By Gilbert Cant
Used with permission of the Saturday Evening Post c 1944 BLF&MS, Inc. Indianapolis.
(Post issue dated January 29, 1944)

"The Navy Isn't Going to Forget You"!

Last week we published an eye-witness account
of the valiant part the U.S.S. Helena played in
the great victory of Kula Gulf. After the Helena
was torpedoed, her sister ships picked up nearly
900 of the officers and men who had been spilled
into the oil-poluted waters of the Pacific. Of the
300 others, more than half reached the Japanese-
held island of Vella Lavella. The rescue of these
marooned heros, described here by a war
correspondent who took part in it, stands out as one
of the most audacious exploits in the history of
our Navy.

                                  The Editors.


It was nine days since the cruiser Helena had gone down in a blaze of glory in the dark hours of the morning of July 6th, the United States Navy's only casualty in the Battle of Kula Gulf, one of the most lopsided victories in its history. Two American destroyers, the Radford and the NICHOLAS, took time out from the fighting to pick up 757 men - almost two thirds of the Helena's expanded wartime complement - before dawn, when they had to leave because of the danger from enemy aircraft.

During the morning, the Navy's heavy Liberator bombers had surveyed the scene where hundreds of men were drifting in the oil-choked waters, and dropped life rafts for them. During the night, two destroyers - the Gwin and the Woodworth - executed a special mission and rescued almost a hundred more. That left about 300 who had not been heard from. Scores of these, we knew, had been killed in the three torpedo explosions which had cut the Helena in two and sunk the main part of the hull. Scores of others must have died in the water. But now we learned that more than 150 officers and men from the Helena were marooned on the Japanese held island of Vella Lavella.

Rear Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner, commander of the original solomons offensive and of the 1943 midsummer drive, was determined to rescue these men. About to relinquish his commend, he was willing to take any reasonable risk with every available ship to crown his career in the Solomons--in which at least 50,000 Japs are estimated to have killed by his forces-- with an errand of mercy. On Thursday morning, July fifteenth, the correspondents were called into the admiral's hut.

"The operations you fellows are going on," he told us, "will be a wonderful thing for morale--not only the morale of the men from the Helena themselves but for all the men in the fleet. it means a lot, when you're fighting under the conditions our men fight under out here, to know that, if the worst happens and you get blown off your ship and washed ashore somewhere, the Navy isn't going to forget you. I'm sending out all the destroyers available in the area to cover this mission, with the APD's ( destroyer transports) to do the actual rescue job. It's a risk, of course, but it will be well worth it if the operation is successful as I hope and believe it"s going to be. We've got to get those men off. That's all there is to it."

With no ship heavier than a destroyer, we were going into the front yard of the enemy's principal stronghold in the Solomons--his concentration of air bases off the southern tip of Bougainville. And we were going, not to make a hit-run bombardment, which we could break off any time danger threatened, but to run inshore, put boats over and wait around for an hour or two. The most we could do was to pray for dirty weather.

It was noon of the fifteenth, when we boarded the rescue ships off the north shore of Guadalcanal, in waters where some of the greatest sea and sea-air battles of the war have been fought. The sun was shining in a pitiless blue sky, and the forecast was for more of the same. In the center of our formation were two APD's, the Dent and the Waters, flush-deck destroyers left over from world War I which had been converted into fast transports by cutting down their steam capacity and armament, and utilizing the space and weight thus saving for additional accommodations.

The two APD's were surrounded by destroyers, the whole force being under the command of Capt. Thomas J. Ryan, Jr. Somewhere in the vicinity, but out of sight, was an equally numerous force of newer and more powerful destroyers, under capt. Francis X. McInerney. We would join them later , if we got to the rendezvous--for the waters between Savo, Guadalcanal and Tulagi have been aptly named Iron-Bottom Bay by the sailors who have seen so many fine ships sunk there.

In midafternoon, word was received from captain Ryan's flagship, that unidentified aircraft were approching, but they turned out to be our own planes. Toward sunset, however, the radio room picked up a signal from the American beachhead at Rendova, facing the Jap-held Munda air strip on New Georgia Island, announcing that enemy planes had been sighted. All eyes turned shoreward. At first we were inclined to envy the ground forces there, because there was a big rain cloud over their positions---just the sort of rain cloud we would have bought if we could. Soon we stopped envying them---the cloud was pocked with darker gray or black puffs. The Jap planes had arrived. We couldn't see them, but we could see the ack-ack bursting.

And we were sure they had seen us. Where we were, the sky was clear. We were traveling a great white wake half a mile or more in length. We started to figure how soon a Jap plane over Rendova would radio back a report on us; how long it would take the Nips at Ballale or Kahili to get planes in the air, and how long they would take to reach us. It added up to about an hour. By then it would be almost dark.

But midnight came and we had not been attcked. By that time the formation was entering a strait only eight or ten miles wide, between two Jap-held islands. An almost-full moon, high in the sky, cast a brilliant and deadly light on us. In the clear South Sea air, the moonlight magnified objects around us and made them seem closer than they actualy were. We felt as though we could reach out on either side of the ship and touch these islands. And that destroyer over to starboard--she looked as if she were walking along the beach.

Enemy aircraft had been detected, but they kept their distance. Probably just keeping tabs on us, waiting for us to walk into their trap. We put on every once of boiler pressure we had and it was twelve minutes after one, at the north end of Vella Gulf, when we saw our first trace of the enemy with the naked eye. Over the north shore of Vella Lavella, not far from our destination, a brilliant white light hung in the sky for a minute, then sank behind a cloud.

About five minutes later a red flare appeared over the opposite side of the gulf, near Kolombangara. It was in the clear, and hung for long minutes before gathering speed in its desent and snuffing out. By now we were convinced that we were in for it, but Kolombangara, the most savage-looking of all the Solomons, fell astern and we began to run along the north coast of Vella Lavella . At least it looked friendlier; it wasn't that the reefs off this shore had never been surveyed. All that was known about them was that they were good reefs to stay away from.

Sombody said that Captain McInerney's destroyers were out there off the starboard bow. That meant they were between us and the Japs who ought to be coming down any minute now and from Bougainville and Ballale. We hoped they liked their work.

The Dent, flagship of our two destroyer transports, under Comdr. John D. Sweeney, turned inshore and reduced speed. We followed. Captain Ryan's destroyers maintained a safe distance from the shore, patrolling back and forth, while we went in to check the accuracy of our information about those reefs.

The worst that anybody could have said about them would have been an understatement. The dappled bottom soon became visible in the moonlight. Ahead, ugly projections of live coral began to loom up. The APD's turned broadside on to the coast. Their speed was cut down to the point where thay barely had steerage way. From each vessel, three Higgins boats were swung out in the davits.

The shore line was in the shadow of the high jungle trees, so that indentations in the coast were obscured. There was a prominent bluff, alongside a dark area which might be the mouth of the Paraso River that we were seeking. But how could we be sure?

A moment later, a light blinked from the shore between the bluff and the apparent river mouth. A signalman said it looked all right to him. Presumably, one of the Helena's men had managed to hold on to a waterproof Navy flashlight throughout his ordeal of forty-eight to sevent-two hours in the water. Of course, we could be wrong; it might be Japs baiting a trap. But that was a chance we had to take.

We clambered into the boats, and almost immediately the order came to lower away. We saw three splashes alongside the Dent as her boats, under Ens. Rollo H. Nuckles, hit the water. In an instant, the boats were cast loose and started to run in, with muffled engines, toward the point where the light had flashed. The boats from our ship under Lt. (j.g.) Vance Stallcup followed more slowly. The lead boats would have farther to go up the Paraso River; we were to pick up 'evacu'es near its mouth.

Every man in every boat checked his carbine as we went in. The machine gunners swung around in their swival mounts, training on different points along the shore. A lookout in the bow gave warning, which was relayed softly to the engineer, when we seemed to be running into coral reefs. It might have been about three miles to the land. But at low speed, with engines muffled and amid uncertainty as to the welcome we would receive, it seemed to take an eternity to get there.

The light flashed again as Nuckles' boat approched. Then we saw a dark object bobbing in the water alongside the boat--the pilot's pau-pau, evidently. The lead boat began to weave in a snakelike pattern, and we followed its gyrations as best we could. The three leading boats disappeared in the river's mouth as another pau-pau was paddled alongside us by silent natives. We asked them for directions, but got none, because the crew spoke no English. They were the short, dark, muscular Melanesians who look much alike throughout the Solomons, although there are wide differences in language and tribal customs. Their pau-paus, usually hewn from a single log, have a high peak fore an aft, like those on an Indian birch canoe, but greatly exaggerated. And they have an outrigger to keep them from capsizing.

As we were entering the inlet we ran aground. The two trailing boats almost ran us down, but were diverted in time, and we backed off. At still slower speed we nosed into the river. Nuckles' boats already were taking the castaways aboard. It was a silent, eerie performance, without any of the outward evidences of drama that one might have expected in such a reunion. But this was no time for dramatics. As Nuckles' boat dropped its ramp along one bank, ghost processions began to march out of the jungle on both sides of the river and into the dappled, moonlit area between the high jungle trees.

The leaders of the two parties, a young officer in each case, spoke softly to Ensign Nuckles and then directed their men into the boats. There were not as many survivors here as we had expected, and the lead boat could take nearly all of them. Those on the near side hobbled straight from the jungle trail into the open bow of the boat. Their feet were in bad shape from salt-water sores and coral cuts. They picked their footing carefully. Form the opposit bank came another procession of men who waded gingerly into midstream, around the stern of the boat, which was too high to be climbed with cut feet and legs. Some were hauled aboard by the boat's crew; others worked their way up to the bow and stepped in under their own reduced power.

None of the Helena's men had a complete outfit of shirts, slacks and shoes. Only about half a dozen had manufactured shoes of any kind, either their own, salvaged from the water after days of exposure, or Jap shoes given to them by the natives of Vella Lavella. The rest had improvised sandals, made by cutting up rubber life belts into pieces about twice the width and length of a man's foot, or even cruder sandals made from gunny bags, or no foot covering at all. A few still had shirts with no sleeves, or shorts made from cut-down slacks.

Another boat received a surprising cargo--nine Chinese men, three women and four babies born on the island. They had been marooned in the interior ever since the Japs reached the Solomons fifteen months earlier. When they learned from the natives that a rescue mission was offshore, they had lost no time in presenting themselves at the water's edge. They told us there was another group of about fifty Chinese who had not had time to reach the river. We could not afford to wait. One passenger came aboard involuntarily--a Jap Zero pilot who had bailed out near by.

Some of the Americans had to be carried aboard--a lieutenant in the Chaplain Corps who had been thrown against a bulkhead with terrific force when a torpedo exploded and was still suffering from severe shock; three men with broken legs. For them, the natives had made litters of branches and palm fronds. They had been cared for, in a house which the Chinese had vacated, by Pharmacist's Mate (2/c) J. G. Layton, who is credited with having saved the limbs of the injured men.

Assured that there were no more Americans left, and no Chinese who could reach the river in time, Nuckles ordered his boats around and we picked our way through the coral heads back to the APD's. The rescued men clambered up the life nets as fast as their feet and legs would permit, and were shepherded to the quarterdeck, where a light lock led to the galley. Chief cook Harley Moore had prepared huge quanties of soup, coffee and cocoa. That was all the Helena's men were interested in for awhile--that and cigarettes.

The boats were hauled out of the water and the ships got under way at once. Their work was far from finished. Fifty seven officers and men from the Helena had been retrieved at this point. Farther down the coast there must be almost twice as many. Every minute we spent in the area increased the danger of enemy interference.

Indeed, as we dived into the galley or the wardroom for a cup of coffee during the run down the coast, we found that the Japs had already attacked us. A float plane had flown over one of the big destroyers in Captain McInerney's outer screening force and dropped one bomb. It missed. The destroyer fired a few rounds of 20 mm. at the plane, and also missed.

The coastwise journey did not take long. The boats were manned again and lowered, and made the same kind of low-speed, muffled-engine run inshore. About a mile out we were met by a pau-pau from which an American climbed with difficulty into Nuckles' boat. He was Lt. Comdr. Warren C. Boles, who had come out to pilot us in. It was just as well. We never would have found the channel, which was shaped like a snake suffering from cramps.

The river mouth into which we headed at Lambu Lambu proved to be broader than that at Paraso, but the current was swift, and the five boats which waited in the stream while the leader pulled alongside the landing had to jockey around continously. As it was, there were a couple of minor bumps.

Instead of the bare river bank, we found here a primitive landing which evidently had served in peacetime for a mission or trading station. It was a matter of only a few minutes for each boat to come alongside and be filled with the eager, grateful men from the Helena. Lt. Comdr. John L. Chew, senior officer among the castaways, stood at the water's edge, counting the men as they boarded the boats.

In the dappled moonlight we could see the crowd on shore gradually shrinking and, as our boat pulled up to take the last contingent, we saw that the Americans on the outer fringe were carrying arms. Of the others, nearest the boat, nearly all paused to shake hands with one or more natives and say good-by before stepping into the rescue craft. Conversation was limited by the lack of time and by the fact that few of the natives spoke any pidgin, let alone standard English.

The semicircle contracted farther, and soon it was the turn of the men carrying arms to board the boat. Each one pushed his rifle or shotgun into the receptive hands of a bushy-haired native before saying a quick good-by and clambering into the boat. A short, dark, nimble little man who proved to be Maj. Bernard T. Kelly, commander of the Helena's marine detachment, watched the transfer of the last weapon, and then he, too, came aboard.

As their senior officer, Commander Chew was the last to come aboard. Adding himself to the tally brought the total to 104 officers and men. Plus fifty-seven already recovered. A grand total of 161.

"Thats all; we're ready to shove off where you are," Chew said to Lieutenant Stallcup. The boat's engines were revved up and we slid out of the river mouth. A little knot of natives remained on the landing, watching their guests depart.

The Helena's officers and men didn't have much to say at first. They wanted to be told--to be told what ship we were from, how big a force we had, how many men we had picked up all together, how many others had been saved from the Helena, how we'd made out in the Battle of Kula Gulf, and had seen anything of the Japs who'd landed around here the day before.

This last was a new one to us. It seemed that about the time we left Guadalcanal, when we were no longer in touch with communications ashore, two Jap landing barges had descended the coast to a point about midway between Paraso and Lambu, the places where the survivors were gathered. But just as the Japs were scrambling ashore, a flight of Marine Corps F4U fighter planes--Corsairs--had swooped down on them with .50-caliber machine guns spitting--driving off the landing party. They had riddled the barges and set their gas tanks afire. Probably they had killed a few Japs. But we had no way of knowing that. It was clear that the Japs had learned our men were in the area and were trying to locate them. In another day we might have been too late.

But, we were assured, the Helena's men would not have given up without a struggle. Major Kelly had a "defense unit" comprising four marines and four sailors. Among them they had one pistol, two Jap rifles, two old .303's and a shotgun borrowed from the natives. They had maintained the perimeter defense around the camp during the week which had elapsed since the castaways were picked out of the water or off the rafts by the natives and brought ashore in pau-paus.

The natives had shepherded the Helena's men into the hills. This meant that, on the night of the rescue, all the survivors had to trek down a rocky, mountain trail to the river mouth. During this march they were protected by Kelly's defense unit. It was their motley collection of weapons which we had seen handed back to the natives before we pushed off.

Our Higgins boat, drawing more water with its heavier load, ran aground on a reef when we were about a mile from our ship. We backed off easily, however, and soon were coming alongside the APD. A world War I four-piper which has been cut down to two funnels and garnished with the nauseous shades of green which they call camouflage in the Solomons is nothing to excite admiration on aesthetic grounds. This one, after months of heavy duty, had great rust patches on her sides and welts of corrosion along her rails. But as we bore down on her, half a dozen officers and men standing around me in the boat exclaimed softly, and so nearly in unison that you'd have thought it was rehearsed, "Gee, ain't she beautiful!"

Pea soup and coffee in the galley were beautiful too. So were cigarettes. So was fresh water, with soap. So were clean underwear and denim pants and socks. As we gathered speed for the dash across Vella Gulf and past Kolombangara, we ran into a blinding rain squall. That, too, it seemed, was beautiful.

Dawn came, and with it, American planes to meet us. We had little to worry about after that. The rescued men opened up as we sped down the Slot. They never tired of telling how wonderful the natives had been. Not a man could have made the shore alone, they insisted. The current was setting the wrong way when they tried to paddle in. The natives had picked them all up in pau-paus, fed them, produced oddments of Jap clothing for them, built fales--native huts--and had done more than seemed humanly possibly to ease their discomfort until the rescuers should come.

There was a somber note as we passed Savo Island. A man who had both legs broken died aboard the Dent. He was buried in Iron-Bottem Bay. He rests in the company of heroes, within shell shot of the scene of two of the Helena's greatest battles in which he had taken part. Despite this loss, we brought back 160 officers and men, who were promptly hospitalized, and are now going back to sea aboard new vessels of our expanded Navy.

"It was an impudent thing to do," said Captain Ryan when we went aboard his flagship to say good-by, "but it was damned well worth while!"

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