In 1828, the two Helms brothers received a land grant for a homestead in Henry County. They packed their belongings, hitched up an old blind mule, loaded the kids into a wagon (both had lost their wives) and began the arduous journey from the Carolinas to their new habitat. Once settled, they built a log cabin and worked the land. In 1870, their farm was incorporated into a new county called Rockdale. Helms descendants have settled in Rockdale ever since.
One descendant, Jack Wilson Helms, and his future wife Dorothy Virginia Smith, were born in Atlanta. Dorothy recently sat down with me to describe her husband’s story and his service in World War II.
“Jack was 11 years old when his mom died and moved away. He moved back right down the street from me in 1940. We both had sparks in our eyes because we wed on April 10, 1941.”
Emotionally recalling Pearl Harbor, Dorothy said, “We knew war had started, but our big concern was Jack’s older brother Brian.”
Brian Helms’ ship, the USS Vestal, was moored alongside the doomed battleship USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941. When Arizona blew apart, the explosion cleared the deck on the Vestal. The Arizona took 1,177 sailors and Marines down with her, but miraculously only seven sailors aboard the Vestal were lost.
The family spent the night without news of his whereabouts. “Brian finally called his dad. He was safe. He’d spent the night with friends on shore,” Dorothy said.
Dorothy’s husband Jack, joined the Navy on May 18, 1942. He trained as a Naval Quartermaster, or the person responsible for the ship’s navigation and maintenance of nautical charts and maps, in Miami. He also boxed for the Navy. Eventually transferred to the Atlanta Naval Air Station (now Peachtree-DeKalb Airport) for short-term duty, he waited for completion of his assigned ship: sub-chaser 1031, or SC1031.
Called the “splinter fleet” because of their wooden hulls, the tiny sub-chasers had a crew of about 25. Loaded with detection and ranging equipment, the standard armament was duel-purpose 40mm guns, three 20mm guns and depth charges.
Dorothy said, “We liked the Atlanta Naval Air Station but we knew he’d be going to war soon.”
Commissioned in New Orleans on Feb. 4, 1943, the SC1031 cruised through the Panama Canal and up to Alaska to support the retaking of Japanese-occupied Attu and Kiska Islands in the Aleutians.
“Jack almost froze to death in the Aleutians,” Dorothy said. “One sailor got so depressed, he tried to jump overboard but Jack saved him. Later, Jack was nearly washed overboard in rough seas and somebody saved him.”
May 11, 1943: Allied forces land on Attu, the western most Aleutian island. The hostile weather, terrain and fanatic Japanese took their toll on American forces. In desperation, the Japanese executed one of the largest suicidal “banzai” charges of the war. Hand to hand fighting ensued. When fighting ceased, 580 allied men were dead and hundreds more wounded or victims of the weather. The Japanese lost 2,351 men with hundreds missing. Only 28 enemy soldiers were captured.
Dorothy said, “When Jack went ashore, he saw hundreds of bodies stacked up like cords of woods.”
Aug. 15, 1943: 35,000 allied soldiers landed on Kiska Island to fight a phantom army. Under the cover of fog, the Japanese had evacuated their soldiers on July 28. Nevertheless, the allies suffered more than 300 casualties from disease, frostbite, booby traps and friendly fire.
Jack Helms and SC1031 left the hell of Alaska and sailed south into the hell of the Pacific. But Jack did visit with his brother Brian, during a layover at Pearl Harbor.
Dorothy said, “Brian was Jack’s senior by 12 years. They hadn’t seen each other for years. Jack went aboard Brian’s new ship, an escort carrier, to meet with him. Well, Brian had no idea who Jack was and requested to see his ID Jack showed his ID, then they had one heck of a good time together.”
Dorothy said during the interview that Brian’s escort carrier was sunk during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Two were sunk during the battle, the Gambier Bay and the St. Lo. Brian, however, was rescued and survived the war.
Jack Helms and SC1031 sailed into a hotbed of activity, too. The SC1031 played a part in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands Campaigns. The Gilbert Islands were the first targets with bloody battles on Tarawa and Makin. The Marshalls were next. Fierce combat occurred on land, in the air and on the sea around atolls or islands with names like Kwajalein, Majuro, Enewetak, Mili and Utirik.
Islands in the middle of nowhere; fought for and paid for by the blood of young men who couldn’t even pronounce the names.
SC1031’s war record is lost to history. Her assignments placed the ship in harm’s way throughout the war, yet like so many other vessels and airplanes and fallen warriors, too much has been misplaced or lost concerning their service and may never again be recovered.
After the war, Jack Helms joined Helms Brothers Construction Company. In 1971, he and Dorothy bought an old farm and moved to Rockdale County.
Dorothy said, “He wanted to raise Black Angus cows but I don’t know why. He treated them like pets. They were the most spoiled cows in Rockdale County.”
Their homestead is on Underwood Road next to Salem High School.
Jack Helms departed this world on Feb. 6, 1998.
Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.