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