Helman named October Vet of the Month

RAPID RIVER – World War II veteran Donald David Helman will be honored during a Veteran of the Month ceremony Tuesday at the Walter W. Cole American Legion Post 301 of Rapid River.

Patterned after a national program established by the American Legion, a new Veteran of the Month is honored each month in a formal service at the Legion. The program will begin at 7:15 p.m.

Born July 13, 1925, in Gladstone, Helman is the son of Charles and Johanna (Herrgaard) Helman. Because he was born into a Swedish family and was unable to speak English, his entry into kindergarten was delayed. He attended school through the ninth grade. When he turned 18, instead of entering his sophomore year, Helman entered the Navy on July 8, 1943, and underwent basic training at Great Lakes, Ill. He had originally volunteered for submarine service, but was later informed he was to serve aboard USS Pennsylvania in the Pacific Theater.

His primary job was to serve as a member of a crew manning a “quad forty” anti-aircraft gun and became familiar with other anti-aircraft weapons. After arriving in Hawaii, Helman underwent intensive training and later participated in the assault on the Gilbert Islands, the nation’s first offensive against Japan in the central Pacific. The Pennsylvania’s main job in the Gilberts was to provide support for the invasion of Makin Island.

On Jan. 31, 1944, the Pennsylvania opened fire on Kwajalein Island. The island was captured and was to become a major air base from which American plane would fly to bomb Japan. While onboard the Pennsylvania, Helman avoided a major disaster during a transfer of black powder from a supply ship. The powder exploded, killing four crewman. Helman was badly shaken but uninjured.

The Pennsylvania and its crew later provided fire support for the invasion of Eniwetok Island, the westernmost of the Marshall Islands. At the conclusion of this campaign, the ship and crew had to deal with a lull of almost four months while anchored in Efate in the New Hebrides before sailing to Sydney, Australia.

Helman and his crew were later involved in the Marianas Islands campaign and conquering the Japanese-held islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, providing anti-aircraft support the troops who landed on the islands. After leaving the Marianas on Aug. 3, 1944, the Pennsylvania returned to Eniwetok where its ammunition supply was replenished and then joined up with the Palau Bombardment and Fire Support Group. The mission was to remove a Japanese threat to the American plan to recapture the Philippine Islands. The campaign was divided into two parts – the Leyte Operation and the Luzon Operation. The Pennsylvania was involved in both operations.

During the Leyte Operation, the Pennsylvania was subjected to the first organized kamikaze attacks by the Japanese and participated in surface engagement with Japanese ships. It was the longest, continuous operation of the war for the ship’s crew.

Pennsylvania left Leyte Gulf on Nov. 25, 1944, and the while the crew anticipated returning to the United States for an overhaul of the ship, they were told to get ready for another amphibious operation – this time the Luzon Operation, which proved to be less intense than their first operation.

Upon Pennsylvania’s return to the U.S., it first stopped at Pearl Harbor and later sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco on March 15, 1945.

But the crew’s mission was not over. Four months later, the ship returned to Pearl Harbor on July 12, 1945 and then headed west towards Saipan. En-route, the Pennsylvania bombarded Japanese-held Wake Islands for six hours and later continued on to Okinawa, arriving on Aug. 12, 1945, three days before the end of the war.

But not soon enough. The evening of its arrival on Okinawa, a Japanese plane launched a lone torpedo that hit Pennsylvania on the starboard side and did extensive damage. Twenty members of the crew were killed and the ship settled heavily by the stern. The following night, Pennsylvania saw her last action of the war when a kamikaze sank a supply ship about 1,000 yards off its starboard beam. Pennsylvania responded with anti-aircraft fire.

On the morning of Aug. 15, 1945, the captain of the Pennsylvania informed the crew that the war was over and the ship was towed to Guam. After undergoing initial repairs, it arrived into Puget Sound in Washington State on Oct. 24, 1945.

For his military service, Helman was awarded the U.S. Victory Ribbon, Asiatic Pacific Medal with six Battle Stars, the Philippine Liberation Medal with two Battle Stars, and Unit Commendation.

After his discharge from the military on Feb. 23, 1946, Helman worked as a laborer at the Harnischfeger Corporation in Escanaba for 30 years before retiring when the plant closed in 1982.

The veteran married the former Jean Popco at the Zion Lutheran Church in Mercer, Wis., on Sept. 25, 1954. The couple made their home in Gladstone along with their nine children, David, Pamela, Mary Anne, Danny, Laurie, Tina, Joe, Chuck and Debbie.

Helman died on Feb. 12, 2012, while a resident of the Pinecrest Medical Care Facility in Powers and is buried at the Gardens of Rest Cemetery. In addition to his wife and children, he was survived by numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.