The following story was recorded in 1994, from Bill Henderson's book "Escape From The Sea".
For information on Bill's book click HERE
William C. Henderson, Jr.
Machinist Mate Second Class
An Order Disobeyed
When the SG radar picked up enemy targets the bridge called us and told us their number, range, speed, size, and disposition. We could do nothing about the coming battle but we were kept informed. Our fate was in the hands of the Captain. Our responsibility was to keep the diesel engine running so that the guns would be provided with the electrical power they needed.
Despite an interval of 50 years the details of the night the USS Helena was sunk are engraved in my memory. As we were heading up the slot to Kula Gulf I clearly remember discussing the up coming action with a shipmate and commenting that a lot of sailors and ships on both sides would not live to see another dawn. As it turned out the Helena was one of the ships and I was almost one of the sailors.
My battle station was in the after diesel engine room located in the depths of the ship, well below the water line. It was my job to maintain the diesel engine that generated the electricity used by the guns and other equipment. The electricians mate with me was responsible for transferring the electrical power to where it was needed. We had been at our battle stations since shortly before midnight and would remain there until given permission to leave. No one knew when that might be.
During "general quarters" all the ship's hatches are closed, making each compartment water tight. In the event of an emergency, I could exit the diesel engine room through a circular opening in the hatch without opening the entire door. I could reach topside by climbing up a ladder in an escape shaft and going through a series of hatches.
Before going on watch I checked all the escape hatches to be sure nothing was blocking them. The last one was piled high with emergency repair equipment that would have jammed the circular escape wheel and prevented the hatch from opening. The men at that repair station assured me the equipment would be removed. Since I had not actually witnessed the removal of the material, I had reason to wonder later if the area had been cleared.
From my station I could communicate with the bridge through a telephone headset of developments topside. That communication line was a security blanket we depended on for our safety and what little peace of mind we had before and during a battle.
The battle opened at 0147 on the morning of July 6, 1943 with the Helena going into rapid fire for what seemed like an unreasonably long time. From our isolated position deep within the ship we judged that she must be fighting for her very life. I was surprised to hear the roar of the guns so clearly over the noise of the diesel engine, and feel the shudder their recoil sent through the ship.
The continual flash of our guns lit up the ship as though a thousand powerful searchlights were shining directly upon us. We were a very visable, and tempting target for the Japanese gunners.
The Japanese were fierce naval night fighters, masters in the use of torpedoes that were superior to ours in speed, range and the amount of explosive power they contained.
Within minutes the Japanese destroyers Suzukaze and Tanikaze had fired sixteen "Long Lance" torpedoes toward our formation. At 0204 the first torpedo struck the Helena between No. 1 and No. 2 Turrets, tearing about 160 feet off the bow. Three minutes later at 0207 two more struck amidships.
When the first torpedo hit, I braced myself for the possibility of a second hit since I knew the Japanese fired torpedoes in salvos. Although it was only a short time before the second torpedo hit it seemed an eternity.
I knew the ship must be severely damaged but was thankful I was still alive. I began to relax a little. The diesel was still running, our compartment was not leaking or flooding, and the lights were still on. I remember thinking the worst must be over, when the third one exploded against the hull of the Helena. It was a complete surprise and once again I thought how lucky I was to be alive. Many years later I learned we were struck farther aft by a fourth torpedo that was a dud. If it had exploded, the outcome for me and many others would have been different.
The force of a torpedo explosion is so great that it seems to pick up the ship, and shake it much like a dog shakes a rabbit. Strangely, there is a feeling similar to riding a bucking horse.
Anything not bolted down comes loose. Pipes break away from their couplings, machinery is knocked off foundations, pumps fail to operate, electrical circuits trip, fuel lines break apart, ammunition hoists fail and the guns fall silent. In short, three torpedo hits cause complete destruction.
Men unlucky enough to be in the spaces hit by the torpedo die a quick death from either the force of the explosion or the almost instant instantaneous flooding of their compartment. Death and injury however are not the exclusive province of the men below the waterline. Those in exposed positions topside directly over the explosion can be killed or injured by flying shrapnel, blown overboard or severely burned by the flash of the explosion.
After the torpedo hit, the diesel engine stopped and the lights went out. My attempts to restart the diesel failed. Either the fuel lines were severed or the fuel tanks were contaminated with salt water, so there was nothing more we could do. Telephone contact with the bridge was cut off, and realizing the ship was seriously damaged we decided to head topside.
The shock from the torpedo hits must have sprung the escape wheel on the first hatch so we couldn't open it. With all our strength we tried to force it open by pounding on it with a heavy wrench but were unable to budge it. Fortunately, the men on the other side of the hatch heard us and took precious time from their escape to turn the wheel open. Without their help we would have gone down with the ship.
I had only a glimpse of the men who opened the hatch but did recognize a ship's mess attendant whose name I did not know. In 1980 at our ship's reunion in Long Beach California, I met Freeman Gamble, the mess attendant, who helped open the hatch. At long last I was able to give him my heartfelt thanks.
On my way through the hatches I hoped the last hatch, the one leading to freedom, had been cleared of the equipment that had been obstructing it. I felt a tremendous surge of relief when the hatch opened and I escaped.
I was alone on the starboard side aft by number five turret. An unnatural quietness had settled over the ship. The Helena was dead in the water, her guns silent, and no men moved about the deck. I went over to the port side and saw that the battle was continuing. Our ships were firing on the Japanese and the distant flashes showed the Japanese were returning the fire. When I returned to the starboard side, the main deck was awash, and the ship was at an odd angle. Only then did I fully realize the ship was sinking.
Although it was impossible to let everyone know the ship had to be abandoned there is no record of anyone going down with it because of lack of communication. There are times when an official word is not necessary. We all knew it was time to go! I took off my shoes, placed them on the deck, saluted the flag still flying from the mast, and stepped into the dark oil covered waters of Kula Gulf.
As I swam away from the ship I saw several men in the water below the starboard catapult trying to push a life raft away from the ship. Though the life raft was tempting I did not swim over to it because the catapult appeared ready to break away and fall on the raft. I had no way to warn them; and a few minutes later it did fall. I don't know if any of the men survived.
I swam out a short distance from the ship and watched the Helena slip below the waves. As she was sinking, the forward and after parts of the ship rose high out of the water with the middle part submerged. The two sections continued to sink and finally came together in what looked like a giant vee.
The ship was almost gone when I heard a man on deck call out that he could not swim. There was no way I could reach him. I don't know if he had a life jacket or what happened to him.
Though it was a dark night I could see the Helen's silhouette very clearly. The after gun turrets were still in place as were the stacks and the searchlight platforms. When the two sections came together they made loud crunching noises, but fortunately no fire or sparks to set the oily waters on fire. She had been my home for the past two years but now she was gone. I was now totally alone. I could neither see nor hear anyone.
After an undetermined period of time a 55 gallon drum came floating by. I reached for it and hung on to the lip of one end, hoping it would hold me up in case my kapok life jacket became waterlogged. Some time later another man grabbed hold of the other end of the barrel. I didn't know if he was a Helena man or a sailor from a sunken Japanese ship. We were both so covered with oil that it was impossible to distinguish race. I hesitated to speak. If he were Japanese I had neither a weapon to defend myself nor the inclination to attack him. I thought about swimming away from the barrel but not knowing how long I might be in the water I was concerned that my life jacket would lose its buoyancy. That possibility kept me with the barrel. There was nothing to do but ask the other sailor to identify himself. He was as relieved as I that we were both Helena men.
Some time later we could hear other men talking. We called out and when they answered we left the barrel and swam toward the sound. We were unable to see them but by continuing to call and listening for their response we found our way to their raft. When I climbed aboard and sat with my feet inside the raft I noticed that my socks had come off during my long immersion in the water. Someone ordered all uninjured men off the crowded raft into the water. I slid off and hung onto the sides.
After a very short time something swam between my legs. I didn't know what it was but I knew my white, bare feet hanging in the water were attractive bait. In the water was no place to be! I gave one strong pull and was back up on the edge of the raft with my feet inside where I remained until picked up by the destroyer Nicholas shortly after daylight. To this day I don't know how the Radford and the Nicholas found and saved so many of the men adrift in the darkness of Kula Gulf.
I was the only man in the raft with a flashlight, one my father had sent me several months before. It was useful in my escape from the ship, but after being submerged it could no longer be turned off. Since there were Japanese ships in the area, I held it underwater to avoid attracting attention and risk being fired on.
When a destroyer came into view I could see clearly in silhouette the distinctive raking angles of the stacks and knew she was Japanese. Believing the destroyer to be American, an officer on the raft wanted my flashlight to signal her. Unable to convince him that it was an enemy ship I let the flashlight slip into the debts of the Pacific. His was the only order I ever disobeyed.
Throughout these fifty years I have wondered many times if I might have been mistaken. If I was, we all spent more time in the water than was necessary. However, I was recently reassured when I read the account of the battle by a naval historian C. W. Kilpatrick.
In his book, The Naval Night Battles in the Solomons, he mentions that the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, searching for survivors of the sunken Japanese destroyer Niizuki came near the Helena survivors. In addition men of the Radford whale boat who were searching for Helena men identified the ship as Japanese.
It was sometime later that the Nicholas stopped to rescue us. As I climbed up the cargo net thrown over the side I was directed to go below. I quickly rejected that suggestion. I had been below on the Helena almost too long! I preferred climbing up into the superstructure near the bridge where, if another escape was required, it could be more easily accomplished.
I could see a small round glass screen, similar to a radar screen, mounted on a pedestal or welded to the deck. A red dot moved from the outer starboard edge of the screen toward the center of the screen. The sailor watching the instrument called out that a torpedo was approaching off the starboard quarter. The Captain immediately ordered right full rudder and I saw the red dot change in position in relation to the ship. Shortly afterward the sailor studying the screen, which I now assumed to be a sonar reflection of the torpedo called out, "Torpedo dead ahead." seconds later he called "Torpedo passing down the starboard side." This was undoubtedly a close call, but activity on the bridge continued in the same routine manner as before.
At daylight the Nicholas and the Radford again engaged the enemy, firing their five-inch guns and sending a spread of torpedoes at a Japanese destroyer identified as the previously mentioned Amagari. The American destroyers were unharmed but the Amagari was hit amidships by gunfire that knocked out her fire control circuits and radio room. Both sides decided to call it quits. It seemed like a good decision to me.
Following this brief and final encounter, and the possibility of a Japanese air attack, the Nicholas had no choice but to break off rescue operations and head full speed back down the slot to the safety of our base at Tulagi.
For us the battle was over but we had lost eight officers, 186 enlisted men and four marines. Most of them died while manning their battle stations during the fight. Some severely wounded men managed to abandon ship but later died in the water or aboard the rescue ships.
They were all shipmates who made the supreme sacrifice. Some were friends, men with whom I had been on liberty. They will be sorely missed until we are all called to meet the Supreme Commander.
There were still 165 Helena men adrift in Kula Gulf. These men finally washed ashore on the Japanese held island of Vella Lavella, where they remained undetected for ten days until rescued by our naval forces from Guadalcanal. Most of the men were returned to the States for a thirty-day leave and reassignment.
It was during this time that I met Francis Hartman. It was a classic case of love at first sight. After another tour of duty in the Pacific I returned to California at war's end and married Francis. That was forty-nine years ago but it seems like yesterday.
I feel very fortunate to have survived the war without a scratch or wound. To this day I have a poignant feeling for the Helena, but have no desire to repeat the harrowing experience of action in the South Pacific.
I left the Navy after serving a six year hitch and worked thirty six years for the Pacific Telephone Company in California, retiring in 1984. Francis and I have three fine daughters, three great son-in-laws and six wonderful grandchildren. How sweet it is.
To see a recent picture of Bill, click Here.
William C. Henderson's Military Awards
Navy Unit Commendation
Good Conduct Medal
American Defense Medal
American Campaign Medal
Asiatic Pacific Medal
With Eight (8) Battle Stars
World War II Victory Medal