S1c Kenneth Eugene Graff
Light Cruiser USS Helena CL50
KIA, Remains Not Recovered, 6 July, 1943, Kula Gulf, British Solomon Islands
Memorialized Manila American Cemetery and Leavenworth National Cemetery, Kansas
How did a farm boy from Cambridge, Nebraska meet my mom in Oakland, California? And in the process create me.
This is one of a multitude of questions that will never be answered, particularly as nobody ever told me that he was my father.
But thanks to numerous resources on the internet and my dad's records from the NPRC in St. Louis, I have gotten to know him. Credit for these discoveries also belongs to my daughter, Christine who has a knack for looking for things, and finding them, in places that never crossed my mind.
My dad was born in Farnum, Nebraska, on 9 April 1920. His sister, my Aunt Elaine, was born in the same area in March, 1914.
Their parents and my grandparents were Harry August Graff and Floy Baker Graff. My grandfather died in 1940 in Cambridge, Nebraska and my grandmother in 1979 in Belleville, Kansas. Aunt Elaine died in 1997 in Belleville, Kansas. She and her husband never had children.
Prior to moving to Cambridge, my dad's family lived in Orofino, Nebraska and both he and my aunt attended Orofino Country School. One precious discovery on the internet was a school picture taken in 1927, and fortunately someone wrote a legend to go with the picture. Both my dad and aunt are there.
During the mid-1930s the family moved again, this time to Cambridge. My dad graduated from Cambridge High School in 1939, with 39 seniors in the class. He was a year older than most of his classmates because he spent at least one year in the CCC.
His entry into the US Navy took place in June 1940. Following his basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Facility, he was assigned to the USS Oklahoma in September, 1940.
My dad is a Pearl Harbor Survivor, having been there during the Jap surprise attack on 7 December 1941. He was one of about 80 men from the USS Oklahoma who were transferred to the USS Helena on 24 December 1941.
The Helena had been damaged during the attack, but repairs by early January 1942 allowed the ship to set sail for Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California. Mare Island is roughly 25 miles north of Oakland, where my mom was living with her parents.
This is the point where the question raised in the first paragraph arises. The Helena was at Mare Island until mid-July 1942 when it set sail first to Long Beach, California, and then headed to the South Pacific.
I have not been able to determine what my dad's duties and battle station on the ship were. As you might expect, learning that he is my father at age 70 has created a few obstacles. Most significant is that most of the officers and crew of the USS Helena have died, and the few remaining ones do not remember him.
The 1200 enlisted men and officers on the USS Helena participated in twelve naval engagements while in the area of Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands. Additionally, the ship was subjected to 8-10 submarine attacks and participated in rescue operations when the USS Wasp was torpedoed and sunk.
An interesting coincidence is that my mom's brother was on Guadalcanal with the Americal Division at the same time my dad was on the USS Helena.
The fateful Battle of Kula Gulf the early morning hours of 6 July 1943 resulted in the Helena being hit by three torpedoes launched by Jap destroyers.
The ship sunk 20 minutes after the last torpedo hit. My dad was one of 168 members of that ship who did not survive. There is no way for me to know exactly how he died, but of the three options available to me, the most likely is an instantaneous death from a torpedo hit.
Once I learned who my dad is, Chris and I started searching the net for information. We learned that he is listed on the Tablet of the Missing at the American Manila Cemetery.
In April of 2013, the staff at Leavenworth National Cemetery accepted my request to have a Memorial Marker for my dad placed there.
Memorial Day weekend, 2013, was the most emotional of my life. I was able to touch and feel my dad's marker. As the tears flowed, we had a conversation.
That he was now close to the home where his mom and sister had lived much of their lives.
That I missed never having had the chance to know him, and him me.
That I hoped he enjoyed the time when the USS Helena was in Sydney for three weeks in March 1943.
That I treasure his serving his country willingly and paying the ultimate sacrifice for that service.
That I am thankful for the gracious assistance provided by libraries and museums in Cambridge and Belleville.
Dad, without their help I never would have had a picture of you. Three precious pictures.
You would be proud of my wife Cecilia, your grandchildren and great-grandchildren and we wish that you were here with us.
As that is not possible, we look forward to the time when we meet each other for the first time.
As your fellow USS Helena crew members say . . .
Fair Winds and Following Seas
– Doug Graff Comella –