The "gunboat" has been a part of naval warfare for centuries and was still a supported ship type by the United States Navy (USN) at the turn of the last century. USS Helena (PG-9) represented the second of two boats of the Wilmington-class laid down for the role. Her keel was begun on October 10th, 1894 by Newport News Shipbuilding company at Newport News, Virginia and she was launched to sea on January 30th, 1896. The vessel was formally commissioned on July 8th, 1897 and went on to serve into the early part of the 1930s.
Gunboats were built for speed and agility, called upon to use their firepower to assail targets along the shoreline. As such, they were relatively dimensionally compact with shallow draughts and slim beams. USS Helena displaced 1,410 tons (short) and had a length of 250.8 feet with a beam of 40.10 feet and a draught of 9 feet. Power was from a pair of vertical triple-expansion reciprocating (piston) engines driving two shafts under stern. The boat could make headway at about 13 knots and range out to 2,200 nautical miles in ideal conditions.
The ships profile was conventional: the deck line was raised at the bow and stepped at the stern. The bridge superstructure took its usual place aft of the forecastle and a single, high-reaching smoke funnel was identified. Aboard was a crew complement of 175 personnel. Armament centered on 4 x 4" (100mm) /40 caliber guns backed by 4 x 11-pounder cannons and there was a single 3" (76mm) gun carried along with 4 x 3-pounder guns.
Having entered service, Helena was assigned to the North Atlantic Fleet to protect American interests abroad. On April 21st, 1898, the Spanish-American War broke out following the explosion of USS Maine in Havana Harbor during the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898). USS Helena remained on station in Cuban waters and used her guns in anger when called upon. The war ended as an American victory on August 13th, 1898 with Spain giving up ownership of Cuba.
The Philippine-American War then followed on February 4th, 1899. Helena journeyed from Boston waters across the Atlantic through the Suez Canal to reach the Philippines. Once there she participated in support of American ground actions by provided various bombardments of shoreline positions. Hostilities ended on July 2nd, 1902 with an American victory (and subsequent occupation) and the dissolution of the First Philippine Republic.
After her fighting days were over, she was retained in Far East waters to serve American interests there. On April 19th, 1905, she was officially placed out of commission only to be recommissioned on July 16th of the following year. While active during the World War 1 (1914-1918) period, USS Helena did not see combat. She continued to serve in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater until May of 1932. Once again the warship was decommissioned but this time had her name struck from the Naval Register. Stripped of her war-making capabilities, USS Helena was sold off on July 7th, 1934 bringing about a formal end to her sailing career.
During her time in service, the gunboat was awarded with the Sampson, Spanish Campaign, Philippine Campaign, Victory and Yangtze Service medals.