Book Review: Sunk in Kula Gulf: The Final Voyage of the USS Helena and the Incredible Story of Her Survivors in World War II


by John Domagalski

Washington: Potomac Books, 2012. Pp. xvi, 238. Illus., maps,., notes, biblio. $32.95. ISBN: 1597978396

An Heroic Ship and A Brave Crew

Although John J. Domagalski, who has written several books on the Pacific War, is focused on the loss Domagalski of the light cruiser USS Helena (CL 50) in the Battle of Kula Gulf and the subsequent adventures of her survivors, he opens with four chapters on the ship’s origins and early career. Commissioned in Brooklyn in mid-1939, Helena survived Pearl Harbor with little damage, and in the 31 months (Dec. 1941-July 1943) that followed accumulated seven battle stars. She escorted convoys to the South Pacific, fought in the surface battles of Cape Esperance and Guadalcanal, and beat off numerous Japanese air attacks while supporting operations against other Japanese held islands, while becoming the first ship to use the “proximity fuze” in action. 

Domagalski then devotes four chapters to the nocturnal Battle of Kula Gulf (July 6, 1943), a complex surface action that unfolded as American warships intercepted a “Tokyo Express” attempting to interfere with American ships supporting a newly established beachhead on New Georgia Island. The battle began a few minutes before 2:00 am. Within minutes, Helena, took a torpedo from a Japanese destroyer, and two more quickly followed. The ship, which had managed to fire off some 2,000 rounds of 6” shells in less than ten minutes, broke in two. The stern section sank in about 22 minutes, while the bow section drifted away. 

Beginning with the aptly titled “Abandon Ship,” Domagalski uses nine chapters to tell the story of how Helena’s survivors escaped from ship and their subsequent adventures, which includes many impressive personal accounts. While many of her crew were rescued by two destroyers or got away in small boats to be picked the following morning, about 200 who were on the bow section were not spotted until the next morning. Aircraft dropped rafts to the men, but it was not possible to rescue them immediately. Most of these men made it to Japanese-held Vella Lavella, and were able to evade the enemy until rescued, often after some harrowing adventures. 

In researching this work Domagalski interviewed numerous survivors and examined many first hand accounts. He has written a detailed, often gripping tale of naval surface combat in the Pacific and survival at sea under desperate circumstances. Sunk in Kula Gulf is a very good ship’s biography, painting an excellent picture of what it was like to experience surface action in the South Pacific, and an often gripping tale of survival at sea.


Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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