Author Guest Post: Ryan C Walker
Breault’s Heroism: A Centennial Worth Remembering
On October 28, 2023, we will reach the centenary of the O-5–Abangarez collision. On October 28, 1923, the USS O-5 was beginning to transit the Panama Canal when it collided with the United Fruit Company’s Abangarez and sank within a minute. Most of the crew managed to get overboard, but one sailor made a fateful decision that ended up saving the life of his shipmate. That submariner was Torpedoman’s Mate Second Class Henry Breault. His Medal of Honor Citation reads:
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 who 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.i
Surprisingly, there is little evidence to suggest Breault had agency within the telling of his own story. No official statements were recorded in his OMPF on the subject and only one letter was identified as being from him; the only reason this letter is available today is its publication within the New York Times:
Just a line to let you know that I am still alive. You have no doubt read about the sinking of the submarine. We were down there for hours and had no food. There was water in the lead tanks, but we did not dare to use it because it had been there for months and we were afraid of lead poisoning. I sure was a sick boy but am well now. I have been out helping to raise the submarine. She is all right except the central control room where she was struck. The craft will soon be in condition again. But some of the crew will never go down in a submarine again. Fortunately it did not bother me at all.ii
The primary account of the rescue did not belong to Breault, but the other sailor who was trapped underneath the waves that he rescued: Electrician’s Mate Chief Petty Officer Lawrence Brown. While Breault was sent to a depressurization chamber to treat Caisson disease, Brown stayed to recount the story to the United Press Association, whose story was then reprinted by other newspapers.iii Julius Grigore summarizes this well, using the submariner Breault rescued, EMC Lawrence T. Brown of Tyngsboro, Massachusetts.iv
Brown states he was resting before watch when he felt the crash from the Abangarez; despite knowing it was a rough hit, he stayed until Breault woke him up. “We both went into the torpedo room, closing the door behind us. The boat sank in thirty seconds, settling in forty feet of water at an angle of 70 degrees to starboard.”v It is surprising that Brown did not hear any communications, but the only known order was heard from Captain Card of the Abangarez just prior to the collision, given verbally topside or from the bridge.vi Since Brown was sound asleep, it is possible he may not have heard the verbal order to abandon ship.
Finding themselves trapped in a compartment with twelve inches of water, holding fast to a ladder in a compartment that had a with only a flashlight for vision, Brown recalled, “the first hour was the hardest.”vii Forty-five minutes after the crash, the O-5‘s batteries caught on fire, heating the compartment, it must have felt like they were on a veritable hot-seat.viii With no food and potable water, the pair remained optimistic they could survive 48 hours and that a crane would be able to lift them before that time limit expired.ix After three hours, it became clear once they heard the activity that the Panama Canal Community was working to make their rescue a reality. The pair split, Breault moving the furthest aft they could go while Brown went forward with a hammer or blunt object to bang at the hull, alerting them they were still alive, with Brown recalling, “Breault played with the hammer to indicate we were in good shape.”x
The first attempt from the hoist was estimated at the 12-hour mark. While the attempt failed, it did level the boat from such an awkward angle allowing for easier movement and comfort. As they rose on the third attempt, Brown recalled the last 20 minutes were “terrible,” Breault estimated the pressure was between 25-50 lbs.xi The doctors treating him disputed these numbers, deciding they were unlikely, but agreed those in the compartment were subject to high pressure.xii The ship broke the water, and the workers rapidly came to open a hatch to let the men escape, “[t]hen we heard the water splashing over the top, and our comrades walking on the deck, and we knew we were up. Breault opened the hatch, and the light was so bright I could not find my way up.”xiii
Brown “seemed no worse for wear,” according to the reporter, and he was in a lucid enough state to retell the story.xiv Brown’s account became the primary account by chance, of the duo he was the one who was unafflicted and conscious enough to answer inquires. Brown’s decision to focus the spotlight on Breault is indicative of leadership, being unsparing in praise when merited. Brown fully credits his rescue to Breault and diver Sheppard Shreaves, offering only his viewpoint and eschewing any self-aggrandizement; he should serve as an inspiration for all Navy Chiefs. Likely among the audience listening was the O-5‘s commanding officer, LT. Harrison Avery. Shortly after hearing the story, Avery would recommend Breault for a Navy Cross, beginning the award process for Breault’s heroism on October 28.xv
i. Congressional Medal of Honor, “Henry Breault,” accessed July 2, 2023, https://www.cmohs.org/recipients/henry-breault?gclid=Cj0KCQjwwISlBhD6ARIsAESAmp72wFwPEkx9RiCGLmK_s9yRCjV_6PyJ-yegzIx5BhsIFTCcD2vds94aAsGeEALw_wcB
ii. “Submarine Hero Writes Home,” New York Times, November 20, 1923, Newspaper Clipping, SFLM.
iii. “They Stared at the Clock for 15 Hours,” United Press Associations, 31 October 1923, Newspaper Clipping, SFLM; Sunday Star, (Washington D.C.) December 9, 1923; Omaha Morning Bee, March 10, 1924; Sunday Star, (Washington D.C.) March 9, 1924; Indianapolis Times, 31 October 1923. For Contemporary analysis, see: Collins, “Style,” 58.
iv. Grigore. “The O-5 Is Down!” 54-60.
v. Indianapolis Times, 31 October 1923.
vi. The Abangarez, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana – 60 F.2d 543 (E.D. La. 1932) 3 August 1932.
vii. “They Stared at the Clock,” United Press Association, Newspaper Clipping.
viii. “They Stared at the Clock,” United Press Association, Newspaper Clipping.
ix. “They Stared at the Clock,” United Press Association, Newspaper Clipping.
x. “They Stared at the Clock,” United Press Association, Newspaper Clipping.
xi. “They Stared at the Clock for 15 Hours.” United Press Associations, 31 October 1923, Newspaper Clipping, Submarine Force Library and Museum, Submarine Archives, Biography Collection, Medal of Honor, Breault Collection.; Robt. F. Jones, “Medical History Sheet,” in Official Military Personnel File for Henry Breault. Series, Official Military Personnel Files, 1885 – 1998, 452.
xii. Jones, “Medical History Sheet,” 452.
xiii. “They Stared at the Clock,” United Press Association, Newspaper Clipping.
xiv. “They Stared at the Clock,” United Press Association, Newspaper Clipping.
xv H. Avery, BREAULT, Henry, TM2c (210-83-03), Recommendation for Navy Cross, Coco Solo, 19 November 1923, RBNP, Official Military Personnel File for Henry Breault.
The Silent Service’s First Hero will be published in 2024.