Valor Friday

| March 27, 2020


US Navy Enlisted Submarine Warfare Insignia, “Dolphins”

Mason has chosen Henry Breault, Torpedoman Second Class USN, as our Valor Friday honoree. His service in small, post WW-1 submarines was dangerous enough, but his incredible valor in the face of disaster, endangering his own life for a shipmate, well. Get settled in because this one is a barn burner.

Mason

Here’s another in my interesting stories of valor series. A man by the name of Henry Breault earned the Medal of Honor for actions in 1923. He’s one of only eight US Navy submariners to have ever received the MoH, he was the first ever submariner to receive the medal, and is the only enlisted man among that group.

Born in Connecticut, at the ripe old age of 16, Henry enlisted with the British Royal Navy during the First World War. He spent four years with the RN before returning to the US and enlisting in his home country’s navy. By 1923, Breault was a torpedoman 2nd class (TM2) serving aboard USS O-5.

O-5 (hull number SS-66) was one of the early American submarines. Built during World War I it incorporated many of the lessons learned from earlier designs. The ship had a nominal crew complement of 29 men and was designed more for coastal operations than blue sea use. They were armed with four forward torpedo tubes and carried enough for one full reload, and they could dive up to 200ft below the surface.

O-5 had been constructed during the war, being launched in late 1917. Patrolling along the eastern US seaboard, on November 3, 1918 O-5 joined a fleet of 20 submarines headed for European waters. Eight days later the armistice was signed, ending hostilities. O-5 returned to her Eastern US patrol role after the war until she was sent to Central America in 1923.

At 0630 hours October 28, 1923 O-5 and her crew were in Panama, entering Limon Bay in preparation of transiting the canal. It was here that a United Fruit Company steamer ship SS Abangarez rammed the small submarine through miscommunication and navigation errors.

O-5 was catastrophically damaged. Abangarez had struck the sub on the starboard side at the control room, rending a 10-foot hole in the hull and cutting into the number one main ballast tank. The boat rolled hard to port (left for the nautically challenged among us) and then back starboard. Nosing down sharply the doomed submarine sank in less than a minute in 42 feet of water.

Eight officers and men who had been in or near the control room were able to escape up the conning tower ladder and were rescued by Abangarez. Several other men were rescued by other nearby ships that came to the sailors’ aid. A full eight minutes after the boat sank Chief Machinist’s Mate C.R. Butler surfaced in a pocket of air.

At work in the torpedo room when the ship struck, TM2 Breault hit the ladder and was headed to the surface. It was then he remembered Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence Brown was below decks asleep. He had a split second decision to make. Save himself and go for the conning tower or go further into the ship and wake up Chief Brown. Breault chose the latter.

Breault could see and taste freedom but he shut the top deck hatch just as the nose of the boat went under. He then went into the bowels of the ship in search of his comrade.

He found Chief Brown, who had unsurprisingly awoken to the crash but who was unaware of the order to abandon ship. The two men headed aft (the back of the boat) to exit through the control room. Water flowing in from the forward battery compartment turned them back.

It’s important to note that the batteries in a submarine create hydrogen gas. If not properly vented, this can be a danger to the boat and the crew. In this particular case there’s the risk of fire and subsequent explosion when the sea water shorts out the batteries, igniting the hydrogen. Both men would have been intimately aware of the danger of the batteries exploding once the compartment was overrun with salt water.

Breault and Brown headed back forward, rushing through quickly rising water. They reached the torpedo room at the bow (front) of the boat and shut and dogged (locked) the hatch (door) moments before the batteries and sea water connected, causing a massive explosion on the already doomed ship. The men knew they were already under water and it was only a matter of time before the compartment would become their tomb.

Within hours, salvage crews arrived from nearby Coco Solo (a US Navy submarine and Naval Air Station in Panama). By 1000 hours divers were in the water at the wreck looking for any sign of survivors. They began at the aft end of the ship, banging on the hull. The divers methodically moved forward, checking every bit of wreckage for any sign. When they got to the torpedo room their hammering was returned from inside the ship.

Within the torpedo room Breault and Brown were trapped with no food, no water, and only a flashlight between the two of them. Neither man knew morse code, but when they heard the hammering on the hull, the two men rushed to opposite sides of the hull and banged back. Brown said that Breault played something of a ditty with his drumming, hoping to convey that they were alive and in good spirits.

Discovery of men alive in the hull of the sunken boat turned it from a salvage mission into a rescue mission. In those days there was no way to save men from such a wreck except to lift it by crane or pontoon. This was years before the Momsen Lung would allow sailors in a downed sub to float to the surface and decades before the USS Thresher incident spurred the development of the deep submergence rescue vehicle (DSRV).

As fate would have it there were no pontoons within thousands of miles of the site, but there were enormous cranes available. This was only seven years after construction on the canal had been finished. Two of the world’s biggest sea cranes, Ajax and Hercules, were at the canal and had been specially constructed to deal with the canal’s massive lock gates. Unfortunately, the two cranes were both assisting with a mudslide further in the canal. By 1400 hours Ajax was on the move to take part in the rescue.

Within O-5’s torpedo room, the two trapped sailors were confident they could last 48 hours. The high pressure and noxious air gave both men raging headaches. They limited movement because it stirred up the heart and wasted oxygen. They sat in near silence in order to conserve what little air they had.

Divers dug out paths under the sub so the crane cables could be attached. Ajax arrived about midnight, but it wasn’t until the divers, working through the night, were finally ready to attach them the following morning were they ready to attempt to lift the wreck.

As the crane started to show the strain of the lift, the cables abruptly snapped. Another set of cables were run under the sub. Mighty Ajax began to lift again only for the cables to once again snap.

Within the torpedo room, the men had been hearing the scraping on the hull for hours as the divers worked. They twice felt the bow of O-5 lift and then violently slam back into the floor of the bay. It was then they knew that their rescuers were working heroically to get them up, raising the spirits of the beleaguered sailors.

Breault and Brown had been trapped now for more than 24 hours. Time was running out if there was a chance to rescue them. The salvage crew supervisor Sheppard Shreaves spent more than 24 hours continuously in his dive suit. The divers and salvage crews worked all through the day on the 29th.

As midnight again approached, they’d attached a third set of cables and filled the engine room of the boat with air to help make it more buoyant. Ajax began to lift for a third time. Inside the torpedo room they once again felt the ship rise from the muddy sea floor. An agonizingly slow ascent followed, the men said the last 20 minutes was unbearably long.

Just after midnight, with the trapped sailors having been under water more than 30 hours, the bow of O-5 broke the surface. Breault and Brown heard footsteps on the hull! Breault went to the hatch as salvage crews wasted no time in opening the torpedo room hatch. Daylight and fresh air flooded the compartment, freeing the two men from Davy Jones’ grasp.

Navy Medal of Honor

Henry Breault received the Navy Medal of Honor for his selflessness in the face or mortal danger to effect the rescue of a crewmate. Prior to WWII, the Navy didn’t require combat for award of valor medals. Breault received the medal from President Coolidge at a White House ceremony on 8 March, 1924. Later in 1924, Breault and Brown personally presented the Gold Lifesaving Medal to Shreaves for his efforts in their rescue.


Navy Gold Lifesaving Medal

As a result of the collision three sailors from USS O-5 lost their lives, but 16 men plus Breault and Brown were rescued. Initially the crash was declared the fault of the skipper of O-5, but he was later cleared by a Court of Naval Inquiry. United Fruit Company sued the United States over the accident. It worked its way through the courts until 1932, when the federal court in New Orleans found that O-5 was responsible for the crash.

O-5 was eventually raised and sold for scrap. SS Abangarez continued in private service until World War II when it was requisitioned by the War Shipping Administration. During WWI she had been used by the US Shipping Board as a troop transport and, when called into national service again, carried cargo throughout the Second World War.

Breault continued to serve in the US Navy through the rest of the 1920’s and all through the 1930’s. In 1941, Torpedoman First Class Henry Breault developed a heart condition. He died on 5 December, 1941, just two days before the Imperial Japanese attacked the US at Pearl Harbor, at a naval hospital in Rhode Island at the age of just 41, after 20 years of US Navy service.

Hand Salute. Ready, Two!
Another great one, Mason. Thanks.

Category: Guest Post, Navy, The Warrior Code, Valor

Comments (6)

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  1. 5th/77th FA says:

    BZ TM2 Henry Breault. And a big BZ to the salvage crew who didn’t give up on their efforts to rescue these sailors. Hand Salute!!!

    Much respect for our Bubble Headed Brothers and Sisters. Had a cousin that was a bubblehead way back yonder and SiL served on a fast attack and a boomer as the tea kettle operator. SiL was also a certified diver, but not a SEAL.

    Thanks Mason, always good to see these Valor Stories. I’m sure that all of the Bubble Heads here are familiar with the CSS Hunley, the FIRST attack submarine.

  2. The Other Whitey says:

    There’s a lot of horrifying ways to die, but going to Davy Jones’ Locker belowdecks in any ship, especially a submarine, while conscious is pretty high up there. To willingly risk such a fate is the definition of heroism.

  3. Steve 1371 says:

    Great story! I wonder if you guys remember that show called “Silent Service”? It is on YouTube commercial free. I think I have seen all of the episodes twice. Really miss that type of WW2 documentary. Sea Hunt is also there.