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  Submarine O-5 Sinking in Limon Bay, Canal Zone October 28, 1923       [p1 of 2]

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Out of the tragic collision between U.S. Navy's submarine O-5 and a United Fruit Company boat in Limon  Bay Oct. 28, 1923, resulting in the sub sinking within one minute, arose acts of extraordinary selfless heroism by two individuals.

 

 Henry Breault 

Torpedomanís Mate Second Class Henry Breault was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his uncommon valor in rescuing a fellow shipmate, Chief Electricianís Mate Lawrence T. Brown, who along with Breault, had spent 31 hours trapped in the sunken sub. 
 

Sheppard J. Shreaves Dockmaster and foreman shipwright for the Panama Canal Mechanical Division -- Qualified diver and supervisor of the Panama Canalís highly proficient salvage and diving crew

Shep Shreaves was awarded the Congressional Life Saving Medal for his heroic efforts in ensuring the raising of the sunken sub against time which permitted the rescue of Breault and Brown from the sub.

His being underwater and in his diving suit for almost 24 hours set a new record for the longest duration dives up to that time.

 
Two of the three members of Sub O-5 who perished -- Thomas T. Metzler, Fireman, First Class; and Fred C. Smith, Mess Attendant, First Class -- were found shortly after the collision and were buried with military honors at Mt. Hope Cemetery (Atlantic side of the Canal Zone). 
C.E. Hughes, Motor Machinistís Mate, First Class, was never found.

 

 The O-5 Is Down!

by

                                    Captain Julius Grigore, Jr., U.S. Naval Reserve                                

United States Naval Institute Proceedings

February 1972 (vol 98, no. 2 / 828), pages 54-60

 

The Captain of the Panama Canal launch Rodman reaches out to pull the shirtless Torpedoman Second Class Henry Breault on board as others rush to assist Chief Lawrence T. Brown. Breault and Brown of the submarine O-5 had been trapped for 31 hours when, in October 1923, their boat rammed a freighter in the Panama Canalís main channel and sank in seven fathoms of water within a minute after the collision.

 

At 6:00 a.m. on Sunday, 28 October 1923, the USS O-5 (SS-66) had passed the luxurious Washington Hotel on Manzanillo Point, Colon, Panama, and was proceeding on a southerly course across Limon Bay, en route to Gatun Locks. The 173-foot, 520-ton O-5, commanded by Lieutenant Harrison Avery, U.S. Navy, and attached to Commander, Submarine Force, Coco Solo, Canal Zone, was leading the O-3, O-6, and O-8 in a routine transit of the Panama Canal to the Pacific.

Earlier, the United Fruit Companyís 380-foot, 5,000-ton SS Abangarez, Captain W. A. Card, Master, had arrived from Havana and anchored in Limon Bay.

At 6:14. the Abangarez weighed anchor to proceed to Dock No. 6, Cristobal; at the same time the O-5 received Panama Canal Pilot G.O. Kolle, and was again underway at about 12 knots. The Abangarez was about 1,000 yards forward of the O-5ís starboard beam, swinging eastward to dock.

About two minute after going ahead, the O-5 stopped to shift from direct diesel to electric motor drive to enable her to maneuver and use her propellers astern. The approximate speed, movements, and position of the two ships were as follows:

The O-5ís engines were stopped. She was unable to turn her propellers, drifting in a southerly direction, and approaching the port bow of the Abangarez.
The Abangarez, broad on the starboard bow of the O-5, was heading easterly with engines stopped, moving at about four knots across the main channel and across the course of the O-5.

 

The O-5 (SS-66) and the Abangarez are seen before their collision.  Her ordeal made the O-5 unfit for service and she was sold for scrap 14 months later after the accident.

 

One minute after the O-5ís engines were stopped, the Abangarez and the O-5 converged, and obviously collision was unavoidable.  Up to this time no whistle or other signals were exchanged between either vessel.

At 6:22, Captain Card, seeing that the headings and speeds of the O-5 and Abangarez made collision imminent, sounded a danger signal of four short blasts.  This was the first signal by either vessel.  The Abangarez then backed emergency full speed and let go her starboard anchor. Without acknowledgment of the Abangarez danger signal, the O-5 held rudder amidships and continued on a southerly heading.  Although unable to operate her propellers, the O-5 made no effort to check her headway by releasing anchors.

At 6:24, by the clocks of the Abangarez and Panama Canal Tug U.S. Porto Bello, the Abangarez hit the starboard side of the O-5, and stove in a hole about 10 feet long and 3 feet wide in the control room and No.1 main ballast tank.  The O-5, with 21 officers and men on board, rolled about 15 degrees to port and then righted.  She then sank by the bow in seven fathoms of water within a minute.  The Abangarez was undamaged.

Captain Card later reported to the Board of Inquiry investigating the collision that his ship was always dodging submarines in Limon Bay, and he went on to say: "Before we struck, I heard a call from the submarineís conning tower for everyone to come from below. When we struck, someone ordered the O-5 crew to jump overboard. We threw life rings and preservers overboard and dropped ends of mooring lines over the side. We picked up eight survivors, including Lieutenant Avery."

Eight minuets after the sinking, Chief Machinistís Mate C. R. Butler, U.S. Navy was shot to the surface in an air pocket.  He was rescued by the Panama Canal launch, U.S. Rodman.  He did not know who was left in the submarine.

George W. Cadell, Master of the towboat, Porto Bello, stated that his crew took six O-5 survivors on board, and that the tug, U.S. Tavernilla saved one man.

Captain Cadell, Master of the towboat, witnessed the collision and reported to the Board:

          "I received orders to tug the Abangarez to Dock No. 6.  We were about to let lines go when I saw a line of submarines proceeding into the Canal channel and toward the port bow of the Abangarez.  It looked as though there would be a collision.  It was not customary, and against the Rules of the Road, to cross a shipís bow when you have her on your starboard side.  I started for the scene at full speed.  At first, it looked like the submarine might cross the bow of the Abangarez.  When we were about halfway, the Abangarez rammed the O-5.  The time was 6:24."

Lieutenant Avery and the O-5 survivors were brought to Dock No. 6. visibly shaken, Avery mustered his rescued officers and men. Sixteen were present. Five men were missing. They were: Henry Breault, Torpedoman, Second Class; Lawrence T. Brown, Chief Electricianís Mate; C.E. Hughes, Motor Machinistís Mate, First Class; Thomas T. Metzler, Fireman, First Class; and Fred C. Smith, Mess Attendant, First Class.

Rescue efforts began immediately.  Navy divers on a salvage tug stationed at Coco Solo arrived to inspect the O-5 on the bottom.  Raps on her hull brought response from within.  Two men of the missing five, Breault and Brown, it would later be ascertained, were alive in the forward torpedo room. Hughes, Metzler, and Smith were not in the O-5.  Metzler and Smith were found shortly after the collision and were buried with military honors at Mt. Hope Cemetery, Canal Zone.  The body of Hughes was never recovered.

Aside from reporting the extent and location of the damage, and discovering that survivors were on board the O-5, Navy divers were helpless to rescue the trapped men. Therefore, a means to lift the submarine off the bottom had to be found if Breault and Brown were to be saved from suffocation.

Artificial lungs and rescue chambers had not been invented, and there were no salvage pontoons within 2,000 miles of the Canal Zone.  By a stroke of luck, however, there were in the Canal Zone two 250-ton capacity crane barges, the U.S. Ajax and the U.S. Hercules.  These leviathans had the mightiest lift in the world for floating equipment. They had been built in Germany especially for handling the enormous lock gates of the Panama Canal. Captain Amos Bronson, Jr., U.S. Navy, Commander, Submarine Base, Coco Solo, and in charge of the O-5 salvage operation, requested the Panama Canal to furnish one of the floating cranes for service over the O-5.

To add to the rescuersí frustration, a slide had occurred in Gaillard Cut, the narrowest part of the Canal. Both cranes were opposite the slide, 50 miles from the O-5. Ironically, this was the first slide to block the Cut since 1916.

Working to remove the slide were two behemoth dipper dredges: the U.S. Cascade and U.S. Paraiso.  Each of their bites could scoop 15 cubic yards of earth. They were the biggest in the world, built especially for enlarging and maintaining the Canal. Relentlessly, they cleared a narrow passage for the Ajax, and by 2:00 p.m. of the 28th, the Ajax squeezed through and was rushed by tow to the O-5. She appeared off Dock No. 6 about 10:30 that night.

In advance of the arrival of the Ajax, Panama Canal salvage forces assembled over the luckless O-5. Among them was a 38-year-old Virginian, Sheppard J. Shreaves, who was dockmaster and foreman shipwright for the Panama Canal Mechanical Division. Barrel-chested, tough, soft-spoken, and unassuming, Shep Shreaves was a qualified diver and supervisor of the Canalís highly proficient salvage and diving crew. Rather than risk the lives of his men on this treacherous underwater assignment, Shep himself went down.  (Since Panama Canal forces and heavy equipment were being used to lift the bow of the O-5, it became the responsibility of the Canal organization to tunnel under the O-5, pass through the lifting cables, secure the cable to the hook of the Ajax, and otherwise prepare the O-5 for raising.)

Shep Shreaves later recalled:

          "We spotted the O-5 on the bottom by the air bubbles exhausted from the compartment holding Breault and Brown.  To survive, they were bleeding air from 3,000-lb. compressed air reserves in the forward torpedo room.

          "Since the Navy divers gave me a good briefing on the position of the O-5 and the location of the two trapped men, I went right in through the hole in her side.  The light of my lamp was feeble against the black pitch.  Inside it was an awful mess.  It was tight and slippery.  I was constantly pushing away floating debris.

          "When I reached the forward bulkhead of the engine room, I rapped with my diving hammer.  Faint taps were returned. Someone was still alive.  I acknowledged with a feeling of hopelessness, as I could do no more at the time.  I emerged from O-5. By prearrangement I signalled to lower the fire hose.  The O-5 lay upright in several feet of soft mud. I began jetting a trench under her bow. Sluicing through the murk was easy Ė too easy, for it could cave in upon me.  Swirling black engulfed me, and I worked by feel and instinct. I had to be careful not to dredge too much from under the bow, for the O-5 could crush down on me.  Occasionally Iíd hit the hull to let the boys inside know someone was working to save them. Weak taps were returned each time."

Shep continued his desperate effort to dredge out the mud, aware as he worked that he might well be digging his own grave.  Finally, the tunnel was through and Shep passed a guideline under the O-5.  It was attached to a 4-inch diameter steel cable. The cable was snaked under her bow and both ends shacked to the lifting hook of the Ajax.

(continued next page)   

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Copy of this article was provided to WHO by Julius Grigore, Jr., for this site.

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