From Pearl Harbor to Kula Gulf: A Survivor’s Story
By Chace Anderson
Sailors aboard the USS Helena, a light cruiser moored inside Pearl Harbor on the night of Dec. 6, 1941, were treated to a movie starring Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland. The name of the movie was “Hold Back the Dawn.”
At 7:50 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, Seaman 1st Class Chester “Ski” Biernacki was polishing his shoes in the crew compartment of the USS Helena. Light clouds dotted the blue sky, and Ski planned to catch the 8 a.m. launch to spend the day in Honolulu.
“I had an uncomfortable feeling,” recalls Biernacki, now 92 and living in Jamestown. “About 7:55 I decided to go topside, have a cigarette and look around.
“Then as I started up the ladder, we heard the call: ‘All hands, General Quarters, man your battle stations. This is not a drill!’ ”
Biernacki, a shell man on a five-inch antiaircraft gun, joined his gun crew and rushed to his station. “As we got inside the gun mount, BOOM! The whole ship shuddered, and we were knocked around like bowling pins.
“We didn’t know if we had been hit by a bomb or a torpedo, and we didn’t have time to find out. We just started firing at the planes coming over Ford Island heading for Battleship Row.”
The cruiser threw everything it could at the 183 planes in the first wave of the Japanese attack. Helena’s .50-caliber machine guns joined its antiaircraft guns.
“A sailor named O’Connor was so mad and so frustrated,” Biernacki says, “that he grabbed some potatoes from the spud locker and started throwing them at the goddamn planes.
“The noise was unbelievable. Bombs and torpedoes, airplane engines, just lots of explosions and the constant firing of big guns.”
A lull at about 8:20 allowed the sailors to clear the deck of spent shell casings.
“I didn’t have much time to look around,” Biernacki recalls, “but I remember seeing a bunch of blood on one of the turrets where a gunner’s mate had been killed… shrapnel had torn his arm and his shoulder clean off.”
A second wave of 171 aircraft from six Japanese carriers arrived at 8:54, and the battle resumed.
“We kept loading shells and firing,” Biernacki says. “I know we hit some planes. We even shot a hole through a smokestack on one of the buildings on shore.”
The attack ended at 9:45, roughly an hour and a half after it had begun.
“There was oil on the water and smoke everywhere. Looking across the harbor at Battleship Row, you couldn’t see anything but smoke,” he recalls. “Motor launches and tugs were going every which way, trying to rescue guys out of the water. I didn’t see the dead on our ship. They were mostly in the engine room in all that mangled stuff down below.”
By the time the attack ended, the Helena’s crew had shot down six enemy aircraft, and much of the U.S. Pacific Fleet was in ruin. Nearly 2,400 Americans had died. All eight battleships were damaged, three of them sunk, and 12 more ships were sunk or damaged, including the Helena.
The cruiser had been moored on her port side in a berth that was normally home to the USS Pennsylvania, a battleship temporarily in dry dock. On Helena’s starboard side was the USS Oglala, a 386-foot World War I-vintage minelayer. One of the Japanese torpedoes had passed under the Oglala and struck Helena amidships. The concussion opened hull rivets on the Oglala, and it slowly took on water.
Aboard the Helena, 31 of nearly 1,000 crew members died. Another 70 were wounded, most by shrapnel and by flames from the torpedo blast coursing through the ventilation system. Quick action by the crew to close hatches kept the Helena afloat.
Biernacki’s buddy, Charlie Cioffi, had duty on the quarter deck when the torpedo hit. “When the flash went through the vents, it hit Charlie and burned him to a crisp wherever he didn’t have clothes on. He survived but was burned bad.”
The USS Helena went to dry dock for a temporary patch, and in December left for Mare Island in Vallejo for permanent repairs. It went on to participate in 15 more naval actions in the Solomon Islands. The last came on a dark night in Kula Gulf, where three torpedoes forced Ski Biernacki and his shipmates into an even more terrifying battle for survival.
August 1940: Joining the Navy
Sixteen months before Pearl Harbor, Biernacki got “itchy feet” and left high school in Massachusetts during his senior year. “When the Coast Guard told me I had to have my teeth fixed before they’d take me, I joined the Navy.”
His parents, Polish immigrants, had named him Chester, but as so often happened with Poles in America, he became “Ski.” His father had passed through Ellis Island in 1902 and had fought for his adopted country during World War I. Both Ski and an older brother, Eugene, learned English as a second language.
After boot camp, Biernacki was sent to San Pedro, California, where late in 1940 he was assigned to the USS Helena. As part of a 10-man crew on one of the ship’s five-inch gun mounts, his job was to load 60-pound projectiles into the gun’s breech. The crew worked as a well-oiled machine, and the Helena soon became known as “the fastest firing ship in the fleet.”
“Pearl Harbor was good duty,” Biernacki says. “The weather was great, and we had plenty of liberty. I’d play handball at Fort DeRussy, go into Honolulu and hang around the Royal Hawaiian. Sometimes we’d have picnics or go to dances at the YMCA.”
The Japanese attack and a torpedo amidships changed all that.
July 1942: Back to war
By late July 1942, damage to the Helena had been repaired. The night before the ship was to return to war in the Pacific, the onboard movie was “Stand By for Action,” starring Robert Taylor and Charles Laughton.
The next 12 months brought great triumph and great loss.
“In our first action back, the carrier Wasp was sunk,” Biernacki says. “I remember it was Sept. 15 because it was payday.” The Helena and Wasp were part of a task force transporting Marines to Guadalcanal. The carrier was sunk, but more than 1,900 survivors were rescued from the sea by the Helena and other ships.
In October, the Tokyo Express – the stream of Japanese ships bringing troops and supplies to the Solomon Islands –had been slowed by U.S. air attacks from Guadalcanal. On Oct. 11, the Japanese launched an attack to neutralize American air operations. The Helena was the first of nine ships to engage the enemy in the Battle of Cape Esperance. When it ended, the Helena had sent an enemy cruiser and a destroyer to “Iron Bottom Sound,” resting site of many sunken ships and downed planes.
The fight for Guadalcanal
Allied intelligence learned in early November that the Japanese were planning to retake the airfield on Guadalcanal.
“We got word the Tokyo Express was coming down The Slot through New Georgia Sound with troop transports,” Biernacki says. Such a landing of enemy reinforcements would prove disastrous to the Marines trying to defend the island.
At about 2 a.m. on Nov. 13, the Helena and a dozen more American ships met nearly 20 vessels of the Japanese Navy. Marines on Guadalcanal said later that the fierce point-blank engagement of the two navies lit the night sky for miles. They learned in the morning that the Americans had achieved their goal, but at a terrible cost. Damage to the Helena was minor, but five American ships were heavily damaged and another five sunk.
After the battle, Helena joined the other damaged cruisers – the San Francisco and the Juneau – as they steamed toward Espiritu Santo for repairs. “We ran into a Jap sub on the way,” Biernacki says. “Two torpedoes hit the Juneau where she was already damaged.”
The ship sank in less than a minute, and 687 men, including five brothers named Sullivan, were lost. Partly due to the loss of the Sullivan brothers, the Sole Survivor Policy was enacted in 1948, limiting the number of siblings that can be stationed together in a war zone.
During the next six months, the Helena and her crew conducted both day and night shore bombardments in the South Pacific, shot down a number of Japanese planes, and then enjoyed a month of rest in Australia where the ship was refitted. By the summer of 1943, they were once more bombarding Japanese positions in the Solomon Islands.
Kula Gulf lies between the islands of New Georgia and Kolombangara, northwest of Guadalcanal. Just after midnight on July 5, Helena and six other ships were bombarding enemy positions off New Georgia in support of planned Allied landings there. In those pre-dawn hours Helena expended all its flashless powder.
The next day American intelligence learned the Tokyo Express would again be coming down The Slot that night – 10 Japanese ships carrying 2,600 reinforcements.
Just past midnight on July 6, Helena, two other cruisers and four destroyers steamed into Kula Gulf to intercept the enemy ships. At 1:57 a.m. Helena opened up, firing so fast that subsequent Japanese battle reports suggested the Americans had come up with a new weapon – six-inch machine guns.
With its flashless powder expended, Helena was forced to fire shells that lit up the night and exposed the ship’s position. Within minutes, the first torpedo slammed into Helena and blew off her bow.
“As soon as that first torpedo hit, the ship began shuddering, and it felt like someone had thrown on the brakes,” says Biernacki. “We couldn’t move through the water without a bow.”
Two more torpedoes followed, striking Helena amidships in nearly the same place it had been hit at Pearl Harbor. Biernacki was thrown to his knees inside the gun mount.
“The lights went out and I heard the gun captain yell, ‘Get the hell out of here!’ I scrambled out of the gun mount, and the ship twisted and began to fold. I was still crawling and could feel the teak deck boards bouncing and chattering like slats on an orange crate. I reached up where life jackets should be hanging, and that wall was gone. That’s when I felt water rising up around me.
“All sorts of things raced through my mind. I remembered someone once telling me to swim away from a sinking ship so when it goes down, the suction doesn’t take you with it, and that’s what I did. Then for some reason I wondered where my wrist watch was. And I remember thinking, ‘Jeez, I wish I had been a better son.’
“I didn’t have a life jacket, so I kicked off my shoes and kept swimming. I had on white socks, and all I could think was that kicking with white socks must look like a lure to sharks. So I kicked off the socks and swam further.
“When I looked toward our ship, I saw its silhouette in the dark night, folding in the middle like a jackknife and slowly going under.
“About then I could see the outline of a ship near me, and I swam toward it,” Biernacki says. “I wasn’t sure if it was ours or theirs … When I got closer I realized it was the destroyer USS Radford, and guys were climbing from the water up cargo nets.
“Man, I thought I was rescued and swam a little faster. But when I got within 10 feet, the ship raced off to rejoin the battle, and I was still in the water, covered with heavy oil that was floating everywhere.
“As if by the grace of God I found a Mae West floating by and grabbed it. Then I saw a pneumatic life jacket that inflates with a CO2 bottle, but the bottle was missing. I managed to pull it over my head and blew to pump it up.”
About that time Biernacki came across a raft with a few sailors in it and more hanging on to the sides.
“The wounded were inside, and others held on from the water,” he says. “I was so tired that when I got close to the raft, I could barely get my arms inside the rope that was looped around it. So there I was, hanging on with both my arms inside that rope.”
After being in the water for about an hour, Biernacki saw another ship. He left the raft, swam over to the USS Nicholas, and climbed up a cargo net onto the deck of the American destroyer.
“The battle was still going on,” Biernacki says, “so after picking up survivors, the Nicholas returned to the fight. I huddled under torpedo tubes on the deck, and the crew fired torpedoes right over me.”
The Helena was the only American ship sunk at the Battle of Kula Gulf, while the Japanese lost two and saw five others damaged. The Tokyo Express was turned away after landing only a third of the troops it had brought.
One of the Japanese ships damaged at the Battle of Kula Gulf was a destroyer called the Amagiri. Just 27 days later in Blackett Strait south of Kolombangara, it sliced in half PT 109, commanded by Lt. John F. Kennedy.
In all, 168 of the Helena’s crew of roughly 1,000 were lost in the Battle of Kula Gulf.
Ski Biernacki was one of more than 600 crew members rescued by the Radford and the Nicholas. The next day 88 more men were saved after their rafts made it to a small island off New Georgia.
The most harrowing tale is that of 161 Helena crew members who waited 10 days for rescue after first clinging to the Helena’s floating bow. A Navy plane dropped life jackets and rafts to the men before the bow finally sank. Over three days, wind and currents carried the group northeast toward the Japanese-held island of Vella Lavella. A number of the weak and wounded perished on the journey, often slipping quietly away during the night.
After reaching the island, the survivors were cared for by two Australian coast watchers and natives loyal to the Americans. On July 16, they were saved in an elaborate rescue involving 10 U.S. Navy vessels.
A break from war
The Nicholas delivered Ski Biernacki and the other survivors it had picked up to the American base on Tulagi.
“We were covered in sticky oil,” Biernacki says. “We washed most of it off with diesel, then took long showers. The guys on the Nicholas gave us some of their clothes to wear.
“A bunch of magazine articles were done on the survivors of Kula Gulf. One showed a picture of all these ships standing by in Tulagi, giving us a salute. A picture in The Saturday Evening Post showed the Nicholas unloading wounded Helena sailors. I’m in that picture, holding a stretcher.”
From Pearl Harbor to Kula Gulf, Helena and her crew engaged 56 enemy ships and helped sink 14 and damage 22 more. Her crew members were awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with seven battle stars. In 1944 the Helena was the first recipient of the Navy Unit Commendation.
“Her brave record of combat achievement,” the citation concludes, “is evidence of the Helena’s intrepidity and the heroic fighting spirit of her officers and men.”
Biernacki returned to New Bedford on a leave and shared his exploits with family and friends. “I was kind of a big hero when I got home.”
He learned that his father, whom he had not seen since he was 16, had died while he was away.
After the war, Biernacki remained in the Navy and served on ships sent to places as varied as Guam, China and Pakistan. Aboard the USS Yancey, he accompanied Admiral Byrd’s 1946-’47 expedition to the Antarctic. Twenty years after joining the Navy at 18, Biernacki retired as a Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class.
Biernacki married, then became a father to sons John and Mark. John, now deceased, spent six years in the Navy and Mark served 20 years in the Air Force. Of Ski’s six grandchildren, two have served in the Air Force, and he also has five great-grandchildren.
Biernacki left the Bay Area in 1970 and bought and operated the Buggy Wheel in Jamestown until a heart attack in 1979 convinced him to retire for good. He traveled extensively, “living the good life of a retiree” with Ellie, his partner of 47 years, whom he refers to as “the best thing that ever happened to me.” She died in April at 102.
Biernacki belongs to the local and the national organizations for Pearl Harbor survivors and the Guadalcanal Campaign Veterans Association – groups whose ranks are rapidly diminishing.
“It’s an honor to be one of the few Pearl Harbor guys still alive. And I know my children are proud of me,” he says. “But hell, all the guys in my unit are gone.”
Of the 84,000 service personnel who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, estimates of the number still living range from 1,000 to 2,500.
Biernacki has never returned to Pearl Harbor.
“At first I didn’t want to go, didn’t want to have anything to do with the place,” he says. “Later, I just didn’t have the chance. Now I think I’d like to go back for one of the anniversaries and see all the places in my memory.
“I hold no grudges against the people of Japan. I joined the service for my country,” he says. “Never had a second thought about serving. Oh, I wish World War II hadn’t happened. I lost a lot of friends during those years. But I’m glad I had the experience. It’s something I cherish. I’d do it all over again.”
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