Submarine Tragedy Sets Stage For Heroes
by Capt. Jules Grigore, Jr. USN Retired

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Rescue of U.S. Submarine O-5 using the crane Atlas

The men of the U.S. Submarine O-5 were roused out of their racks before dawn for a Sunday transit through the Panama Canal.  The O-5 had orders to escort three other submarines through the Canal Canal from Cristobal to deep water on the Pacific side.

Routine duty, actually.  The O-5, commanded by Lt. Harrison Avery, was attached to Commander Submarine Base, Coco Solo, and received such orders matter of factly.

Women, Whisky

Like most sailors during the rather quiet 1920's in Panama, the men moved around the 173-foot vessel performing their duties in an unhurried but exact way.  The 21 officers and men quietly chatted about the usual things
women, whisky, the heat and rain, and plans for their next liberty.

Early risers that Sunday October 28, 1923, may have been leafing through the morning edition of the Star & Herald.   On page 5, Hollywood was advertising "Thrills!  Pathos!  Smiles!" in Mack Sennett's movie, Suzanna.   As they read, another Hollywood-like melodrama with all of Mack Sennett's thrills, pathos plus tragedy and heroics was taking place in Limon Bay, Cristobal.

At 6:25 a.m. the O-5 was a dead ship in 6 fathoms of water on the bottom of the bay.   She had a 10-foot-long gash in her bow ... three men were dead, one of the bodies was never found ... two of the survivors were trapped inside ... and another chapter to submarine history was launched.

During the next 31 hours the O-5, which never saw duty again, became the stage for heroes.

The event became one of the most pictorially documented stories of submarine salvage ever made.  It created an underwater record when a Canal Zone diver in his rescue attempts made the longest dive up to that time.  Also, it became the first attempt at physically lifting any vessel the size of the 520-ton O-5 off the ocean bottom.

At a time when modern rescue and safety devices did not exist, and while submarines were still in their infancy, it was a remarkable feat that the two men trapped in the O-5 were not only saved, but that their submarine was raised at all.  Rescue of personnel from disabled submarines was not duplicated until 16 years later when 33 men were saved from the U.S.S. Squalus using a special submarine chamber.

Receives Orders

That historic day for the O-5 began before dawn with the arrival from Havana of the SS Abangarez, 380-foot, 5,000-ton freighter owned by the United Fruit Co.  Shortly after 6 a.m. Capt. W. A. Card, master of the Abangarez, received orders to proceed to Dock No. 6, Cristobal.

It was a collision course.  The O-5 was leading submarines O-3, O-6, and O-8 to Gatun Locks.  At 6:22 a.m. Captain Card, seeing that collision was imminent, sounded a danger signal
the first warning given by either vessel.  The Abangarez then backed emergency full speed and let go her starboard anchor.

Without acknowledgment of the danger signal, the O-5 held her rudder amidships and continued on a southerly heading.

Sinks By Bow

At 6:24 the Abangarez struck the starboard side of the submarine penetrating the engineroom and the No. 1 main ballast tank.  The O-5 rolled to port about 15 degrees, righted, and in less than a minute sank bow first.  The freighter was undamaged.

At a board of inquiry which placed the blame on the collision on the O-5, Captain Card said:  "Just before we struck, I heard someone call from the submarine's conning tower for everyone to come from below.  When we struck, someone ordered the O-5 crew to jump."

Sixteen men were quickly rescued but five were missing.  They were:  Henry Breault, torpedoman second class; Lawrence T. Brown, chief electrician's mate; Clyde E. Hughes, motor machinist's mate first class; Thomas T. Metzler, fireman first class; and Fred C. Smith, mess attendant, first class.

Two days later the bodies of Metzler and Smith were found floating in the sea off the Colon breakwater.  Hughes was never seen again.

Rescue work started almost immediately.  Navy divers on a salvage tug stationed at Coco Solo had arrived to survey the sunken submarine.  Their raps on the O-5's hull brought immediate response from inside
Breault and Brown were alive in the forward torpedo room.

But the divers were helpless to rescue the trapped men.  Artificial lungs and rescue chambers to enable men trapped in a submarine to escape had not been invented and there were no salvage pontoons within 2,000 miles of the Canal Zone.  Therefore, a means to lift the submarine's bow off the bottom was necessary.  In the Panama Canal there were two 250-ton capacity floating cranes, the Ajax and Hercules.   These leviathans had the mightiest lift in the world for floating equipment.   They were specially built in Germany to handle the enormous lock gates of the Canal.

Request Crane

Capt. Amon Bronson, Jr., USN, Commander Submarine Base, Coco Solo, was in  charge of the O-5 salvage operation and requested the Panama Canal to furnish one of the floating cranes to haul up the sunken vessel.

But it was not going to be just that easy.  A slide had just occurred in Gaillard Cut, the narrowest part of the Canal, and both cranes were on the opposite side, miles away from the O-5.  Ironically, this was the first slide to block the Cut since 1916.

Working to remove the slide were two huge dipper dredges, the Cascadas and Paraiso, which by 2 p.m. had cleared a narrow passage for the Ajax.  The crane squeezed through and was over the O-5 about 10:30 p.m.

Before the arrival of the Ajax, Panama Canal salvage forces had assembled over the submarine.  Among them was Sheppard Shreaves of Newport, Va. "Shep," 38, was dockmaster and foreman shipwright for the Panama Canal Mechanical Division (Now the Industrial Division of the Marine Bureau.)


Barrel-chested and tough, Shep was a qualified diver and supervisor of the Canal's salvage and diving crew.  Rather than risk the lives of his men on the treacherous underwater assignment, he decided to make the dive himself, tunnel under the O-5, pass through the lifting cable and secure it to the hook of the Ajax.

Here is his account of the rescue efforts on the O-5.

"I could spot the O-5 on the bottom by the air bubbles exhausted from the compartment where Breault and Brown were trapped.  To survive, they were bleeding air from 3,000-pound compressed air reserves in the forward torpedo room.

"Since the Navy divers had given me a good briefing on the position of the O-5 and the location of the two trapped men, I went right in through her side.  The light of my lamp was feeble against the pitch black.  The inside was in an awful mess, and it was tight and slippery going.  I was constantly pushing away floating debris.   When I reached the forward bulkhead of the engineroom I hit it with my diving hammer.  Faint raps were returned.  Breault and Brown were alive.  I acknowledged their taps, but almost with a feeling of hopelessness because I couldn't do anything for them at the time."

Shreaves then made his way out of the submarine and signaled for a firehose to be lowered.

"The O-5 lay upright in several feet of soft, oozing mud, and I began water jetting a trench under the bow.  Sluicing through the ooze was easy; too easy, for it could cave in and bury me.

"Swirling black mud engulfed me, I worked solely by feel and instinct.  I had to be careful that I didn't dredge too much from under the bow for fear the O-5 would crush down on me.  Once in a while, I'd rap the hull with the nozzle to let the boys know someone was working to bring them out.  Their raps were returned weaker each time."

Finally, the tunnel was through.  A 4-inch-diameter steel cable was dragged under the keel and shackled to the hook of the Ajax.

Aside from its flooded weight, there was tremendous mud suction hugging the O-5.   Twice the cable broke and each time new cable was wrestled under the bow.  By early morning of the 29th, round-the-clock efforts to raise the submarine had failed.   Shreaves surfaced occasionally to report to Captain Bronson and to allow doctors to examine him.  They were concerned that his extreme exertion while working under pressure at 36 feet down might strain his heart.  He had been underwater for nearly 24 hours.

Boiling Cauldron

"I came up from what I hoped would be my last dive.  I was near exhaustion.   The job below was done and we were ready for a third lift.  At 12:30 p.m. on the 29th, from topside, I released compressed air into the engineroom of the O-5 to unflood that compartment and lighten the boat.  Water and mud bubbled to the surface as in a boiling cauldron ... I signaled the Ajax to slowly lift the O-5.

"God, how we prayed the cable would take it this time.  The intense silence of the rescue force and spectators was electrifying
almost unbearable."

After what must have seemed a lifetime, the bow finally broke surface.  When the hatch was clear the two trapped men crawled out, more dead than alive.  They were taken to Coco Solo and placed in a decompression chamber and later transferred to Colon Hospital for examinations.

"I was a big hero for a while," said Shreaves.  "The boys carried me around on their shoulders.  Everybody rushed down to the Stranger's Club in Colon for a big celebration.  But me, I went to sleep at the party."

The O-5 incident established a world record.  Shreaves had made dives of the longest duration to that time.

He was presented a Congressional Lifesaving Medal on recommendation of the Acting Canal Zone Governor, Harry Burgess, and was given a 14-carat gold watch donated by 800 grateful members of the Coco Solo Submarine Base.

There emerged, however, another hero of the O-5 sinking.

Breault, 23, of Putnam, Conn., was in the forward torpedo room at the time of the collision.  He escaped to the main deck, but then realized that his friend, Brown, was asleep in the forward battery room.  Breault went back into the sinking submarine, closing the hatch cover as he slid below.  Brown had not heard the order to abandon ship  With water charging in on them, they attempted to escape through the conning tower, but the deluge blocked that route.  They struggled back into the torpedo room and forced shut its water-tight door as the O-5 hit bottom.

It was for Breault's act of selflessness and valor by going to the assistance of his shipmate, even though realizing the O-5 was doomed, that he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Calvin A. Coolidge on March 8, 1924.

History closed in tight around Torpedoman Breault and the only known record available is with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society which said in January 1969 that he has been dead for many years.

Captain Card of the Abangarez retired in 1953 after 51 years in the merchant marine.   He now lives in Millbrae, California.

Chief Electrician's Mate Brown has also died, and there is no information available on the whereabouts of Lieutenant Avery.

With more than 1,000 dives behind him, Shep retired to St. Petersburg, Florida on December 31, 1945, after 32 years of Panama Canal service.  He died in January 1968.

The Panama Canal Review - May 1969

April 21, 1999