A spread of three “Long Lance” Japanese torpedoes struck the light cruiser USS Helena at 2 a.m., July 6, 1943 off Vella Lavella Island, part of the Solomon Island Chain in the South Pacific. Machinist Mate Ken Schank of Port Charlotte was at his battle station maintaining an electric generator controlling the cruiser’s main guns in the bowels of the ship deep below the surface when disaster struck.
“The torpedoes hit the Helena amidship and she broke into three pieces. We were dead in the water and our communications with the bridge was out,” the 90-year-old former sailor said. “Our compartment was not flooded, but we were badly thrown around from the concussion.”
Despite the night battle going on around them a number of the 888 crewmen aboard the cruiser were rescued by American ships. Schank said about 160 sailors died in the sinking.
“There were 13 in my compartment. The next morning, with our section of the ship tilting at a 30 degree angle, we decided it was time to get off,” he said. “When we reached the main deck all we had to do was step off the Helena into the sea.
“I was wearing a kapok life jacket and a life belt around my waist when I went in the water. All of the survivors were covered with caustic bunker-C oil from our ship. I got some in my eyes and couldn’t see,” Schank said.
“Cmdr. Smith and I were shoulder-to-shoulder along side the destroyer USS Bradford and were about to grab a boarding net hanging over the side when the ship revved her engines. That flushed us away from the side of the destroyer,” he said. “When daylight came the battle was over and the ships were all gone. We were hanging onto a large wooden life ring that had come off our ship.
“The swells in the Kula Gulf were gentle, about three or four feet, and we were holding onto the wooden ring waiting to see if anyone was going to come and pick us up, but nobody came,” Schank said. “As we bobbed up and down in the gulf we could see islands 15 miles away on the horizon.
“Shortly after day break a Japanese pilot flew over in a fighter plane. To let us know he saw us he fired bullets over our heads. That second day in the water nobody showed up. A New Zealand bomber flew over and dropped a couple of lift rafts, but they were a pretty thin package for 100 people who were still in the water,” Schank said.
They knew they were drifting off Vella Lavella. They also knew the Japanese had a seaplane base on the five mile by 12 mile-long island. The tide and the wind were blowing them that way.
“During the second night some of the guys on our life ring got washed away. There were sharks in the area, but I think they stayed away from us most of the time because of the oil in the water,” he explained. “By this time the only way I could see was to hold my eyelids open with my fingers.
“By the end of the third day we washed up on the beach at Vela Lavella and crawled into the jungle a hundred of us. Natives on the island met us together with three Australian coast watchers,” Schank said.
The sailors were hidden in groups around the island out of the clutches of the Japanese who held the atoll.
“When Adm. ‘Bull’ Halsey, our fleet commander, got word of our survival he decided to run the risk of trying to rescue us. He sent three old World War I four-stacker destroyers to get us—USS Dent, Schley and Waters.
“They pulled up close to the beach and sent landing barges into the beach. We got aboard the destroyers and they gave us medical treatment right away,” he said. “I was in bad shape because of the oil. The chemical in the oil had injured my eyes.”
Initially Schank was sent for treatment to an island hospital in the Solomons. Later he was transferred to a survivor’s camp on New Caledonia. Eventually he was put aboard a freighter and went back to the States.
“At 3 a.m. three days out of San Diego we were hit by another freighter. There was a crack in our hull from the deck to the waterline, but no one was injured and we managed to limp into port,” he said. “In August 1943 I ended up in the Navy hospital at Great Lakes Receiving Center outside Chicago for further treatment,” Schank said.
While recovering at Great Lakes the Navy used him to sell War Bonds.
“The War Bonds people picked me up. I was taken out of the hospital to give speeches about the Helena and my rescue from the Japanese held island. I spoke to 10,000 people in the Wisconsin Teachers Association one time, including some of my high school teachers.”
Two years later he was finally released from the Navy hospital and went home. The war was over.
After the war Schank got a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Education at the University of Wisconsin. He worked there for a while as a college professor before transferring to the University of Maryland where he received his Master’s. Later he obtained a PhD. Schank went to work for the University of Buffalo and eventually retired as associate dean and administrator before coming to Port Charlotte in 2002. He has three grown daughters who are also teachers.
The crew of the USS Helena was the first ship to receive the Navy Unit Commendation in World War II for her action during the Battle of Cape Esperance at Guadalcanal and Kula Gulf, where she was sunk by the enemy. The ship also earned the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Medal with seven battle stars.
Name: Kenneth Lloyd Schank
D.O.B: July 17, 1920
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisc.
Current: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: July 1942
Discharged: February 1945
Rank: Master Machinist Mate 2nd Class
Unit: USS Helena
Children: Karen Mills, Kendra Schank-Smith, Lori McGonigal
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, July 22, 2010 and is republished with permission.
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