The Sub Chasers were the smallest commissioned ships in the U.S. Navy during World War II. The tiny 110-foot vessels cruised at 12 knots with a flank speed of less than 20 knots. Nicknamed the “Splinter Fleet” because of their wooden-hulled ships, a crew of three officers and 24 enlisted men sailed the oceans searching for the enemy. Normally armed with a single Bofors 40mm gun and two twin 20mm guns for protection, the crew dropped depth charges or utilized a forward firing rocket gizmo fittingly called a Mousetrap Rack against enemy submarines. Jack Helms served aboard SC-1031, and this is his story.
The two Helms brothers, both widowers, received a land grant for farm acreage in Henry County in 1828. They packed belongings, hitched up an old blind mule, loaded the kids into a wagon, then began a rough journey from the Carolinas to their new home. Once settled, they built a log cabin and worked the land. By 1870 their farm was incorporated into a new county called Rockdale. Descendants have lived in Rockdale ever since.
One descendant, Jack Helms, and his future wife, Dorothy Smith, were born in Atlanta. Dorothy recalled, “Jack’s mom died when he was just 11 years old. He moved away for a short time then moved right back down the street from me in 1940. We had sparks in our eyes because on April 10, 1941, we tied the knot.” Emotionally recalling Pearl Harbor, Dorothy said, “We knew a war had started, but our major concern was Jack’s older brother, Brian.”
Brian’s ship, USS Vestal, was moored alongside the doomed battleship USS Arizona. When Arizona blew apart, the explosion cleared the deck on the Vestal. The Arizona lost 1,177 sailors and Marines but incredibly only seven sailors aboard the Vestal were lost. “Brian finally called his dad,” Dorothy said. “He’d spent the night with friends on shore. Brian was safe.”
Dorothy’s husband, Jack, joined the Navy on May 18, 1942. Trained in Miami as a naval quartermaster, his responsibilities included the care and maintenance of nautical charts and maps. Eventually transferred to the Atlanta Naval Air Station (Peachtree-DeKalb Airport) for short-term duty, he awaited the completion of his assigned ship: sub-chaser 1031, or SC-1031.
“We liked the Atlanta Naval Air Station, but we knew he’d be going to war soon,” Dorothy said. Commissioned in New Orleans on Feb. 4, 1943, the SC-1031 traversed the Panama Canal then sailed up to Alaska and supported the retaking of Japanese-occupied Attu and Kiska Islands in the Aleutians.
“Jack said he 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 the western-most Aleutian island of Attu. 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 WWII. When the guns fell silent and the hand-to-hand fighting was over, 580 men were dead and hundreds more wounded or victims of the weather. Japanese losses: 2,351 dead and hundreds missing. Only 28 enemy soldiers were captured.
“Jack said when he went ashore there were hundreds of bodies stacked up like cords of woods,” Dorothy said. Ships, big or small, suffered from the inclement weather. Footing was hazardous; men succumbed to frostbite; guns froze; equipment failed.
Aug. 15, 1943: 35,000 Allied soldiers landed on Kiska Island to fight a ghost army. Under the cover of fog, the Japanese had evacuated their soldiers on July 28. Nevertheless, the Allies suffered over 300 casualties from disease, frostbite, booby traps and “friendly” fire.
Jack Helms and SC-1031 left the hell of Alaska and sailed south into the hell of the Pacific. Jack visited with his brother, Brian, during a layover at Pearl Harbor. Dorothy said, “Brian was 12 years older than Jack and 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 I.D. Jack showed his I.D., then they had one heck of a good time together.” Brian’s new escort carrier was sunk in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Two were sunk during the battle, the St. Lo and Gambier Bay. Brian, however, was rescued and survived the war.
Helms and SC-1031 also sailed into a hothouse of activity, the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaigns. The Gilbert Islands were first, including the gruesome battles on Tarawa and Makin. The Marshalls were next. Fierce combat occurred on land, air, and sea around islands or pint-size atolls with names like Kwajalein, Majuro, Enewetak and Utirik. These tiny specks on a world map in the middle of nowhere were fought and paid for by the blood of young men that couldn’t even pronounce their odd-sounding names.
SC-1031’s war record is lost to history. Her assignments placed the ship in Harm’s Way throughout the war, yet like so many vessels and planes and fallen warriors in WWII, their archives and journals and diaries have been misplaced or lost concerning their service and may never again be recovered. Naval records indicate that SC-1031 was turned over to the Soviet Union near the end of the war, but her fate is still unknown.
After the war Helms went to work for the family business, Helms Brothers Construction Company. In 1971 he and Dorothy purchased an old farm in Rockdale County. Dorothy said, “We moved in and Jack raised black Angus cows, but I don’t know why. He pampered them like pets. They were the most spoiled cows in Rockdale County.”
Jack Helms departed this world on Feb. 6, 1998.