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Sunk in Kula Gulf

Copyright 2017 John J. Domagalski
Praise for Sunk In Kula Gulf

Sunk in Kula Gulf is a thrilling account of one of World War II’s most dramatic episodes.”
—Alex Kershaw, author of The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau

“The greatest true story never told of World War II. A vivid, powerful drama of naval combat, sacrifice, survival, and rescue in the Pacific, Sunk in Kula Gulf is in the capable hands of skilled researcher and master storyteller John Domagalski.”
—Bruce Henderson, author of Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War

Heroism and Survival at Sea

The early morning hours of July 6, 1943, found the USS Helena off the Solomon Islands in what would later be known as the Battle of Kula Gulf. But the ship’s participation in the battle came to a swift end when three Japanese torpedoes suddenly struck. One hundred and sixty-eight sailors went down with the ship, many never surviving the initial torpedo hits. As the last of the Helena disappeared below the ocean’s surface, the remaining crewmen’s struggle for survival had only just begun.

Sunk in Kula Gulf tells the epic story of the Helena’s survivors. Two destroyers plucked more than seven hundred from the sea in a night rescue operation as the battle continued to rage. A second group of eighty-eight sailors —clustered into three lifeboats—made it to a nearby island and was rescued the next day. A third group of survivors, spread over a wide area, was missed entirely. Clinging to life rafts or debris, the weary men were pushed away from the area of the sinking by a strong current. After enduring days at sea under the hot tropical sun, they finally found land. It was, however, the Japanese-held island of Vella Lavella and deep behind the front lines. The survi¬vors organized and disappeared into the island’s interior jungle. Living a meager existence, the group evaded the Japanese for eight days until the U.S. Navy evacuated the shipwrecked sailors in a daring rescue operation. Using a wide variety of sources, including previously unpublished firsthand accounts, John J. Domagalski brings to life this amazing, little-known story from World War II.


Weary Helena Survivors Find Land after Ordeal at Sea
July 8, 1943 - South Pacific

[The sinking of the light cruiser Helena during the Battle of Kula Gulf on July 6, 1943 marked the beginning of an epic struggle for survival by a group of her sailors. Surviving the sinking, but missed in the rescue operation, almost 200 sailors found themselves adrift at sea in Japanese-held waters. The weary survivors eventually found land.]

After arriving on the beach, several of the men in Bin Cochran’s group worked together to pull their raft ashore. With everyone safely on dry land the attention turned to sleep. “Every individual looked for a dry spot to get precious sleep that had been impossible for three to four days,” Cochran later recalled. He soon found a small patch of tall grass that offered some protection and appeared to be just high enough above sea level so that he would not get wet. He quickly collapsed and fell asleep.

The sound of voices woke Cochran early the next morning. He did not know where he was other than on an island somewhere in the Solomon chain. “I noticed that we had landed at the mouth of a little shallow bay, no more than a hundred yards deep and thirty yards wide,” he later wrote. A few men from his raft were frolicking around in the shallow water. Given that there was no gunfire, it appeared there were no Japanese in the immediate area. 

Looking over to the other side of the bay, Cochran noticed several men talking with a young native boy. He thought the islander was about twelve years old. Joining the group, Cochran soon found that the boy could not speak English but was trying to communicate. The boy pointed in one direction and said, “Japs.” He then pointed to the opposite side of the island and said, “Mericans.” The group of Helena sailors had no problem figuring out what it meant. They all pointed towards the “Mericans” side of the island. The boy motioned for the men to follow him in that direction. “Then we started single file following the boy along a path that paralleled the beach, but which was mostly in the trees,” Cochran continued. “The thirteen of us didn’t have any trouble keeping each other in sight.” The men later learned that it was a widely used trail. In addition to the natives, the path was also used by Japanese patrols and downed airmen. “Luckily, this day the trail was ours to use,” Cochran recalled.