You can say that gunboats were the original littoral combat ship. They were built for speed and agility and were relatively well-armed. They were compact, with
shallow droughts and narrow beams, thus allowing them to come close to coastlines or navigate rivers and when called upon they could use their firepower on targets
along a shoreline to support troop landings.

USS Helena (PG-9) was the second of two Wilmington-class gunboats. Her keel was laid down on October 10, 1894 by Newport News Shipbuilding company at
Newport News, Virginia and launched on January 30, 1896. She was formally commissioned on July 8, 1897 at the New York Navy Yard (aka Brooklyn Navy Yard).
USS Helena displaced 1,410 tons 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.

She was a good-looking ship, with her deck line raised at the bow and stepped at the stern. The bridge superstructure had a tall conning tower, which allowed for a
sightline above the shoreline and river banks. Helena also had a distinctive tall and narrow funnel. She carried a complement of 175 personnel and according to
contemporary accounts, she was a comfortable ship.
Helena had roomy and well-ventilated quarters, with a berthing capacity for more than her crew. She could
accommodate large landing parties and refugees, such as missionaries, if needed. Her main armament consisted of four 4-inch/40 caliber guns in single mounts, two
forward and two aft. She also had four 6-pounder and two 3-pounder cannons in casemates along the hull. A pair of 1-pounder single mounts were on the deck on
either side of the bridge.
After her commissioning, Helena was assigned to the North Atlantic Fleet to protect American interests abroad. When the Spanish-American War broke out on April
21, 1898,
Helena remained on station in Cuban waters where she saw action several times. On July 2 and 3 1898, she exchanged fire with enemy batteries at Fort
Tunas. On July 18, she was part of the squadron that closed the port of Manzanillo, sinking or destroying eight small vessels.

After the Spanish-American War, the United States was faced with a rebellion in the Philippines. The Philippine-American War began on February 4, 1899. To aid in
suppressing this rebellion,
Helena sailed from Boston on November 3, 1898 across the Atlantic through the Suez Canal arriving at the Philippines on February 10,
1899. Once there she participated in support of American ground actions by providing bombardments of various shoreline positions. On May 21 1899, she
participated in the evacuation of Spaniards from Jolo island and the landing of American troops to replace them. During June, she was stationed with other vessels in
Manila Bay to support the Army during its offensive south of Manila into the Cavite Province. On June 13, one of her landing parties brought troops ashore in an
assault on the strong defenses along the Zapote River. On November 7,
Helena bombarded San Fabian in Lingayen Gulf, covering the landing of 2,500 troops there.
Hostilities ended on July 2, 1902 with an American victory and occupation and the dissolution of the First Philippine Republic.

Helena remained in the Far East for the rest of her naval service, engaged in protecting American lives and interests there. She served in Chinese waters in support
of Yangtze River patrols from October 1900 to December 1902, where she participated in the quelling of the Boxer Rebellion. She returned to the Philippines,
remaining there until March 1903, when she returned to China. In December 1904, she returned to Cavite in the Philippines, where she was decommissioned on April
19, 1905.
Helena was recommissioned on July 16, 1906, serving on the Asiatic Station until June 1907. From then on, Helena served both with the South China
patrol and the Yangtze River Patrol until May 27, 1932, when she was decommissioned and struck from the Naval Vessel Register. She was sold for scrap on July 7,
1934.
The Kit - Combrig’s kit of USS Helena is one their older offerings and as of this writing, the only 1:350 scale U.S. Navy ship in their catalog. The kit is comprised
of resin and photo-etch parts and depicts
Helena as she appeared as launched and in the early 1900s.

The model comes as a two-part hull giving you the option of either a waterline or full hull model. The upper hull casting is overall well done with a good amount of
detail, such as chocks and mooring bitts, hatch coamings, vents, skylights, companionway and portholes. Deck detail is also good, with the decks all having wood
planking, however without butt ends. The main deck has numerous engraved circles, which are the coal scuttles. There are also several locater holes for the cowl
vents, anchor booms, capstan and other deck fittings. There is scribed outlined spot which indicates where the bridge subassembly is supposed to go. The bulkhead
aft where the step down to the stern is bare but this will be addressed with photo-etch parts. The lower hull is good, with openings for the double rudders in the skeg
that need to be opened up by removing some resin film.

A thin resin casting wafer contains the forward deckhouse, bridge with deck, upper deck, searchlight platform, fighting tops and a skylight. The wood decks have
planking without butt ends. The deckhouse and bridge have recessed windows cast into them. The tall conning tower comes on a casting plug and also has recessed
windows. In an admittedly senior moment, I inexplicably did not include the funnel in any of the photos I took! You will have to take my word that it is also nicely
done, with a deep opening, good cap apron and base. A good part of the bottom fits into the opening in the hull and like the conning tower, it sits on a casting plug.
The steam pipe on the aft face must be made by the modeler using brass or plastic rod.
A total of 6 boats in three different types (3 cutters, 2 whaleboats and a steam launch) are provided. The cutters and whaleboats have thwarts and bottom planking
detail and the latter has rudders cast into the stern. The steam launch has the rudder and propeller skeg on the bottom and the funnel sitting next to it on the casting
runner.

The smaller resin parts include the bases for the 4-inch guns, barrels for all of the guns, propellers, propeller shafts and struts, rudders, anchors, cowl vents in several
sizes, searchlight, mast pole, capstan, parts for the windlass, binnacles, pedestals for the helms and sundry deck fittings. The parts are generally very well cast, need
little, if any, cleaning and must be carefully removed from the casting runners.

Combrig provides a small photo-etch brass fret of ship specific parts. The modeler will have to find another source for the railings. The brass parts include the bow
scroll-work, doors, stern bulkhead details, covers for the conning tower and bridge windows, frames for some of the hull portholes, 4-inch gun shields and braces,
platform support gussets, mounts and shields for the 1-pounder deck guns, boat cradles, inclined ladders, accommodation ladders, funnel cap grill, ship wheels,
forward and aft anchor booms, anchor chain, guns for the fighting top, boat davits, life rings and stowage racks and numerous smaller fittings and detail parts. The
photo-etch is rather basic and has no relief etching.
The instructions come on five pages, are in the older Combrig format. The first page has a small profile and half a plan drawing. The profile drawing does provide a
basic rigging diagram. The ship’s history is written in English but the statistics are in Cyrillic. Page two has the standard resin parts laydown with small image of the
photo-etch. Pages three through five have general assembly diagrams and all pages have smaller insets which focus on certain sub-assemblies and sections of the
ship. One inset has a template for cutting the mast, yard, boat boom and funnel steam pipe. Missing is an illustration of the fully assembled model which is something
that
Combrig has included in the instructions of their newer releases. Also, the instructions omit the placement of some of the photo-etch parts, like the covers for
the conning tower and bridge.

The Build - To build my Helena model, I printed a number of photos from Navsource.Org and the Library of Congress websites. These photos augmented the kit
instructions and helped with some of the details and rigging. The photos also showed me that the bridge and conning tower windows had covers, which in turn
explained what those parts were on the photo-etch fret.

My preference is to build models in a seascape base and I really like that
Combrig makes that choice easy by offering kits either as a waterline version or for smaller
subjects the option to do either as is the case with the
Helena. The resin parts were very cleanly cast and required little if any cleanup and then only along the bottom
where they were on the casting runners or the casting wafer. The resin parts all went together well without too much effort and I found the fit to be very good. The
openings along the deck to fit the parts such as the cowl vents, funnel and other fittings were helpful and perfectly sized.
The photo-etch parts are the real challenge with this build as there are a lot of small detail parts. I chose my battles carefully and did not use every single part. The
toughest and most tedious were the frames for the portholes along the hull. To make it easier to apply and center the opening properly over the porthole in the hull I
used good old white glue to attach them. The white glue gave me the time to align them and get a good enough bond. The coat of white paint would only strengthen
that bond. The covers for the bridge and conning tower windows were applied the same way.

As mentioned above, railings are not included with the kit but I was fortunate enough to have extras from some
Iron Shipwrights Spanish-American War era kits to
use on this model. I also opted to use the inclined ladders in some spots from the spare
ISW photo-etch frets as well as the boat tackle and pulleys for the boom. The
boat oars and coal scuttle hatches were from
White Ensign Model sets. Some of the much smaller photo-etch details, such as the braces at the base of the boat
davits, I left off for two reasons. First, I was afraid that I would get all but the last one attached and then lose it to the black hole under my work bench and second,
just plain laziness.

To paint the model, I used Valspar white primer from a rattle can and the last of my Floquil Depot Buff for the two main colors. The wood decks were painted with
Testors Model Masters Radome Tan and dry brushed with Burnt Sienna watercolor to add some variation. The lettering for the stern came from a MicroScale “N”
scale decal sheet but in hindsight I should have used a smaller lettering size. The flag came from Spanish-American War era decal sheet from
Iron Shipwrights. The
rigging was done with nitinol wire and
L’Arsenal crew figures were added to the deck. The seascape was done using acrylic gel medium, painted with a mix of
acrylic paints and sealed with two coats of Future floor wax (yes, I still have a large bottle of it).
I really like modeling ships from this era and I was excited to see Combrig release this kit. It builds into a beautiful model and is a unique subject. Being an older
release, there are some short comings in terms of the photo-etch and assembly instructions that have been addressed in newer releases. However, if you are a fan of
Spanish-American War era ships, don’t let these issues deter you from buying and building this kit. I purchased this model from
Free Time Hobbies, which is the
only source for
Combrig kits in the United States. I hope that Combrig will release other kits U.S. Navy ships from this era.
Felix Bustelo
New York
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