As I sit in my warm house on a chilly 19 degree evening four days before Veterans Day I am reminded that what we have for freedom in our lives was hard fought, by those who came before us. My Dad was one of those who fought for us, and this is his story.
He was a young 22 year old sailor in the South Pacific aboard a ship called the Helena. The Helena was a light cruiser often referred to as, “The Fightinest Ship.” The Helena had many battle engagements and at the time of her sinking she had fired more rounds in battle than any ship in the history of the United States Navy.
On the night of July 6, 1943 the Helena was torpedoed and sunk in the Battle of Kula Gulf. A torpedo hit the bow and cut the front of the ship clean off. A second torpedo hit it amidships and broke its back. The ship was going down.
My Dad told me he and his partner were electricians and were shutting down power so they were late in getting off the ship. He said one side was bright as day with fire and explosions. The other side was dark and quiet. They jumped off the quiet side into the ocean. He said they swam for about 15 minutes and took a break to look around. The ship was right behind them. It was sucking them down as it sank. He said then they really started swimming.
When he got out into the ocean there were life rafts full of frightened and injured sailors. One raft he came to had so many guys on it it was under water. He chased an empty one on the waves for a long time but never caught it. Finally he found one and was able to climb in.
That night other ships in the squadron were picking Helena sailors out of the water and managed to rescue about half of the Helena’s crew (including George Bibich a neighbor from Dad’s hometown of Coleraine). Dad was not that lucky.
Dad and the guys on his raft faced a bright burning sun the next day. They were covered with oil, several were burned, and most of them had cuts and were bleeding. They drifted for two days with no supplies. Three Jap Zeros (airplanes) strafed their raft with machine guns. Dad said they were so close he could have shot them with his Browning automatic 12 gauge shotgun. Miraculously no one was hit. Sharks came to the boat and would circle around it, but left when the guys beat on the side of the raft. Dad said he would wake up in the morning and someone would be gone. Drifted off in the night, couldn’t hang on, or just gave up.
On the third day they could see an island with huts on it. They knew it was a Japanese held island and if they went in they would be prisoners of war. They were dying on the raft so they paddled for shore. They were met on shore by tall Pacific Islanders brandishing long banana knives over their heads demanding in pigeon English “Japanese or Americans?” The guys were so burned and covered in oil the natives couldn’t identify them. They told them they were Americans and the natives welcomed them.
They moved the sailors one by one to their village. My Dad went first. They had him lie down in the bottom of their canoe and they paddled to the village. When he got to the village in the center there was a huge kettle with a fire burning underneath it (just like the old Tarzan movies). My Dad thought, my god they’re cannibals and they are going to eat me. They took him to a dark hut. Upon entering he tripped on a dead guy and thought, “This is where they kill me!” But the dead guy moved! He was a sailor who had been sleeping. He told dad “No. They’re going to take care of you.” It turned out the kettle was full of fish. The whole village and the sailors sat down and ate together family style.
The natives put aloe on the sailors’ cuts. They taught them how to climb palm trees and pick and crack open coconuts. They moved them around and hid them from Jap patrols. More sailors kept washing up on the beach. This went on for 10 days.
My Dad referred to them as Scotland Yardmen but they were actually Australian Coast-watchers who had been planted on many islands in the Pacific in anticipation of war. Vella LaVella the island my dad was on had one of these Australians with a radio. The natives contacted him and he got a message to the Navy Fleet saying he had Helena survivors.
Time was running out. The Fleet Commander asked for volunteers for a rescue mission and every man volunteered. It was very risky but they sent rescue boats right under the Japanese garrison’s guns on a moonlit night and they were not spotted. They picked up more than 160 sailors, a downed US pilot and a Japanese prisoner that night from two different locations. The rescue was 100% successful.
When all of the Helena survivors were reunited, nearly two thirds of the original crew had survived the sinking of the ship in the dead of night in a raging sea battle. It was nothing short of a miracle. It was not the end of the war for the sailors however. They were split up and sent to various ships and served their country until the end of the war.
I have had students in my college classes ask me why the college had no classes on Veteran’s Day. I guess the best answer is that this country has a lot of people who had given a lot for their country (in some cases everything), so that we can be free. Thank you to all veterans.
Dick Sackett’s children are Wanda Ulseth, Dick Sackett, and Bill Sackett.