The Rescue of the USS Helena survivors at Kula Gulf
by Cliff Hemstock WT 2
Cliff has agreed to share his Kula Gulf experience with those friends of his on the Internet. The sinking of the USS Helena was a sad experience for those of us who fought along side her that night. The first word of her sinking came to us on the USS O'Bannon when a crewmember spotted the bow of a ship sticking up vertically out of the water and shouted the news. The number 50 (Helena's number) could plainly be seen but no one could believe that such a great ship could ever be sunk. Orders were given for our sister ships, the USS Nicholas and the USS Radford, to rescue any survivors as we on the O'Bannon vacated the area while providing submarine screening for our cruisers. It was a great boost to our moral a to learn that there were many survivors. Fellow shipmates like Cliff were the reason that this was so. For those of us who survived the battle untouched, we felt it an honor to return to Japanese waters a few nights later to rescue those sailors who were not picked up but had made it ashore and were looking for rescue. Editor.
As Paul Harvey says "And now for the rest of the story"
When the bow of the Helena, floating vertically, was identified, the command to launch both whaleboats was given. The captains gig was missing a boat engineer. When they called for someone to man the boat, I happened to be in the amidships repair party on deck. I had some experience at that position and, as the boat was hanging at deck level with the rest of the crew aboard, I volunteered to go.
It is difficult to describe our emotions at that time, but what I recall is that you felt as though you had to do something, without considering the consequences.
We went out to groups that were in the water, taking as many as we could back to the ship. As everyone that was in the water was covered by black bunker C fuel oil, it didn't take long until we were all looking alike. I can't really recall at this time exactly how many trips back to the ship we made when it got under way to engage the remaining enemy force
Even to this day, I have no idea how Boat Cox'n Carkin found the ship when it returned, or how it found us, perhaps some of both. During one of these periods when the ship left and we were looking for it to return to, we saw a ship and started toward it. Carkin decided that it was not one of ours, pulled a 180, and got the hell out of there. Things seemed to be pretty puckery at the moment and I believe we all thought we would be fired upon. Luckily either no one saw us or they couldn't depress their guns down far enough to fire, and by the time they could, we were out of sight. I'm sure that angels had something to do with it.
In the midst of helping people over the side and into the boat, I grabbed a guy by the life jacket and hauled him up to eye level (he was rather small). I noticed that he had oriental eyes and I asked him if he spoke English. Covered with Bunker C.oil, I thought he might have been a Filipino steward. When he didn't answer I put him back, probably starting the first catch and release practice in our family!
After an indeterminable period of time, and the ship having left and returned two or three times, the decision was made to abandon the rescue attempts because air cover was not available and daylight was at hand. I've been told that Carkin told the Captain which train to take and where to get off. This is when we filled the boat for the last time and took a raft in tow as we motored along, keeping Kolombangara on our Starboard side. After a while we came upon a single swimmer pushing a potato crate. He must have been at least a couple of miles from where the Helena sank. He didn't know where he was but he knew he was not going to stay there. He abandoned his potato crate and got aboard our raft.
In the midst of all the confusion of getting people aboard I the lost my engineer's seat to a tall man in khaki (I wasn't too happy having to sit on the sharp edge of the bulkhead). As time wore on he identified himself as Captain Cecil of the Helena. Carkin seemed relieved to no longer have the burden of command, particularly since I had pointed out what looked like every mast in the Japanese Navy on our Starboard horizon. Luckily they turned out to be coconut palms with their tops blown off.
Later in the day, still skirting Kolumbangara, a fighter plane spotted us and then turned and came back for a closer look. We had seen red meat balls on his wings and as he came in for a closer look, Captain Cecil ordered everyone to stand up and wave. Sounds crazy, but it worked. He waggled his wings and flew off.
Later on that day we were spotted by one of our own planes. I can't really remember if it was a PBY or B-24 and I didn't really care, but knowing that we had been spotted was very reassuring at the time. We continued on and made a landing on an island that I thought was Munda. It didn't really make much difference because we were armed with two M1 rifles and no ammunition. In typical military fashion someone was walking up and down patrolling the beach carrying these rifles for the rest of our stay.
I dug a trench about a foot deep to sleep in and was armed with a 12 in. metal marlin spike I had found in the locker on the whaleboat. I don't really know why I dug the trench or carried the marlin spike, but it seemed to make me feel better.
Sometime during the blackest part of the night there was a crashing in the under brush and everyone thought that our goose was cooked, but it was only some guy who had to take a leak, and with the whole Pacific Ocean at his disposal chose to stumble around in the bushes. Seems funny now, but not so then.
The next morning we were picked up by the destroyer Gwin and Carkin was on the bridge trying to get them to tow our boat back to Guadalcanal, but to no avail I think he even offered to stay in the boat and steer it. He was close to tears when they refused that boat was his pet.
When we arrived at Guadalcanal we were transferred to the transport American Legion and once again we went to the bridge and tried in vain to get them to radio the Radford that we knew was in Tulagi just across from where we were.
So here we were a few miles from our ship on a transport that took us to Noumea, New Caledonia where we were billeted at the receiving station for a few days and then transferred to a so-called rest camp up in the mountains. The rest was for your mind not your back. We built little dams in a mountain stream that was cold enough to make you sing lead tenor.
After a week or so we were transferred back to the receiving station and tried our damnedest to get someone to listen to our plight and do something about it. Everyone we talked to asked the same questions. "Where is your ship, where are your records, where are your orders?" Now everyone knows that when you answer "We don't know" to these questions, you're in deep trouble because no one can do anything in the Navy without paper. We were able to draw "health and comfort" pay that was five bucks every two weeks and with cigarettes at 50 cents a carton you could get along. The Chaplain used to dole out the necessities like toothpaste, soap, and clothing. He was a true Christian! He would break Ivory soap bars in half so you wouldn't waste it. The shoes I was wearing were oil soaked, so I asked him for new pair. He looked out the window and said, "They look fine to me". The next morning I showed up barefooted and told him someone had stolen my shoes. Problem solved.
They got tired of our complaining every day and finally we were put on a transport headed back for Tulagi. When we arrived on the ship everyone was pleased to see us. We were immediately taken up to the Wardroom to see Captain Ramoser and his first words were, "I'm considering a General Courts Martial for desertion under enemy fire" . I don't need to tell you that those were not the words we expected to hear. Then he smiled and said, "Just kidding fellows, glad to have you back". He told us that there had been so many people that had taken risks that he was advancing us one rating instead of recommending a medal. I thought that was nice at the time because I could use the money. We also had to reclaim our bunks and all of our possessions that had been taken over by the Master at Arms (Local Cop) and had been put up for resale.
We had been away from the ship for about a month or more, missing the second battle of Kula Gulf and a trip to Auckland, New Zealand. The battle I didn't miss, the trip to Auckland I did.
I hope you can make some sense out of the rambling of a not to certain memory. I've been blessed or cursed by a grasshopper type memory. I never would've made a good Washington type witness, remembering all of the details of everything forever. It was a good trip and all in all worked out for the best.
Cliff Hemstock WT 2
USS RADFORD DD446
Cliff and his bride Polly attending a USS Radford reunion at St. Louis in 2002
Editors note: In questioning Cliff as to how that rescue mission that he volunteered for might have affected his life over the years, he replied as follows: