The Seattle Sea Fair 1954
Lee Coffman

Part one

In September of 1954 I had been aboard the USS Helena only one month and the ship was scheduled to attend the Seattle Seafair in Seattle, Washington. The crew was making preparations to get underway and checking out all systems on the ship for seaworthiness. Each member of our OE division (Operation Electronic Division) had assigned duties to perform; my duties were to work with ET PO1 Schmidt in maintaining Radar equipment and antennas. Another new recruit ETSN Kitchens, was assigned to work with ET PO3 Burt on the ship's main radio transmitters, located in Radio Room II. Burt and Kitchens had removed the back panel of a large transmitter, a TBM, a VHF transmitter which stood 6 feet tall and was 3 feet by 3 feet in width and depth. Standard operating procedure is to ground out the power supply capacitors before working on the inside of electronic equipment, because even though the power is turned off, there still may be high voltage present on the capacitors, in this case 350 volts and 500 volts. Well, Kitchens reached in his hand and POW! He was thrown several feet backward against the bulkhead and knocked out. He was taken off the ship by corpsmen to the hospital on the Long Beach Naval Station; we had to get under way without him. When the ship returned to Long Beach, two weeks later, Kitchens came back on board. He was okay except for damaged pride and embarrassment.

The ship did finally get under way and it was really a thrill for me, my first cruise on an ocean going US warship! And after that first cruise, I never tired of the thrill of going to sea. We made good time and four days later rendezvoused with many other ships of the 7th Fleet outside of Juan de Fuca Straight, which leads into Puget Sound and the port city of Seattle, Washington. It was the Friday afternoon of the Labor Day weekend and the parade of ships were scheduled to pass in review the following morning. When morning came all the ships assembled in a straight row, with four heavy cruisers at the head of the column, then an aircraft carrier and then six destroyers and following them were four Destroyer Escorts, it was an impressive sight from shore I am sure and it was quite impressive from our point of view as well, there were 15 ships in the parade column. Leading the column was the USS Los Angeles CA135, next the USS Helena CA75, next the USS Toledo CA133, next the USS Rochester CA124, next the USS Princeton CV37 and then there were six Destroyers and four Destroyer Escorts. The column proceeded slowly at five knots with an escort of six Navy helicopters flying in formation overhead and when the column was about to approach Seattle all hands were ordered to “man the rails”, this meant standing at attention in formation along all the railing and facing outward from the ship, we were all in our dress blue uniforms and it did look very impressive. As each ship, in turn, passed downtown Seattle it fired a twenty one gun salute with signal canons. We all could hear the tens of thousands of people on shore cheering and see them waving to us, most of them with American flags, and it made me feel so proud to be a part of this great celebration.

Part two

All the ships docked at piers right by downtown Seattle and all that Labor Day weekend all the ships were open to the public for sightseeing and tens of thousands of people took advantage of this opportunity to tour Navy warships. And that entire week end Seattle hosted thousands of sailors going on liberty, and we were shown warm hospitality by all the citizens of the city. That afternoon Roberts (who was from another division), Sibille, Burt and I all hit the beach together, none of us had ever been to Seattle so we figured it was best to stick together and have safety in numbers. Burt was the “old salt” and party animal and knew his way around so we let him be the leader of our liberty party, the rest of us were new recruits on the ship and had a lot to learn.

Of course, being sailors on liberty, we first wanted to head for the nearest bar and have a few drinks. Well, the first thing we learned is that Seattle was a lot different than Long Beach, San Diego or San Francisco, in Seattle it doesn't work that way. We all found out that in Seattle you had to go to a state run package liquor store and then you had to go to a private social club and pay an entrance fee to get in to consume your booze. At the social club you were given a “set-up” (a glass and ice) and you could buy mixers there. And the booze was rationed at the package store, one fifth of whiskey a week or two cases of beer a week per person, Well, this was sure a new system for us sailors but we managed, we each bought a fifth of whiskey and headed for the nearest social club. They let us in for half price since it was Seafair weekend and we were with the fleet. I think it was only two dollars for each of us.

We had a great time at the social club conversing with the people there, and there was a dime -a- dance, so we got to socialize and dance with a lot of pretty girls. But when it got to be near 10 pm it was announced that it was closing time. By that time all of us had only drank a fraction of our bottles of whiskey and we certainly couldn't take it back on board the ship with us and we couldn't drink it in public, so Burt stopped a cab driver and asked him if he knew of any after hours place. The driver replied that he did know of a place and for us to hop in, so we did. He drove for about a half hour and we didn't know where the heck we were, it was not in the city because it looked like we were out in the forest surrounded by tall pine trees on either side of the road and it was pitch dark. Finally we saw a lighted building ahead and it turned out to be a road house. He pulled into the driveway and we all got out of the cab, luckily I asked him for the phone number of the cab company before he left so we could call him when we were going to go back to the ship. The cab driver charged us $20, which was pretty steep in those days. We walked up to the entrance and there was a large black lady sitting at a ticket window, it was the same social club set up thing, we had to pay four dollars each to get in. The black lady gave us kind of a strange look, and later I found out why. We walked in and it was a large place with a dance floor and the place was really crowded, but---- everyone there was black! Back in those days the races just did not mix together and blacks weren't welcome in white crowds and vice-versa. We were all very mad at the taxi driver for pulling a trick on us. We all felt a little un-comfortable, but we sat down and had a couple of drinks anyway, and after awhile I went to the men's room. One of the black guys followed me in and started a conversation with me and then he said to me in a friendly way “I ain't got nothing against you sailors being here, my son is in the Navy too, but I heard some comments and I think it would be a good idea if you white boys didn't stay here too long”. I thanked him for the tip and said we would be leaving right away. I went back to our table and told the rest of the guys. So we all left right away and called a taxi cab and waited for the cab out in the parking lot. A different cab driver showed up and we told him about the first driver we had, and he said he knew the guy and that it was a dirty trick to pull on us and he would report it in the morning to his boss. Roberts was pretty tight and I felt I should make sure he got back to the ship; I had had enough for one night anyway, I didn't care much for whiskey and actually I had drank only half of what the others had. Burt and Sibile still wanted to party, so when we dropped them off in downtown Seattle I gave them Roberts's bottle and my bottle and said” Have fun guys, and I hope you make it back okay”. I half carried Roberts back on board the ship and got him into his bunk and then hit the sack myself, what a night!

Part three

The next day was Sunday and I had previously signed up to go on a tour of Seattle, by boat and tour bus. I was sure glad that I had come back to the ship early and had cut off my drinking early too, most of the guys were pretty well hung over and just wanted to sleep in and sleep it off! After having breakfast I boarded the Navy bus on the pier right next to the ship, and then the bus took a busload of sailors to the tour boat landing on Lake Washington. It was a beautiful day with clear skies and temperatures in the high 60s, with a brisk wind blowing in from Puget Sound. The tour was very scenic and interesting, the boat took us all around beautiful Lake Washington and then through the canal and locks that separate Lake Washington and Puget Sound. Going through the canal we passed the University of Washington campus and football stadium which was an impressive sight. After the boat went through the canal, it docked at the Seattle waterfront and we all had lunch at a great seafood restaurant, the food was excellent. After lunch we boarded a tour bus, which was waiting for us. The bus took us all around Seattle and some of the neighborhoods where there were beautiful swanky homes. The tour bus driver was very informative and animated, telling the passengers the history of Seattle and some amusing incidents. At 5pm the tour was over and the bus driver let us off in downtown Seattle. It was still early but I had had enough of drinking, so I didn't care for that anymore. I had dinner at a cozy little restaurant and then took in a movie, it was “The High and the Mighty” starring John Wayne. After the movie I walked back to the ship, which was only a few blocks away. When I got on board the ship I saw some of my shipmates and they asked me where I had been all day and I recounted my day to them, Burt said “Darn, I wish I had gone on that tour but I was too out of shape this morning to make it”. “Pappy” Girardo (the oldest member of the OE division) was standing close by and he commented “Yeah, I know. From now on listen to your Old Sea-dad you drunken bum, when I tell you to put a cork in the bottle do it, you should go along with Coffman and see some interesting things instead of the inside of a bar for a change”! Burt looked down and said”Yeah you're right”. We all had a good laugh out of that because “Pappy” was always like a father image for us, but he didn't know that I had been out with Burt on a toot the night before!

Part four

The next day was Monday and I had signed up for another tour, several guys from our division on the ship had also signed up to go, and if I remember correctly it was Whisnant, Schmidt, Kratzer, Sibille and Stribling as well as many of the radiomen and radar operators. This was a technical tour, so it attracted men from the technical ranks. The tour bus was to take us to the “Big Jim” radio transmitter. The “Big Jim” radio transmitter was especially designed and built for the Navy to broadcast at very low frequencies to communicate with submerged submarines. The transmitter was very powerful and could reach anywhere in the world. We drove for about 20 miles east from Seattle and climbed into the mountains through dense forests and arrived at the site, which was in a high broad valley. The weather that day had turned drizzly and it was much cooler and misty at times. We got out of the bus in front of a concrete building 200 feet square and three stories tall. We went into the front entrance and a guide met us and conducted us on a tour of the facility. He told us that the whole building was the transmitter! All transmitters have many “stages” to accomplish the final output of radio wave transmissions and here each stage had its own separate room, the size of a large living room! The glass vacuum tubes (this was way before the invention of transistors) were huge, three feet in diameter and eight feet tall, the rectifiers supplying the direct current were four feet square and six feet long and there was gigantic cable running from stage to stage. At each stage there were large wall size control panels that monitored all parameters of the operation. When we were inside the building we could hear and feel the throb and pulsing of tremendous electrical energy that it took to generate all that power. Outside the building, the guide pointed out the dipole antenna which was suspended above the valley at a height of one thousand feet and ran between two mountain peaks about ½ mile apart The guide told us that the transmitter operated at a frequency just above the human range of hearing and at that low frequency all the components had to be very large. He told us that they had had reports of some local people that had received the radio transmissions through the metal fillings in their teeth! All of us were very impressed with the tour and we talked about it for many days afterward. The tour bus stopped at a café for lunch and we were back in Seattle by early afternoon.

Early Tuesday morning the ship got underway and left the port of Seattle. Reveille was at 0600 and all hands were ordered to “Hit the deck”. At this time shipmates, usually Petty Officers, made sure that everyone in the division got out of their bunk. Down in the compartment where the mess deck crew was berthed this same procedure was going on and one of the sailors there was not moving. Another shipmate shook him to wake him up, and then yelled out in shock “Hey, this guy is cold and stiff as a board”! On further investigation it was found that he was indeed dead! The story went around that he had been drinking a lot the night before and had apparently drunk himself to death. The ship was already underway and many miles out to sea, so the decision was made to continue on to Long Beach and to store the sailor's body in the frozen food locker, the locker was a very large room so there was ample space to do so. The name of the dead sailor was SA James R. Russel. Our ship met a tug boat as it was passing San Francisco and the body was transferred to the tug boat.

The ship arrived back in Long Beach four days later without further incident. I had completed my first cruise on The USS Helena and what a memorable time it had been. There are many more cruises to write about in future pages.

Lee M. Coffman September 26, 2004


Commissioned September 4, 1945

Displacement in tons----- 13,600
Length----------------------- 674 feet 11 in.
Beam------------------------- 70 feet 10 in.
Draft------------------------- 20 feet 6in.
Complement (crew)------- 1,142
Armament------------------ 9 8 inch guns
Armament------------------- 12 5 inch guns
Armament------------------ 48 40mm AA guns*
Armament------------------ 22 20mm AA guns **
* These were replaced by 6 automatic 3 in gun turrets in 1953
** Thought to have been removed in early 1949 at the same time as the catapults were removed.

Sea Stories 2