The following story was recorded in 1994, from Bill Henderson's book "Escape From The Sea".
For information on Bill's book click HERE
The Attack On Pearl Harbor
The torpedo passed under the Oglala and struck the Helena admidships; the force of the explosion ruptured the seams on the Oglala. a couple of tug boats towed her to the dock aft of the Helena where she eventually sank.
||For several weeks preceding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the routine for the Helena was quite straight forward. On Monday morning along with other cruisers and destroyers we would hoist anchor and leave Pearl for a week at sea. It was a week filled with fleet maneuvers, day and night gunnery practice, searchlight drill, and countless other exercises to sharpen the skill of officers and men. At week's end we returned to Pearl for much needed rest, relaxation and minor ship repairs.
The battleship Pennsylvania, flagship of the Pacific Fleet, and one of the primary targets marked for destruction, moved from her normal berth at Ten-Ten dock into a dry-dock for repairs. The Helena moved into that vacant berth for repairs to the forward anchor engine. By that move, the Helena received the attention the Japanese pilots had planned for the Pennsylvania.
Like many of my shipmates I was late getting up that morning preferring the extra sleep to eating breakfast. It was about 0750 when the loud speaker, located next to my bunk blared, "All hands man your battle stations, Japanese planes attacking Ford Island, this is no drill, break out the service ammunition.
After the attack I learned that signalman Charlie Flood who saw he Japanese bomb Shanghi in 1932 recognized the distinctive "red meat ball" markings on the planes. He watched in disbelief as a torpedo plane skimmed low over Ford Island and release its torpedo at the Helena and the mine-sweeper Oglala moored to our starboard side.
At the sound of the general alarm I left my bunk and was running through the mess hall when the torpedo hit. I wasn't injured by the explosion but was unable to get to my battle station in the forward engine room. I went instead to the after engine room to help control flooding and ready the engineering machinery for whatever orders Captain English might give.
Despite her wounds the Helena was the first cruiser in the fleet to give the Japanese an answer. She was credited with shooting down six of the 26 enemy planes destroyed. One of our five inch guns left its mark in a special way, not by shooting down a Japanese plane, but by shooting a hole through a tall smoke stack located in the navy yard. That hole remained for many months before it was finally patched over. It was a small but humorous incident in what was otherwise a tragic event. The Helena lost thirty sailors, one marine, and sixty nine other shipmates injured.
The explosion was so powerful that it separated the main propeller shaft from the bull gear coupling. The huge main engine reduction gear was blown up against the electrical distribution board causing additional major damage. Electrical power was quickly restored by putting the "after" diesel generator on line, followed by the "after" engine room steam generator. With the plant split we could have gotten underway.
Between the first and second attack I went topside to get a first hand look at what had happened. The Oklahoma had rolled over and the Arizona was burning. The damage the Japanese had caused at battleship row was staggering.
Several days after the attack the Helena went into dry dock where a temporary patch was welded over the hole in her starboard side. Shortly thereafter we left Pearl Harbor for the navy yard at Mare Island, California where permanent repairs were made. On the way we did what little we could to put the undamaged machinery back in order, and cleaned numerous pumps and spare parts of salt water.
By July 6, 1942 we were back in commission with the latest in radar and fast firing forty millimeter anti aircraft guns. We steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge, and set a course for the South Pacific, ready to take on the enemy.
Kula Gulf And Beyond
Throughout the next year we fought the Japanese in twelve separate engagements. We beat off their air and submarine attacks, bombarded their shore installations and fought the "Tokyo Express" in the battles at Cape Esperance and Savo Island. Our thirteenth and last fight at Kula Gulf was to be another night surface engagement.
The battle started at 0154 on July 6, 1943 approximately eight miles North of Tuki Point, Kolombangara Island. I had the 2000 to 2400 watch in the forward engine room and had been relieved at 2345 by the 0000 to 0400 watch. General Quarters was set shortly thereafter and for the first time my battle station was above the water line at midship repair. That chance situation saved my life but I felt like a fish out of water. I was in a repair party instead of down below in the engine room.
I had JV phones on and was kept informed by the bridge of the Japanese ships advancing into Kula Gulf. It was reported the enemy force consisted of eight destroyers. As I recall, the range closed to 4000 yards, about two miles, when the Helena opened fire.
It has been documented that we had been shooting eight minutes in rapid and continuous fire when the first torpedo hit the port side just aft of the forward six inch turret, taking off the entire bow including the forward turret. The effect of that torpedo hit reduced the ship's speed and really shook us up.
In less than a minute two more torpedoes exploded against the port side, amidships, breaking the keel, and dooming the ship. I was thrown to the deck by the force of the explosion but luckily landed on a hose that we had laid out to fight fires. I heard a tremendous bang and rattle in the forward uptakes and learned later that it was caused by a heavy, spare thrust collar for the main propeller shaft being knocked out of its wall bracket. After that everything was quiet. The lights were out but the emergency battle lanterns came on. The blast just one deck below us caused fuel oil, water and steam to enter our compartment forcing us to leave. We made our way through an escape hatch into the crew's lounge where I removed my protective flash clothing, and helmet before going topside.
I went over to the starboard side amidships and noticed the sea lever was almost up to the waterway below the lifelines. I removed my shoes, and climbed over the life lines into the warm sea.
As I floated aft along the side of the ship I could clearly see the starboard screw rising out of the water as the ship was sinking. What a sight it was.
I managed to get away from the ship and then for some unknown reason my life jacket unsnapped and floated away. Knowing it was rather old and had a couple of small leaks I had blown it up rather full. Perhaps that caused it to come unsnapped. At the time I was more interested in finding it than trying to figure out why it had come loose.
The battle was continuing and one of the ships, either ours or one of the Japanese fired a star shell that illuninated the area. Lo and behold there was my lifejacket. I recovered it and snapped it back on. It would have been touch and go without it.
All that night I was alone in the water. Just before daylight I spotted a motor whale boat containing just one man, Storekeeper Ray Clabaugh, a shipmate from Bucyrus, Ohio. What a relief it was to get into that boat. I have no idea from where it came.
Shortly thereafter we rendezvoused with two other whale boats ending up with 88 men in three boats and some life rafts. The Skipper, C.P. Cecil, Charlie Flood and Chief Machinist Mate F.W. Smith (known as Freshwater Smith) were in a boat towing one of the life rafts. Captain Cecil decided it would be safer to get out of Kula Gulf, away from Japanese held positions, so he set a course for the island of New Georgia.
I don't recall that our boat towed a raft but one boat ran out of fuel and was towed by another. While we were at sea a Ventura bomber flew over and Charlie Flood fired a flare to attract its attention. He then signaled the bomber, letting them know who we were, how many and where were heading. The crew of the bomber relayed this information to the navy at Guadalcanal and they planned our rescue.
It took the entire day of Jul 6, 1943 to reach New Georgia Island. We made land fall about 1700 on the northwest tip of the island. The boats grounded in shallow water some 500 yards off the beach and we had to wade ashore over sharp coral through waist-high surf.
I made it about half way but the coral was cutting my bare feet to ribbons. Blood was squirting out of them with every beat of my heart. I could go no further. "Freshwater Smith" who had shoes on came to my aid and carried me piggy back to the beach. He was a true friend before the sinking and still is.
At about 0800 on July 7th we saw two mastheads on the horizon coming directly toward us. We couldn't determine if they were our ships or Japanese. They turned out to be the destroyers Gwinn and Woodworth. Nothing, before or since, has ever looked as good as those two ships.
I ended up barefoot on the hot steel deck plates of the Gwinn. I felt like a cat on a tin roof. We were taken below to wash the fuel oil out of our eyes and ears. In the meantime the Gwinn, anxious to get away from those dangerous waters was working up to full speed that I estimated to be about 35 knots.
We arrived at Koli Point, Guadalcanal, went aboard the troop transport USS American Legion and were taken to a tent camp at Dumbia, not far from Noumea, New Caledonia.
The camp was next door to a French dairy farmer and when word got out that he was the local bootlegger, "Freshwater Smith" and I paid him a visit. We each gave him $20.00 in oil soaked bills for two bottles of Old Forester. On the way back to camp we of course had to sample the stuff, and pass it around to our shipmates. It sure softened the reality of what all of us had been through.
We hadn't been at Dumbia long when we learned we were going to San Diego aboard the transport ship USS Dashing Wave. It was an uneventful sixteen day trip except for a glancing blow collision with a freighter. After that most of us slept topside.
Incidentally, I still have my oil soaked Bulova watch and billfold that I had when I went through all of this more than fifty years ago.
Following Stateside leave in Ohio, I received a variety of assignments before being assigned to the USS Stafford DE 411. While at Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines we took a Kamikaze hit in the after engine and fire room, flooding both compartments. The Kamikaze's bomb did not explode and for those of us in those compartments it was a miracle. I still have the pilot's buckle and a rocker arm from the plane's engine. The damage was so severe that we were ordered to abandon ship.
I was with a group that wound up on the USS Ulvert M. Moore, and while there had lunch with the ship's skipper, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. He gave me a written message regarding his well being and asked that I relay it to his wife Ethel living on Long Island, NY which I did by telephone from Oakland, California.
I was discharged from the Navy as a LT.Jg in March 1946 and returned to my hometown in Norwwalk, Ohio. Not finding too many challanges I returned to Long Bach, California where I met and married Harriet Fisher. We have four sons: Paul, James, Robert and Richard, three daughters, Joan, Janet and Diana. Along the way we were blessed with ten grandchildren. Harriet and I have been married 48 years and at age eighty I'm still cruising.
To see a recent picture of Paul, click Here.
The following are Paul's WWII awards.
Navy Unit Commendation
National Defense Medal
American Defense Medal
American Campaign Medal
Asiatic Pacific Medal
With Eight (8) Battle Stars
World War II Victory Medal