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

Official U.S. Navy Photograph 116-19, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command. NH 97450

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).

USS Helm keel-laying. From the Hampton Roads Naval Museum

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

USS Blue (DD-387), left, and USS Helm (DD-388) ready for christening, in Drydock # Two at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia, 27 May 1937. Note that the drydock is already partially flooded. Blue appears to have her guns and torpedo tubes installed, and both ships’ Mark 33 main battery gun directors are in place atop their forward superstructures. NH 61903

Helm commissioned 16 October 1937, LCDR P. H. Talbot in command.

USS Helm (DD-388) photographed circa 1937-39. Note the dark paint on her forward 5/38 gun mounts. Also note her two forward guns are in turrets while the aft mounts are open, as with the rest of the class. NH 61888

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.

Pearl Harbor

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.

Helm’s location during the attack, steaming at the bottom left past Hospital Point to the West Loch Channel. Via SW Maps

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. 

Japanese Type A midget submarine HA.19 Beached on Oahu after it went aground following attempts to enter Pearl Harbor during the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack. The photograph was taken on or shortly after 8 December 1941. 80-G-17016

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. 

Interior of the cockpit of a Zero which crashed into Building 52 at Fort Kamehameha, Oahu, during the 7 December 1941 raid on Pearl Harbor. The pilot, who was killed, was NAP1/c Takeshi Hirano. The plane’s tail code was AI-154. Note the U.S. manufactured Fairchild Radio Compass in the upper center (Compass Model RC-4, Serial # 484). It was tuned in on 760 KC. 80-G-22158

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.

USS Helm (DD-388) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 26 February 1942, just two weeks after her solo rescue mission to the Pheonix Islands. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. #19-N-28728

Helm then went further West, escorting convoys to the New Hebrides and New Caledonia.

USS Helm (DD-388) at Noumea, New Caledonia, on 6 April 1942. Photographed by USS Tangier (AV-8). 80-G-266840

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.

Survivors from SS John Adams, sunk by a Japanese submarine about 125 miles southwest of Noumea, New Caledonia, on May 5, 1942. Rescue made by USS Helm (DD 388). Photographed May 9, 1942. 80-G-32126

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.

Ships maneuvering during the Japanese torpedo plane attack on the Tulagi invasion force, 8 August 1942. Several Japanese Navy Type 1 land attack planes (Betty) are faintly visible at left, center, and right, among the anti-aircraft shell bursts. The destroyer in the foreground appears to be USS Bagley (DD-386) or USS Helm (DD-388). A New Orleans class heavy cruiser is in the left distance, with a large splash beside it. The column of smoke in the left-center is probably from a crashed plane. NH 97751

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.

Kamikaze attack on USS Helm (DD 388). The plane was shot down and crashed into the sea. Portside of the ship, off Luzon, Philippines, approximately 17:15. Photograph by USS Wake Island, released January 5, 1945. 80-G-273082

A Japanese plane makes a suicide attack on a Bagley class destroyer, west of the Philippines on 5 January 1945. The ship is probably USS Helm (DD-388), which was slightly damaged by a Kamikaze on that date. Note anti-aircraft shell bursts in the vicinity. Photographed by USS Steamer Bay (CVE-87). 80-G-273114

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.

Epilogue

Most of Helm’s war diaries and reports, along with her 12-page war history are digitized in the National Archives. 

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.

The HA-19, also known as Japanese Midget Submarine “C” by the US Navy, a historic Imperial Japanese Navy Type A Ko-hyoteki-class midget submarine displayed at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas

A tribute plaque to Helm is located near HA.19 at the National Museum of the Pacific War.

Specs:

Camouflage Measure 32, Design 1D. Drawing prepared circa 1944 by the Bureau of Ships for a camouflage scheme intended for destroyers of the DD-380 (Gridley) class. Ships known to have worn this pattern included USS Bagley (DD-386), USS Helm (DD-388), USS Mugford (DD-389), and USS Ralph Talbot (DD-390). 80-G-150620/21

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
Crew: 158.
Sonar: QCA fitted 1942
Radar: SC, SG, Mk 12.22 added after 1945
Armament:
(1937)
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)
(1945)
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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