The second Helena (CL-50), was launched 27 August 1939 by the New York Navy Yard; sponsored by Miss Elinor Carlyle Gudger, granddaughter of Senator Thomas J. Welch of Montana; and commissioned 18 September 1939, Captain Max B. Demott in command.
By midnight 5 July, 1943, Helena's group was off the northwest corner of New Georgia, three cruisers and four destroyers composing the group. Racing down to face them were three groups of Japanese destroyers, a total of ten enemy ships. Four of them peeled off to accomplish their mission of landing troops. By 0157 Helena began blasting away with a fire so rapid and intense that the Japanese later announced in all solemnity that she must have been armed with 6-inch machine guns. Ironically, Helena made a perfect target when lit by the flashes of her own guns. Seven minutes after she opened fire, she was hit by a torpedo; within the next 3 minutes, she was struck by two more. Almost at once she began to jackknife. Below, she was flooding rapidly even before she broke up. In a well-drilled manner, Helena's men went over the side.
Helena's history closes with the almost incredible story of what happened to her men in the hours and days that followed. When her bow rose into the air after the sinking, many of them clustered around it, only to be fired on there. About a half hour after she sank, two American destroyers came to the rescue.
At daylight, the enemy was in range once more, and again the destroyers, Nicholas (DD-449) and Radford (DD-446), broke off their rescue operations to pursue. Anticipating an air attack, the destroyers withdrew for Tulagi, carrying with them all but about 275 of the survivors. To those who remained they left four boats, manned by volunteers from the destroyers' crews. Captain C. P. Cecil, Helena's commanding officer, organized a small flotilla of three motor whaleboats, each towing a liferaft, carrying 88 men to a small island about 7 miles from Rice Anchorage after a laborious all-day passage. This group was rescued the next morning by Owin (DD-433) and Woodworth (DD-460).
For the second group of nearly 200, the bow of Helena was their liferaft, but it was slowly sinking. Disaster was staved off by a Navy Liberator that dropped lifejackets and four rubber lifeboats. The wounded were placed aboard the lifeboats, while the able-bodied surrounded the boats and did their best to propel themselves toward nearby Kolombaranga. But wind and current carried them ever further into enemy waters. Through the torturous day that followed, many of the wounded died. American search planes missed the tragic little fleet, and Kolombaranga gradually faded away to leeward. Another night passed, and in the morning the island of Vella Lavella loomed ahead. It seemed the last chance for Helena's men and so they headed for it. By dawn, survivors in all three remaining boats observed land a mile distant and all who were left were safely landed. Two coastwatchers and loyal natives cared for the survivors as best they could, and radioed news of them to Guadalcanal. The 165 sailors then took to the jungle to evade Japanese patrols.
Surface vessels were chosen for the final rescue, Nicholas and Radford, augmented by Jenkins (DD-447) and O'Bannon (DD-450) set off 15 July 1943 to sail further up the Slot than ever before, screening the movement of two destroyer-transports and four other destroyers. During the night of 16 July, the rescue force brought out the 165 Helena men, along with 16 Chinese who had been in hiding on the island. Of Helena's nearly 900 men, 168 had perished.
Helena was the first ship to receive the Navy Unit Commendation. Her actions in the Battles of Cape Esperance, Guadalcanal, and Kula Gulf were named in the citation. Helena also earned the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign medal with seven stars.