Warship Wednesday (on a Tuesday), Dec. 7, 2021: Of RADM Helm & PO1c Hirano
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday (on a Tuesday), Dec. 7, 2021: Of RADM Helm & PO1c Hirano
Here we see the Bagley-class destroyer USS Helm (DD-388) as she comes alongside the escort carrier USS Makin Island (CVE-93) during the Iwo Jima operation, 24 February 1945. The little tin can had been in the fight since the very beginning, firing shots at multiple incoming Japanese aircraft at Pearl Harbor, some 80 years ago today. In all, she spent the entire Pacific War in a combat zone save for two months.
The eight vessels of the Bagley class (including Blue, Henley, Mugford, Patterson, Ralph Talbot, and Jarvis besides Helm) were ordered as part of FDR’s 1934 “New Deal” program and laid down near-simultaneously the next year at four different Naval Shipyards, two on the East Coast (Boston and Norfolk) and two on the West (Puget Sound and Mare Island). Some 341-feet overall, they were 1,500-tonners in design to comply with the assorted naval limitation treaties of the era. However, they had a very impressive torpedo tube battery (16 tubes in four quadruple platforms) as well as four 5″38s and could make 36 knots with ease.
Compared to the previous classes, they had less powerful machinery but stronger hulls and better stability. Unlike many pre-WWII destroyer classes, the Bagleys uncharacteristically kept all their torpedo tubes and 5-inch guns for the entire war, whereas other classes usually traded such armament for more AAA guns. Instead, the Bagley’s just piled it on, reaching well over 2,245-tons by 1943.
Laid down by Norfolk Navy Yard 25 September 1935 alongside sistership USS Blue (DD-387), the subject of our tale was named for James Meredith Helm (USNA 1875).
Helm commanded the stately gunboat USS Hornet (formerly the yacht Alicia) during the Spanish-American War, capturing a Spanish steamer and three contraband schooners as well as playing a key role in the Battle of Manzanillo. Promoted to Rear Admiral Helm during the Great War, he commanded the 4th Naval District headquartered at League Island Navy Yard in Philadelphia. Helm was moved to the retired list in 1919 after 44 years of service and died in 1927, just eight years before the only warship to bear his name was laid down. A Navy Cross winner, he is buried in Arlington.
Helm commissioned 16 October 1937, LCDR P. H. Talbot in command.
By 1939, she was stationed on the West Coast and, along with her seven sisters, was at Pearl Harbor on the morning of 7 December 1941.
Of the 30 destroyers inside Pearl Harbor when the Japanese first wave came at 0755, eight were Bagleys. While her classmates were all tied up or moored, Helm was underway from berth X-7 for deperming buoys at West Loch some 30 minutes before the attack. Since deperming could affect the ship’s compasses, two whaleboats containing every magnetic compass and chronometer issued to the ship were left behind– not the best way to start a war.
As detailed in her after-action report, Helm spotted the first enemy plane at 0759, with a bomb dropping and hitting a hanger at Ford Island. By 0805, her aft pair of water-cooled .50-caliber machine guns had opened up and soon her 5-inchers would join the fight.
Just five minutes later, at 0810, they drew blood.
From her report:
In main channel steaming toward entrance. Fire from port after machine gun, manned by HUFF, W.C., GM.2c, 337 00 90, hit plane approaching from south. Plane veered sharply, caught fire, and crashed behind trees near Hickam Field. Ordered all boilers lighted off.
More on this plane later.
Over the next hour, Helm had a very hectic time of it, spotting an unusual submarine conning tower at 0817 and again at 0819, then duly firing on said tower off Tripod Reef until it submerged. Shortly afterward, the men on after guns and amidships observed a torpedo pass close under the stern on a northwesterly course.
It is unknown which of the nine suspected Japanese midget subs this was, or if it was damaged. However, most scholars believe it was the Type A Kō-hyōteki-class midget HA. 19. Crewed by Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki and CWO Kiyoshi Inagaki, the hapless and damaged craft eventually was scuttled after which Inagaki drowned and Sakamaki was captured, the only Japanese POW from the Pearl Harbor attack and the first of the war.
By 0830, Helm reached the harbor entrance and spent the next hour “Steaming on various courses and speeds off harbor entrance, steering by hand, firing intermittently at enemy planes, and searching for submarines, numerous large splashes being observed close at hand.” At 0915, a bomber from the Japanese second wave landed some near misses on the destroyer which popped seams and sheared rivets, so not only did she not have any magnetic nav gear, but she also had to contend with flooding and engineering casualties.
In all, she fired 90 rounds of 5-inch and 350 of .50 caliber during the attack
Once the smoke cleared, Helm was reunited with her two whaleboats and the seven men who manned them– they had withstood Japanese strafing runs and then later assisted in transporting casualties from Ford Island to the hospital landing. The destroyer had fired at numerous Japanese aircraft and is generally credited with downing the one seen smoking out at 0810. The plane, a Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero Model 21 fighter (c/n 5289), tail code AI-154, flown by PO1c Takeshi Hirano from the carrier Akagi, ultimately clipped coconut palm trees and crashed into the ordnance maintenance shop at Fort Kamehameha. It is one of the most photographed of the Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor.
Listed as “Japanese aviator—identity unknown” Hirano was interred at Schofield Barracks Cemetery two days later as his Zero, partially stripped by souvenir hunters, was hauled off to the Hawaiian Air Depot hangar for inspection. AI-154 was shipped the next year to Wright Field in Ohio for more study and its final disposition is unclear, although pieces of it have popped up on eBay over the years.
After the war, 25 Japanese aviators and three submariners who had been interred around Pearl Harbor were repatriated home.
Back to Helm
Soon after the attack on Pearl, Helm assisted the carrier USS Saratoga as a plane guard then was dispatched to retrieve some very isolated Department of the Interior workers from Howland and Baker Islands, retrieving a total of six men via whaleboat in late January 1942 and fighting off a Japanese Yokosuka H5Y (Cherry) flying boat in the process. Helm reported that it wasn’t necessary to destroy the installations left behind on the islands as the Japanese had already done so.
Helm then went further West, escorting convoys to the New Hebrides and New Caledonia.
She rescued 13 survivors from the cargo ship SS John Adams (7,100 tons) on 9 May, adrift after the Liberty ship was sunk by I-21. Helm then picked up four men from the fleet oiler USS Neosho (AO-23), sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea on 17 May. These men were taken to Brisbane, Australia, where Helm joined British Rear Admiral Crutchley’s Task Force 44 on 19 May.
She transitioned to the horrific naval fighting off Guadalcanal and participated in the Tulagi operation, shielding the landing on Blue Beach, and firing 103 5-inch shells at Hill 281 during naval gunfire support.
During the nightmare that was the Battle of Salvo Island, Helm stood by the wrecked cruiser USS Astoria, and brought 175 survivors from USS Vincennes and USS Quincy to transports off Guadalcanal and withdrew with the remainder of the force to Noumea on 13 August.
On 29 November 1943, along with sistership Ralph Talbot and two Australian destroyers, she bombarded the Japanese positions during a night raid on Gasmata, New Britain, ripping off 403 5-inch shells. The next month she supported the landings by the 1st Marine Division on Borhen Bay.
On the night of 9 July 1944, with the cruiser USS Oakland, she fired 225 rounds of 5-inch on Japanese positions on occupied Guam.
September saw her extremely active off Iwo Jima, alternating hitting shore targets with NGF with neutralizing enemy shipping, sinking a small Maru on the morning of 2 September with 95 rounds then bagging another that afternoon with a further 78 rounds.
Helm engaged a suspected Japanese submarine on 28 October while screening RADM Davison’s carrier Task Group 38.4 in the Leyte Gulf, resulting in a “B” assessment. It is likely that Helm, with USS Gridley in support, sent the Emperor’s Type B3 submarine I-54 to the bottom, presumed lost with all 107 hands. Others think it may have been I-46, also reported missing in the same place and time.
Helm was credited with shooting down a Japanese Oscar on 5 January 1945 while off Manila and six men were wounded when the doomed aircraft slammed into the searchlight platform.
By the end of the war, Helm counted an impressive 11 battle stars for Pearl Harbor, Tulagi, Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Bismarck, Marianas, Carolines, Iwo Jima, Leyte, Luzon, and Okinawa.
She returned to the United States on 19 November 1945, then sailed back to Pearl Harbor where she decommissioned on 26 June 1946.
The destroyer was used that summer as a target ship during the Crossroads atomic tests in the Pacific along with sisterships Mugford and Ralph Talbot. While the latter two were radioactive after the tests and scuttled in deep water off Kwajalein, Helm was clean enough to allow her hulk was sold to Moore Dry Dock Co., Oakland, Calif., in October 1947 for scrapping.
Of her sisters, Jarvis, Blue, and Henley were lost in combat while the rest of the class was either expended in post-war tests or scrapped by 1948, no longer needed.
Few pieces of Helm remain, with her commissioning plaque on display at Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
While Hirono’s Zero may have largely vanished, there is still a larger trophy of Helm’s Pearl Harbor experience around. HA-19 is today on display at The National Museum of the Pacific War.
A tribute plaque to Helm is located near HA.19 at the National Museum of the Pacific War.
Displacement “1,500 tons” 2,245 tons (full)
Length: 341′ 4″ (oa)
Beam: 35′ 6″
Draft: 12′ 10″ (Max)
Machinery: 49,000 SHP; 2 sets General Electric geared steam turbines, 4 Babcock & Wilcox boilers, 2 screws
Speed: 38.5 Knots
Range: 6500 NM@ 12 Knots on 337 tons of fuel oil
Sonar: QCA fitted 1942
Radar: SC, SG, Mk 12.22 added after 1945
4 x 5″/38AA DP Mk 12
4 x .50 cal water-cooled MG
16 x 21-inch torpedo tubes (4×4)
2 x Stern depth charge racks (20 dcs)
4 x 5″/38AA DP
2 x 2 40mm/56 Mk 1.2 Bofors
6 x 20mm/70 Mk 4 Oerlikons
16 x 21-inch torpedo tubes (4×4)
4 x K-gun style depth charge throwers (44 dcs)
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