. He was our head
gunnery officer and dear friend aboard the HELENA and had been with us from our commission
of the HELENA at the navy yard to the final day of her sinking. He was an Annapolis graduate
and a great leader.
We were met by Reverend A.E. Sylvestor, an Australian Methodist Missionary. He had
been on the island for some months. He was a well-organized Coastwatcher and with his
native crew of Melanesians, he gave reports of Japanese movements of ships and
aircraft in the area. He was familiar with the entire island. His scouts reported all Japanese
movements on the island; he was in full command. He reported all his information to the
American forces with what means he had. He and the other Coastwatchers throughout
these islands were a tremendous asset to the allies in winning the war in the Pacific.
They were alone against tremendous odds, they often suffered from lack of food, had
little or no means of communication, and always faced capture by the enemy.in the Pacific.