Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sentimental Sunday: Grandfather on the USS Helena

Another story about my grandfather EISWERTH during WWII.

Past Down’s of Dad’s Navy Days (USS Helena) by Jim Eiswerth

My dad, has talked about some of his days in the US Navy during and after WWII. For someone 88 years old, he still remembers several interesting things from his sailor days, including his Navy serial number!

After basic training up in the Great Lakes, dad was first stationed at the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. In the Navy dad was trained to be a sheet metal mechanic primarily in support of Navy aircraft, but ended up working long hours in the control tower at Quonset Point NAS. Later near the end of the war, dad was reassigned to the USS Helena, which was a new replacement heavy cruiser for the old Helena that sank during the Pacific war with Japan.

Being a farm boy from the middle of Pennsylvania, dad had little exposure to aircraft of any type. However he got very familiar with the Navy’s aircraft while at Quonset Point. When he boarded the USS Helena, near Boston, he was again assigned to support the cruiser’s scout airplanes, which were used to search for enemy submarines. The scout planes were launched off the fantail catapults, and were recovered using a crane as the planes motored up near the rear of the ship.

One of the first things that dad noticed was that the ship’s company wore black shoes, while the air crews working the planes all wore brown shoes. The differences went a lot further than just shoes. On the Helena, the air crew was obviously a very small part of the overall Helena crew. They got to be very close friends, from the pilots on down in the ranks. The pilots all had call sign names they used while flying, and preferred to be addressed by those names, when there were no higher ranking officers around. The pilots knew that they were always counting on air team to keep them safe while flying, and always showed a lot of gratitude. Dad still remembered his Overall flight Commander who was Lt. Strawn, and several of the pilots, Ensigns Alberti, Bifield, and Davis.

Since the Helena was a new ship, one of the first cruises it took was south towards Cuba to fully check out the ship and its equipment. However only the ship’s officers knew where they were headed, as secrecy was still important. Dad never knew where they were, but a few crewmen from the Helena many years later wrote stories about their experiences on the ship, and we discovered that the area north of Cuba was definitely where they went. Dad did remember the warm days and lots of ongoing operations to shake down the equipment.

After the shake down was completed, the ship headed back north and ran smack into a hurricane off North Carolina. The hurricane was severe and ripped one of the scout planes off its mounts and heavily damaged the plane. The sea was so rough that no one was allowed out on deck, and dad said many sailors got very sea sick. Dad admits he snuck up to hatch on deck to crack it open and get some fresh air and to keep from getting sick too.

Later during the storm, the Captain of the ship announced over the emergency loud speakers that there was an aviation fuel spill, the smoking lamp was out, and the air crew was to report immediately to their area. Dad said that several barrels of aviation gas had broken loose from their chains, and had spilled onto the storage floor. There were several inches of fuel on the floor and the risk of fire was extremely high. They immediately hooked up hoses and started to flush the fuel out into the ocean. Dad was surprised to see the Executive Officer, Commander Chen, wearing his slippers, working right along with them to clean up the fuel as fast as possible. Commander Chen rushed from his state room to make sure the fire risk was addressed ASAP. That really impressed dad too. When the fuel mess was finally cleaned up, Commander Chen personally thanked each of the guys. Dad said he was glad he was cleaning up the fuel compared to the guys that had to clean up the ship from all the sea sick sailors.

On the ship, the sailors slept in hammocks. Dad said they were comfortable after you got use to them. His hammock was aligned with the pitch of the ship, so that help cancel out / quiet down all the ship’s rolling movements. In their area, there was one sailor that had pretty poor hygiene and loved to work out in the weight room often. He didn’t shower regularly, so the other sailors in the area finally had had enough of his stink. They stripped him and dragged him into the shower and scrubbed him with brushes, and threatened to continue that if he didn’t improve his habits. Needless to say he got the message, and a clean well exfoliated skin.

As the ship travelled north towards New York for Navy Day, the entire crew went about cleaning the ship and fixing the equipment damaged in the hurricane. The damaged scout plane was in such bad shape that only a few major parts were salvaged before the plane was dumped over the side into the Atlantic. Word got around on the ship that President Truman was planning to come aboard the Helena while it was in New York, as part of the Navy Day celebration. The ship was polished and ready as they came into New York’s harbor, but Truman never stepped on board.

After a few days in New York, my dad got his final orders and his Honorable Discharge papers. He packed up all his belongings and as he was leaving the Helena, his Executive Officer, Commander Chen, who helped clean up the aviation gas spill, was there to shake his hand and wish him well. He saluted the officers and the ships flag and headed down the gangplank towards civilian life again.

Dad said he was on a train going back to Pennsylvania, when they stopped in some small town for a quick break. He ordered a sandwich and while he was eating it, it finally hit him that he was a civilian again. Within a few hours he was back on the farm with his parents (my grandparents).

Dad said he went into the Navy a skinny 130 pounds and came out of the Navy well over 160 pounds. So I guess the Navy agreed with him. I think if he made the rank of Chief, my dad may have stayed in the Navy a little longer. I know airplanes have been a continuing interest and hobby all his life, and it is probably one of the main reasons I became an Aeronautical/Aerospace Engineer too. Just one of the many things I still love to chat with my dad about.


  1. What a great story! I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Interesting story Tina; I enjoyed reading it. You are so lucky to have those memories and opportunities to share with your grandfather.

  3. I hope your grand father and father told you lots of stories. It is often times better told after.
    And better than the newspaper accounts.