USS Helena (CL-50)

USS Helena (CL-50) was a Brooklyn class light cruiser that was present during the attack on Pearl Harbor and fought off Guadalcanal before being sunk at the battle of Kula Gulf in July 1943.

The Helena was launched in August 1939 and commissioned on 18 September 1939. She was assigned to the Pacific Fleet. She was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, and was moored in the Navy Yard Dock, in the position normally taken by the battleship Pennsylvania. She was hit by a torpedo that passed under the minesweeper Oglala, moored outboard of the Helena. The torpedo hit amidships on the starboard side, flooding one engine room and one boiler room. Electrical power to the main guns and 5in guns was cut, but this was restored within 2 minutes. She was thus able to keep up an anti-aircraft barrage that probably helped avoid further damage.

USS Helena (CL-50), c.1940
USS Helena (CL-50),

Enough damage had been done to force the Helena back to Mare Island for repairs. She was ready for action in time to take part in the campaign on Guadalcanal. In September 1942 she formed part of the Task Force based around the carrier USS Wasp (CV-7), which was then providing distant escort for a convoy carrying reinforcements to Guadalcanal. On 15 September the Wasp was hit by Japanese torpedoes, and caught fire. The Helena rescued 400 of her men, but the Wasp was lost.

The Helena returned to the fighting around Guadalcanal. She took part in the battle of Cape Esperance (11-12 October 1942), triggered by a Japanese attempt to get reinforcements onto Guadalcanal. During the battle the Helena helped sink the Japanese cruiser Furataka and the destroyer Fubuki.

Between the major battles the Helena was the target of Japanese torpedoes on 20 October 1942, although was undamaged. She also took part in a shore bombardment of Koli Point on 4 November.

The Helena took part in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (13-15 November 1942). She was part of the escort of an American convoy that arrived on Guadalcanal on 12 November. Her force survived a Japanese air attack unscathed during the unloading period. This was the first stage in a major Japanese attack, The idea was to land reinforcements on Guadalcanal. Japanese battleships would bombard the US positions, and the army would then launch a major attack. On the night of 12-13 November the Helena thus found herself in the path of the powerful Japanese bombardment force. That night the US force of two 8in, one 6in, one 5in cruisers and eight destroyers, faced two Japanese battleships, supported by a light cruiser and fourteen destroyers. During this fighting most of the American cruisers suffered heavy damage, the Atlanta had to be scuttled and the Juneau was sunk by a Japanese submarine soon aftwards. The Japanese lost the destroyer Akatsuki and the battleship Hiei was so badly damaged that she couldn't escape from US air attack. On 14 November she was scuttled by her crew, making her the first Japanese battleship to be lost during the Second World War.

In January 1943 the Helena took part in a series of shore bombardments of New Georgia. She hit targets at Munda and Vila Stanmore.

On 11 February 1943 one of her float planes took part in operations that ended with the sinking of the Japanese submarine RO-120 (or possibly I-18). She then returned to New Georgia in March to take part in the pre-invasion bombardments.

On the afternoon of 5 July the Americans discovered the Tokyo Express was at sea, and the Helena's squadron of three cruisers and four destroyers were sent to intercept the Japanese. This triggered the battle of Kula Gulf (5-6 July 1943). The Helenaopened fire as the Japanese attempted to rush reinforcements onto New Georgia. She opened fire at 1.57am, but seven minutes later she was hit by the first of three torpedoes. She sank very quickly, but her crew's ordeal wasn't yet over. They were now in the middle of a battle. Two destroyers (USS Nicholas DD-449 and USS Radford DD-446) began to rescue the survivors but had to withdraw at dawn. Around 275 survivors were left behind, with four boats from the destroyers. 80 of the survivors, led by the Helena's captain (C. P. Cecil), led this small flotilla to safety on a nearby island.

The remaining 200 men were trapped on the Helena's bow, which had remained afloat. It soon began to sink, but just in time a Navy Liberator dropped four lifeboats and lifejackets. The worst wounded were placed in the boats, and the rest of the group attempted to push them towards Kolombaranga. Sadly the winds and local currents foiled their efforts, and the survivors were stuck at sea for a day and a night. Eventually they reached Vella Lavella. 165 sailors had survived the sea voyage, but they were now on an enemy occupied island. Coastwatchers and loyal islanders helped protect them, and a sizable naval force was sent to rescue them. the destroyers USS Nicholas, USS Radford, USS Jenkins (DD-447) and USS O'Bannon (DD-450) covered two destroyer-transports and four destroyers, and on 16 July they rescued the survivors and sixteen Chinese refugees. 168 of the Helena's 900 crew were lost in the attack.

After her loss the Helena was the first ship to receive the Navy Unit Commendation. She was also awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign medal and seven stars.

Displacement (standard)


Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed



10,000nm at 15kts

Armour – belt

5in on 0.625in STS

 - deck


 - barbettes


 - turrets

6.5in face
2in roof
1.25in side and rear

 - conning tower

2.25in roof


608ft 4in


Fifteen 6in/47 guns (five triple turrets)
Eight 5in/25 guns (/38 on St Louis, Helena) (eight single positions)
Eight 0.5in guns
Four aircraft

Crew complement


Laid down

9 December 1936


27 August 1938


18 September 1939


6 July 1943

US Navy Light Cruisers 1941-45, Mark Stille. Covers the five classes of US Navy light cruisers that saw service during the Second World War, with sections on their design, weaponry, radar, combat experience. Nicely organised, with the wartime service records separated out from the main text, so that the design history of the light cruisers flows nicely. Interesting to see how new roles had to be found for them, after other technology replaced them as reconnaissance aircraft [read full review]
cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 June 2015), USS Helena (CL-50) ,

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