Friday, June 12, 2015

USS Helm (DD 388): For the Duration

Hanging on one of the walls in the museum gallery is this fairly humble looking plaque. Many visitors might not even give it a second glance. Yet in the spirit of "if these walls could talk," this piece of metal would tell quite a few stories if it was able.

As the plaque states, the Bagley-class destroyer USS Helm (DD 388) was built at the Norfolk Navy Yard as part of FDR's "New Deal" program. While often overshadowed by the more modern Fletcher-class destroyers, older destroyers like Helm contributed significantly for the entire duration of the war.
The ship's illustrious career in World War II started in the opening minutes of the war. On the morning of December 7, 1941, Helm was the only ship underway at Pearl Harbor when the attack started. The ship's gunners shot down one Japanese plane before a Japanese midget submarine was spotted and targeted by the destroyer's 5-inch guns. The enemy craft submerged before any significant damage was inflicted. 

The action at Pearl Harbor was only the beginning for USS Helm. The destroyer was kept busy on various assignments for the rest of the war, involved in many of the main engagements of the Pacific War either as a screening vessel or for close-in shore support.  She was also assigned to more routine escort duty at times.  Helm was part of the invasion of Guadalcanal, survived the Battle of Savo Island, and supported the invasion of Cape Gloucester.  After a brief return to the U.S., the destroyer returned to more active engagements. The "tin can" mostly protected carriers during the latter battles of the war, including the "Marianas Turkey Shoot" and at Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, as well as strikes against many other targets.

Near the end of the war the Japanese suicide tactics increased, making the destroyer's role of protecting the bigger ships all the more important. This was especially true during the Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns. 
This photo shows a kamikaze plane attacking a Bagley-class destroyer in the Sulu Sea southwest of the Philippines. Most likely this is USS Helm as the ship suffered some minor damage from a suicide plane on this day while part of a task group of escort carriers.
During the last few weeks of the war the destroyer participated in the rescue of the crew of USS Indianapolis after the heavy cruiser was sunk by a Japanese submarine.  After the Japanese surrendered, the ship returned to the United States and was decommissioned in 1946.  It was then used in atomic bomb testing before being scrapped a year later.  USS Helm's near decade of service was more eventful than many other ships.  The four years of action in World War II earned her eleven battle stars, participating in nearly every major Pacific campaign.

Story by Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator Elijah Palmer.

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