Never forget: USS Helena survivor remembers his experience

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- In April, 3,000 feet underwater on the bottom of the South Pacific, a team led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen found the wreck of the USS Helena in the Pacific, almost 75 years after it was sunk by Japanese torpedoes.

The St. Louis cruiser was sunk by three Japanese torpedoes during the Battle of Kula Gulf in July 1943. In all, more than 730 of the Helena's crew of 900 survived the sinking.

Newsreels immortalized those who were pulled from the water by a pair of navy destroyers, but a few are alive this Memorial Day to tell the story of their World War II experience.

"It's a surprise. We'd been so lucky and we were in formation," Helena survivor Edward DeJon said.

DeJon is now 99 years old, but in 1943 he served as a Navy Lt. commander assigned to the Helena on the night of the July 6 attack.

"We were in a formation, and moving slow, which troubled me," DeJon recalled. "Three torpedoes hit us. One hit forward, which tore the bow off the ship, and dropped our number one turret to the bottom of the sea."

The attacked happened quickly, according to DeJon. The abandoned ship order was given, so the team raided what rafts they could while others jumped into the water, which was covered with fuel and oil.

Pictures taken later showed DeJon and the crew coated in residue.

"There were sharks, but they didn't get them because of all the fuel and oil on the water," DeJon said.

His eyes were damaged when he swam to a rescue ship nearby, and as a result, now suffers with eye issues.

DeJon was awarded many medals for his service in the Pacific Theater.

"I really don't like to talk about this because I lost people in my unit," DeJon said. "I do remember contacting every one of those families who lost people, and that's the worst thing you can do because they look at you and say, 'Why him and not my John.'"

After the horrific attack, DeJon said he returned to his newlywed wife, and had a successful engineering and business career.

He is one of the few Helena survivors still living. He says war touched him, but didn't destroy his compassion.

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