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USS Helena sailors reunite in Helena

One attendee survived sinking of ship in World War II

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Some 70 years ago, Vern Johnson was on the USS Helena when it was struck by Japanese torpedoes in a place called Kula Gulf, sinking the ship and killing more than 100 men.

“There was a boom and there was a boom and there was a little bit of a delay, and there was another boom,” Johnson, 96, said Saturday in the Montana Military Museum.

Johnson, then an electrician, was deep in the bowels of the ship. He and others, guided by their lanterns, climbed up through a hatch, hardly seeing a thing.

“It was night, and it was a black night,” he said of the very early hours of July 6, 1943.

He and others, escaped to lifeboats. A signalman detected a distant vessel and gave a “friend or foe?” signal. The ship, the USS Radford, rescued them around dawn, dropping down cargo netting for the sailors to climb.

Johnson, who wore a hat emblazoned “Kula Gulf Swim Club” at times Saturday, is the only veteran of that particular USS Helena in town this weekend for the biennial meeting of the USS Helena Association. The other 50 or so former sailors here served on another boat with the same name, a heavy cruiser that sailed in the Korean War, taking a couple of hits along the way.

With spouses and children, the group — more than 100 in all, based for the weekend at Great Northern Best Western — visited the Montana Military Museum Saturday morning. They’re also visiting the anchor from the Korea-era vessel, now resting in Anchor Park; taking a trolley tour; cruising the Gates of the Mountains; conducting a memorial service for departed brethren; and enjoying functions at the Montana Club and the Last Chance Ranch.

The Korea-era USS Helena (CA-75) was armed with, among other weapons, three gun turrets with three guns each, firing eight-inch shells 20 miles or more — so far that the sailors often couldn’t see the explosions they created.

“We did a lot of bombing, from Pusan all the way to Suncheon,” said Bob Cordier, the treasurer of the group.

He was a 17-year-old Kentucky farm boy when he left home for the other side of the world. The young men learned to socialize with others from around the country, and to follow Navy protocols.

“If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, paint it,” he said, relating a credo of the time.

James McNamee, president of the group, said only three of the veterans present this weekend were sailors he knew from his service.

One of them, Bob Parry, presented the museum with a piece of shrapnel from when the boat was struck by a North Korean shell in 1951.

He ran past the point of impact — on the base one of the gun turrets — and for some reason, he said, picked up the hot little piece of metal.

“I’ve hung onto it all these years,” said Parry, who enlisted in the Navy the day after his 17th birthday. “I though this place would be the best place for it.”

The first USS Helena was commissioned in 1897 and served in World War I. The second, the light cruiser whose sinking Johnson survived, was commissioned in 1939. It was damaged in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, repaired and sent back into the Pacific.

Another vessel slated to receive that name in World War II was never completed.

The third USS Helena, the one in Korea, was commissioned in 1945 and decommissioned in 1963. It was scrapped in the early 1970s, but its anchor was salvaged and taken to Helena.

The fourth USS Helena is a nuclear attack submarine, in service since the late 1980s.

McNamee left Youngstown, Ohio, for duty on the West Coast and launched with the Helena from Long Beach, Calif., on July 3, 1950.

Eight months at a time was a long spell away from loved ones.

“You do a lot of letter writing,” he said.

Read later, some of them were so steamy they were burned in a fireplace so no one else would read them, he said.

One time in late 1952, the ship headed to Guam for a reason not immediately evident to the sailors. There, they picked up President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had promised before his election that he would personally visit Korea.

The Helena carried Ike to Hawaii, along with some other dignitaries and some “newspaper guys,” Cordier said.

“A lot of them got seasick,” he said.

Eisenhower walked the decks and interacted with the sailors.

“He was pretty much a personable guy,” said McNamee.

The association meets every other year and last met in Helena in 1989, when a larger group, about 700 including family members, occupied the entire Colonial Inn and then some, with local restaurants shutting their doors to help out with the reunion’s buffet, McNamee said.

The group’s next meeting may take place in Boston in 2015. In that area, the USS Salem, a Baltimore-class vessel like the Korea-era Helena, is now a museum. Visitors can go clear down into the engine room, possibly harking the veterans, now in their 80s, back to their service.

“It all seems like a dream now,” Cordier said.

“But if I had the opportunity, I’d do it all over again,” McNamee said.

Among other benefits — he met his wife, Cecilia, while on duty. They met in downtown Los Angeles when he entered J.J. Newberry’s, a variety store where she worked.

“I went AWOL to get married, which is a bad thing to do,” he said.

She’s present for the reunion also, and they’ve been married 60 years.

Reporter Sanjay Talwani:447-4086, sanjay.talwani@helenair.com. Follow Sanjay on Twitter @IR_SanjayT

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