On April 11, 2018, a research team headed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen discovered the wreckage of the USS Helena (CL-50, the team’s third World War II-era shipwreck discovery of the year. The St. Louis-class light cruiser was commissioned into the US Navy on September 18, 1939 and served until her sinking on July 6, 1943 during the Battle of Kula Gulf. The wreckage was discovered 2,821 ft. below the surface of the New Georgia Sound in the Solomon Islands.
USS Helena – Pearl Harbor Survivor
Like many American ships that served in the Pacific Theater, the USS Helena first saw combat on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Berthed at 1010 Dock, where the battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) was normally moored, Helena found herself a major target of the Japanese aerial fleet. As the battleships of the Pacific Fleet were the focus of the attack, the Japanese pilots were gunning for Pennsylvania but were unaware that the battleship was in dry dock across the harbor. Within moments of the call to General Quarters, Helena was struck on her starboard side by a torpedo. 34 of her men were killed in the attack. Despite the damage she sustained, Helena returned to service in June of 1942.
USS Helena at War
Once she was fully repaired, Helena took part in the Guadalcanal Campaign and the Battle of Cape Esperance before she was sunk at the Battle of Kula Gulf. Despite rescue attempts, 168 of her 900 men were killed. Many of those who survived the initial sinking spent upwards of 10 days waiting for rescue as several United States vessels, including the USS Gwin (DD-433), USS Nicholas (DD-449), and USS Woodworth (DD-460) moved in to provide assistance. Unfortunately, many men couldn’t hold out and were lost to the sea.
For her service, the USS Helena was the first vessel to be awarded the Navy Unit Commendation. A memorial dedicated to the sunken light cruiser was erected in Helena, MT. According to Petrel’s director of subsea operations Robert Kraft, Helena likely won’t be their final discovery. “We do these missions as testament to the brave souls who served on these ships,” Kraft explained, adding, “Each ship has a story that touches families and friends of those who perished and survived.”
The Voyages of RV Petrel
Since 2015, Allen and his team have been scouring the depths of the Pacific Ocean, searching for the remains of vessels sunk during battle. In March 2015, his research team was responsible for locating the Japanese battleship Musashi. This was followed by the discoveries of the HMS York, USS Indianapolis (CA-35), the Japanese battleship Yamashiro, USS Lexington (CV-2), and the USS Juneau (CL-52). Many of the team’s discoveries were made on the Research Vessel Petrel, which was originally a platform supply vessel that Allen bought and repurposed in 2016.