- Historic Sites
Ordeal At Vella Lavella
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
Jack Chew, in charge of the Combat Information Center, checked the bridge for instructions. Captain Charles P. Cecil’s orders were no surprise—abandon ship. The word spread, and men poured onto the slanting decks. Chew and Lieutenant Commander Warren Boles, the Helena ’s gunnery officer, struggled to get the life rafts off the forecastle into the water. Farther aft, Major Bernard T. Kelly, commanding the ship’s Marine detachment, checked the main deck forward to make sure no one was left behind, then climbed down a cargo net into the sea. Near the stern, Ensign George Bausewine, a young assistant damage control officer, carefully removed his shoes and slipped into the water.
Swimming clear, they all turned for a last look at the Helena . The bow and stern rose high in the air to form a V. Then with a rumble she slid straight down, disappearing at about 2:30 A.M. Watching her go, Major Kelly felt as if his home had burned to the ground.
For the next hour hundreds of men milled around in the water, hoping that some ship might pick them up. The lucky ones found rafts; the rest gathered in clusters where they might be more easily seen. Chew and Boles collected a group of about seventy-five around a Jacob’s ladder that came floating by.
Sometime before dawn they heard ships approaching, and soon Major Kelly made out the number 449 on the bow of a destroyer. That meant the Nicholas , one of Ainsworth’s force. The Admiral had detached her with the destroyer Radford to look for survivors, once he realized the Helena was missing. The rest of the task force was now high-tailing it back to Tulagi, convinced they had wiped out most of the Japanese fleet. Actually, they had sunk only one destroyer, with another driven on a reef through bad navigation.
The Nicholas and the Radford lowered nets and boats and began taking survivors aboard. For many, like Ensign Bausewine, rescue seemed only seconds off. He was floating on his back right next to one of the destroyers, awaiting his turn to climb aboard. Then, without warning, she suddenly got under way at high speed and began firing her guns. Another Japanese destroyer had been sighted coming out of Kula Gulf. The fight was on again.
Dawn was now breaking, and with Japanese planes controlling these skies, there was no chance for the destroyers to come back again. Amazingly, in the short time they had been at the scene, they had managed to pick up 745 survivors; their boats—left behind as they steamed off—took another hundred to a safe spot on the New Georgia coast.
The rest of the Helena survivors, including Jack Chew’s group, remained treading water in The Slot. With daylight they found a curious rallying point. The Helena ’s bow, severed from the ship by the first torpedo, was still afloat. Standing vertically about twenty feet out of the water, it soon became a popular refuge. Chew and many of the others paddled over, feeling it should be the first thing spotted by any friendly planes that came looking for them. And so it proved. About 10 A.M. a 6-24 appeared, circled, and dropped three rubber rafts. One failed to open, but Chew’s group managed to inflate the other two. Unfortunately each could hold only four men. Chew put in his most seriously injured, and the group continued waiting.
Soon more planes arrived—but this time they were Zeros. Watching them approach, Major Kelly recalled the recent Bismarck Sea affair, when Allied aircraft strafed the Japanese life rafts after sinking their transports. This was no gentleman’s war, and he steeled himself for the worst.
But the Zeros didn’t shoot. The nearest pilot simply pulled back his canopy and looked at them closely. Circling, the planes made a second run, and again held their fire. As they circled for a third run, they got off a few short bursts, and Kelly felt sure that this would be it: As they roared by, practically touching the water, the lead pilot grinned, waved, waggled his wings … and then they were gone. The relieved but puzzled survivors figured they were so coated with fuel oil that the flyers couldn’t tell whether they were American or Japanese.
But it was a close call. It drove home to Chew that these were indeed enemy waters, and the bow was far more likely to attract Japanese than American planes. He decided his group, now down to about fifty, should clear out as soon as possible. Kolombangara lay only eight or nine miles to the south. If they used the rafts to get there, maybe they could then work their way to the U.S. lines on New Georgia.
They shoved off around 11 A.M. , with the two rafts tied loosely together and the men divided evenly between them. The injured continued to ride as passengers, while two or three hands straddled the rims and paddled; everyone else remained in the water, clinging to the sides, kicking and pushing the craft along.