I grew up hearing my dad’s tales of the Second World War, the good and the bad. One of my joys was him tucking me into bed of a night, Navy fashion; nice and tight. I’d then ask him to tell me a story. Mostly they were tales of the sea. He spoke often of Hawaii. I learnt of tropical islands and palm trees and, of course, the attack on Pearl Harbor. He told me that on that fateful morning of 7 December 1941 his ship, the USS Helm DD388 was the only ship underway in the harbour at that time.
She was also the only fully-manned ship in the harbour because leave had finished at midnight the day before. She had sailed past battleship row heading for the de-perming buoy in West Loch. The Helm was due to have her hull de-magnetised before heading out on patrol the next day. This involved the removal of all the ships’ compasses and chronometers which were left on her sister ship, the USS Blue DD387.
As the Helm was manoeuvring to attach to the buoy, many aircraft were observed over Fort Island. This was not unusual as the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and Lexington were due in that day. One of the aircraft flew close to the Helm and the man beside my dad said: ‘“They are not ours, they’re Japs”’.
One of the aircraft flew close and the man beside my dad said: ‘“They are not ours, they’re Japs”’.
The captain, Lieutenant Commander Chester Carroll ordered general quarters, just as the first bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor.
The Helm at the time was at a ‘short-of-war’ footing, meaning that a quarter of her armament had to be ready within five minutes of action. This meant that only one five inch mount had less than ten rounds of ammunition and only one point five-inch machine gun was action ready. All the other guns were covered in preservative grease and canvas. As my dad raced from the bow towards his action station he was amazed to see the Captain’s thirteen-year-old son staring at the sky in bewilderment. He had spent the night on board and was coming out for a short cruise around the harbour before being taken back to Honolulu. He was picked up by one of the Mess boys and taken to the Captain’s cabin and told to stay put, after being given a helmet and a life jacket.
The ship reversed course by reversing her engines. My dad told me that the whole ship shuddered as she did this. He then raced down to his battle station, the Emergency Diesel Room. As he ran aft one of the machine guns, which was manned by his buddy Willy Huff, started firing. My dad saw the aircraft, which was thought to be a Kate Torpedo Bomber, catch fire and disappear into the woods and explode to their left. He raced down to the diesel room as the ships gathered speed, breaking all the speed limits in the harbour! He had just reached his battle station when the five inch guns started firing. He said the noise was horrendous. The room then began to fill up with white asbestos dust from the lagging.
Dad saw the aircraft catch fire and disappear into the woods and explode to their left.
Shortly afterwards the main electrical circuit breaker shorted out, leaving the ship without steering or communications. The ship was being steered by her engines. My dad was then ordered to start the diesel to provide power for the steering engine. He told me that by this stage the noise was almost unbearable. Not being able to see what was happening topside was also confusing and extremely scary.
The Helm was approaching open sea... and sighted a Japanese Midget Submarine, which was run aground on a reef.
By this stage the Helm was approaching open sea. As she did she sighted a Japanese Midget Submarine, which was run aground on a reef. Immediately, all the ships guns open fired on it, forcing it off the reef and into deeper water. The sub was eventually washed up onto a nearby beach where one of the crewmen drowned and the captain, Ensign Saka Maki was taken as the first prisoner of the Pacific War.
Shortly afterwards, a Val Dive Bomber dropped two bombs. As the Helm was turning radically, it forced the bombs to straddle the ship, avoiding a direct hit. The bombs exploded simultaneously. The nearest one was less than 20 metres to starboard. This once again knocked out all the electrics to the bridge and the steering. The whiplash effect of the explosions cracked the Gunnery Director Platform on three sides. The ship was in danger of losing the Director Overboard; she also sprang four seams on the starboard side, flooding four compartments near my dad’s action station.
So there they were looking for the Japanese fleet. No compass, no clocks. The ships’ boats had been landed. The Gunnery Director was in danger of falling overboard. She was flooding in four compartments and there was a young child on board.
As my dad said: ‘“It was a hell of a way to start a war”’.
The Helm radioed a coast guard cutter who rendezvoused with the Helm to transfer the Captain’s son. My dad, by this stage, had come up on deck to help rig up a Bosun’s Chair, which is a series of ropes and pulleys, to bring the boy to the Coast Guard. The Helm had to slow to five knots to achieve this, which made everybody nervous in the submarine infested waters.
Shortly after this, the first of the surviving ships, which was the old Light Cruiser USS Detroit, came out of the harbour followed by three destroyers. My dad said that they formed a searching line for submarines, until dusk came.
The Helm then joined the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga CV3 and her escorts, which had just arrived from the States. The Saratoga and her escorts patrolled all through the night, until the Helm’s damage became too severe for her to continue. She was given permission to enter port at sunrise.
The harbour that he knew so well was totally changed.
Dad said that the sight that greeted them was breathtaking and brought him to tears. He told me that the harbour that he knew so well was totally changed.
The massive battleship USS Arizona was still burning fiercely as was the California. They passed the USS Nevada, which was the only battleship to get underway. Because, however, of severe damage, she had to be run aground near the hospital to prevent her from blocking the channel. The surface of the harbour was thick with oil and there were still bodies floating among the debris.
Even though the Helm had received damage she survived the entire war without any fatalities or even a combat wound. She was considered a lucky ship.
In February 1942 the Helm sailed for Mare Island in San Francisco Bay to be repaired and to have her machine guns replaced with 20mm canon; but the repairs to the Gunnery Director were only temporary, and a permanent fix was not achieved until the Helm reached Sydney in May 1942. While this work was being done, my parents were introduced and they were married the following March at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.
- Cover image: Initial attack on Pearl Harbor. A captured Japanese photograph. Image: USA National Archives.