By Jim Christley, EMCS(SS), USN (ret.)
Editor’s note: The following blog first appeared on the Submarine Force Library & Museum website.
Long before seven submariners received the Medal of Honor in World War II for their the legendary bravery, an enlisted man, Torpedoman 2nd Class Henry Breault, distinguished himself as a hero of the Submarine Force. He is the only enlisted submariner to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions aboard a United States submarine.
On October 28, 1923, USS O-5 (SS-66) was operating with other units of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet under the command of Commander Submarine Force, Coco Solo, Canal Zone. At approximately 6:30 a.m., O-5, under the command of Lt. Harrison Avery, was underway leading a column of submarines consisting of O-5 (SS-66), O-3 (SS-64), O-6 (SS-67), and O-8 (SS-69) across Limon Bay toward the entrance to the Panama Canal. At the same time, the steamship SS Abangarez, owned by the United Fruit Company and captained by Master W.A. Card, was underway toward Dock No. 6 at Cristobal. Through a series of maneuvering errors and miscommunication, the SS Abangarez collided with the O-5 and struck the submarine on the starboard side of the control room, opening a hole some ten feet long and penetrating the number one main ballast tank. The submarine rolled sharply to port – then back to starboard – and sank bow first in 42 feet of water.
The steamship picked up eight survivors – including the Commanding Officer – who had either been topside or climbed up quickly through the conning tower hatch. Nearby tugs and ships rescued several others. Eight minutes after O-5 sank, Chief Machinist’s Mate C.R. Butler surfaced in an air bubble. In all, 16 crewmen were rescued. Five were missing, including Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence T. Brown, Motor Machinist’s Mate First Class Clyde E. Hughes, Mess Attendant First Class Fred C. Smith, Fireman First Class Thomas T. Metzler, and Torpedoman’s Mate Second Class Henry Breault.
Breault had been working in the torpedo room when the collision occurred, and he headed up the ladder topside. As he gained the main deck, he realized that Chief Brown was asleep below. Instead of going over the side, Breault headed back below to get Brown and shut the deck hatch over his head just as the bow went under. Brown was awake, but unaware of the order to abandon ship. Both men headed aft to exit through Control, but the water coming into the Forward Battery compartment made that escape route unusable. They made it through the rising water to the torpedo room and had just shut and dogged the door when the battery shorted and exploded. Breault knew the bow was under, and they were trapped.
Salvage efforts began immediately, and divers were sent down from a salvage tug that arrived from Coco Solo. By 10:00 a.m., they were on the bottom examining the wreck. To search for trapped personnel, they hammered on the hull near the aft end of the ship and worked forward. Upon reaching the torpedo room, they heard answering hammer blows from inside the boat.
In those days before modern safety and rescue devices, the only way the salvage crew, under the command of Capt. Amos Bronson, Jr., could get the men out of the boat was to lift it physically from the mud using cranes or pontoons. There were no pontoons within 2,000 miles of the site, but there were two of the largest crane barges in the world, Ajax and Hercules, in the Canal Zone. They were built specifically for handling the gates of the canal locks. However, there had been a landslide at the famous Gaillard Cut and both barges were on the other side of the slide, assisting in clearing the Canal. The excavation shifted into high gear and by 2:00 p.m. on the afternoon of the sinking, the crane barge Ajax squeezed through and was on its way to the O-5 site.
Divers worked to tunnel under the O-5’s bow so lifting cables could be attached. Ajax arrived about midnight, and by early morning, the cable tunnel had been dug, the cable run, and a lift was attempted. Sheppard J. Shreaves, supervisor of the Panama Canal’s salvage crew and himself a qualified diver, had been working continuously throughout the night to dig the tunnel, snake the cable under the submarine, and hook it to Ajax’s hoist. Now the lift began. As the crane took a strain, the lift cables broke. Shreaves and his crew worked another cable set under the bow and again Ajax pulled. Again, the cable broke. All through the day, the men worked. Shreaves had been in his diving suit nearly 24 hours. As midnight on the 29th approached, the crane was ready for another lift, this time with buoyancy being added by blowing water out of the flooded Engine Room. Then, just after midnight, the bow of O-5 broke the surface. Men from the salvage force quickly opened the torpedo room hatch, and Breault and Brown emerged into the fresh air.
Two of the other missing men’s bodies were recovered from alongside the boat and interred at the Mount Hope Cemetery in the Canal Zone. Petty Officer Clyde E. Hughes’ body was never found.
Petty Officer Breault was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Calvin Coolidge on April 4, 1924. It was awarded for Breault’s uncommon valor in going to the aid of a fellow shipmate who most certainly would have died if Breault had not intervened, with complete disregard of his own safety. For his role in the rescue, Sheppard Shreaves later received the Congressional Life Saving Medal, presented personally by Breault and Brown that same year.
About the author: James Christley served on submarines from 1962 to 1982 retiring as a Senior Chief Electrician.