Red Layton, 92, of Dallas, survivor of USS Helena, sunk in World War II
James Grant "Red" Layton earned a medal as a member of the Kula Gulf Swim Club.
His feat wasn't measured in minutes and seconds in a pool, but by days -- three clinging to a raft adrift in the Pacific,
and 10 marooned on an enemy-held island during World War II.
Layton received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal -- the Navy's highest no-combat honor "for exceptional meritorious
performance" after the sinking of the cruiser USS Helena in the western Pacific during the early hours of July 6, 1943.
After the war, he became a dental technician and maxillofacial specialist with the VA Administration Medical Center in Dallas.
His work included helping to rebuild jaws and faces mangled in Vietnam War combat.
Layton, 92, died Sunday of natural causes at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. He was one of the last surviving
crew members of the Helena, according to the survivors organization for the cruiser.
A memorial will be at 1 p.m. Thursday at St. John's Episcopal Church, 848 Harter Road in Dallas, where he had been a
member for about 60 years.
Layton easily made friends with people, from those he met coaching youth baseball to the nurses who cared for him his last days,
said his son, Jim Layton Jr. of Richardson.
"He was the most wonderful dad and granddad anyone could have," he said.
Layton befriended the Baylor nurses, who cried when he died, said his son Mark Layton of Dallas.
In July 1943, Layton was a pharmacy technician assigned to damage control aboard the Helena.when the ship was hit by three
torpedoes over a three-minute period. He was bent over -- rising to a standing position -- when the impact of the third torpedo
slammed him into the ceiling. Years later he would learn the blow broke several of his vertebrae.
"When I got to the main deck it was do dark I couldn't see the water," Layton said in 1994 for William C. Henderson Jr.'s book,
Escape From the Sea. "I took off my shoes and jumped in, expecting to fall 15 or 20 feet, but the drop was actually about three feet."
Layton swam to one of three life rafts. Sailors on the two others were picked up by a destroyer.
But before Layton's group was rescued, word came to stay clear, the ship was getting underway.
"We kicked with our feet and paddled with our hands to get the raft away from the destroyer," he said in 1994.
The next day, the men jumped into the sea as a Japanese Zero buzzed the raft, which capsized and couldn't be righted.
Emergency rations and drinking water couldn't be retrieved, and the raft's progress toward land was left at the mercy of the
winds and tide.
"Everyone took his turn either sitting on the sides of the raft or in the water hanging on," he said. "The nights were the
toughest. The water was warm, but there was a chill to it, and the sky was so dark we couldn't see the islands.
It was impossible to measure any progress we might be making toward them. Our spirits seemed to sink with the sun."
To sleep, Layton hooked his arm through a rope on the raft.
"Fortunately, no one floated away when they fell asleep or swam away because of hallucinations, so we didn't lose anybody," he said.
The afternoon of the third day, the party arrived at Valla Lavella island. They walked the final 75 to 100 yards through the surf,
barefoot across coral to the beach.
The sailors were saved by the Rev. Archie Silvester, a Methodist missionary form New Zealand, who worked with natives to
provide shelter from the elements and the enemy.
Layton was decorated for the care he gave the injured sailors. The only medic among the raft crew, he made splints for the
man with a broken leg and gave morphine to the sailor with a broken hip.
Years later, X-rays revealed Layton had broken his back and ruptured discs in the attack. During the two weeks before his death,
advance imaging showed his spleen had also been severely injured by the blast 73 years earlier.
After his rescue from the island, Layton worked at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, Calif.
In 1944, he married Helen Dorothy Kessler, who died in 2014.
Layton joined the Dallas VA hospital staff in 1945. He retired in the early 1980s but continued to do maxillofacial work for
10 years with several Dallas hospitals.
Born in Roxton, Layton was 5 when his mother died. He was raised by an uncle.
Layton played short stop in high school and was offered a tryout with the St. Louis Browns, but he instead enlisted to serve in
the Navy during the war.
In addition to his sons, Layton is survived by a daughter, Connie Layton of Frisco; four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.