The loss of the USS Helena (CL-50)
On July 5, 1943, Admiral William Halsey issued orders to Rear Admiral Walden Lee Ainsworth to intercept a “Tokyo Express” shipment of 2,600 Japanese reinforcement troops bound for Vila on the southern tip of Kolombangara. Ainsworth and his force would have to transit “The Slot”, a narrow channel from the upper Solomon Islands through the New Georgia Island group. It was a dangerous route that ended in the enemy controlled waters of the Kula Gulf.
Ainsworth’s force, Navy Task Group 36.1, consisting of USS Honolulu (flagship for Ainsworth), USS St. Louis, USS Helena and four destroyers, entered the Kula Gulf shortly after midnight on July 6th. Ainsworth later said, “The night was very dark, no moon, overcast, passing showers. The average visibility at its best did not exceed two miles, reduced to less than one mile at times.” American radar detected the Japanese destroyers around 1:30 am at a distance of 12 miles.
The enemy ships Ainsworth detected on radar was the Japanese reinforcement group commanded by Admiral Teruo Akiyama (flagship Niizuki), which consisted of ten destroyers loaded with 2,600 combat troops and cargo bound for Vila. The Japanese were divided into two forces, three escort destroyers followed by the main column 4 miles behind.
Ainsworth soon learned that he was facing two groups of Japanese ships and wanted to attack both Japanese groups simultaneously, but decided against doing so. He later stated, “It now appeared that it would be much better to hit them separately, even if to do so might give the second group a chance to run back into Blackett Strait. The range by this time had closed to about 7,000 yards, but there had been nothing to indicate that the enemy had either seen us or made contact on our formation.” Ainsworth did not know he had already been detected on enemy radar.
Akiyama reported locating the American fleet almost thirty minutes before Ainsworth reported his locating of the Japanese forces. Despite the presence of the American ships, Akiyama made the decision to proceed with his mission while keeping a close watch on the American forces. As the American fleet moved closer, Akiyama maneuvered to prepare for an attack and at 2 am both sides opened fire.
The American light cruisers Helena, St. Louis, and Honolulu sent 1,600 shells hurtling toward the enemy in the first seven minutes of the battle. The barrage quickly destroyed and sank the Japanese flagship destroyer Niizuki, killing Admiral Akiyama and most of the crew including the captain. The Americans also damaged the Japanese destroyers Suzukaze and Tanikaze.
During the attack, the Helena went through its entire supply of flashless powder and had to use smokeless powder. Every time the Helena fired, it shot up a flame that gave away the ships exact position. The Helena was quickly targeted and took three Japanese torpedos, sinking her. Over 700 men went into the water.
Ainsworth continued his attack on the Tokyo Express, focusing fire on the four destroyers of the Japanese Second Transport Unit. The Amagiri and Hatsuyuki escaped with minor damage, while the Satsuki and Nagatsuki escaped to Vila to unload troops and cargo. Nagatsuki would later run aground and be abandoned.
At approximately 2:30 am, the battle was essentially over.
Ainsworth turned his attention to locating survivors of the Helena. Ainsworth later wrote, “The visibility was very poor and made worse by the smoke of battle.” The Nicholas and Radford found the first survivors shortly before 4:00 am. Nicholas and Radford rescued around 750 survivors from the Helena. The Japanese destroyer Amagiri rescued what few survivors there were from the Niizuki. While engaged in rescue efforts, the three combatants engaged each other several times. Amagiri wisely retired from the battle after taking minor damage.
Ainsworth believed that he had achieved a decisive victory in the battle of Kula Gulf, and it was reported that way in the American press. Most historians believe the battle was a draw.
American forces suffered the loss of the light cruiser Helena, while the Japanese lost the destroyers Niizuki and Nagatsuki. The Japanese did deliver more than 1,500 troops and 90 tons of supplies to Kolombangara.
On July 13, 1943, Ainsworth would have another encounter with the Tokyo Express in the Battle of Kolombangara.
On August 2, 1943, Amagiri rammed and cut in half the motor torpedo boat USS PT-109, captained by future president of the United States John F. Kennedy, in Blackett Strait southwest of Kolombangara.
The U.S. Navy escort aircraft carrier USS Kula Gulf was named for this battle.
On March 24, 2018: A team led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen aboard the R/V Petrel found the wreck of the USS Helena, almost 75 years after it was sunk in the Battle of Kula Gulf.