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Henry Breault

The incredible true story of Henry Breault, the only enlisted Navy Sailor to receive the medal of honor for his actions aboard a U.S. Submarine

On 28 October 1923, the USS O-5 (SS-66) was operating with other units of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet in the Panama Canal zone. At approximately 0630, USS O-5, under the command of Lieutenant Harrison Avery, was underway leading a column of submarines consisting of O-5, O-3 (SS-64), O-6 (SS-67), and O-8 (SS-69) across Limon Bay toward the entrance to the Panama Canal. 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 O-5 and struck the submarine on the starboard side of the control room, opening a hole approximately 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 (13 m) of water.

Henry Breault receiving the Medal of Honor from President Calvin Coolidge
Henry Breault receiving the Medal of Honor from President Calvin Coolidge

The steamship immediately started picking up survivors until a total of 16 crewmen were rescued. Five were missing: Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence T. Brown, Torpedoman’s Mate Second Class Henry Breault, plus three others crew members. Henry 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 impossible. 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 am, 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 could rescue the men was to lift the entire submarine from the mud using cranes or pontoons. The excavation shifted into high gear and by 2:00 pm on the afternoon of the sinking, the crane barge Ajax was on its way to the O-5 site.

Torpedoman Second Class Henry Breault
Torpedoman Second Class Henry Breault

Divers worked to tunnel under 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 noon on 29 October 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 noontime, 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.

The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pleasure in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to

TORPEDOMAN SECOND CLASS HENRY BREAULT

UNITED STATES NAVY

for service as set forth in the following CITATION:
For heroism and devotion to duty while serving on board the U.S. submarine O-5 at the time of the sinking of that vessel. On the morning of 28 October 1923, the O-5 collided with the steamship Abangarez and sank in less than a minute. When the collision occurred, Breault was in the torpedo room. Upon reaching the hatch, he saw that the boat was rapidly sinking. Instead of jumping overboard to save his own life, he returned to the torpedo room to the rescue of a shipmate whom he knew was trapped in the boat, closing the torpedo room hatch on himself. Breault and Brown remained trapped in this compartment until rescued by the salvage party 31 hours later.

Reference/Source: Wikipedia “Henry Breault” , NavalSubLeague.org