Submarine O-5 Sinking in Limon Bay, Canal Zone October 28, 1923       [p2 of 2 ]


Site Map



 Guest Book

Contact WHO











By WHO / By Others




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.


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! -- Continued



Three times the cable broke from the weight of the O-5.  Each time new cable was wrestled under the bow. Aside from the submarineís flooded weight, there was the problem of the powerful mud suction which somehow had to be broken.

By early morning of the 29th, round-the-clock efforts to raise the O-5 had failed miserably, and fears for Breault and Brown mounted.

Shep surfaced occasionally to report to Captain Bronson and to permit Navy doctors to examine him.  They were concerned that his extreme exertion, while working under pressure, would put too great a strain on his heart. But, by now, Shep Shreaves had no thought of his own safety Ė paramount in his thoughts were those two entrapped men in the blackness below.

After being underwater and in his diving suit for almost 24 hours, Shep surfaced and seemed to be functioning on will power alone.  His job below was done and the O-5 was ready for a fourth attempt to lift her.  At 12:30 p.m. on the 29th, from topside, Shep released compressed air into the engine room of the O-5 to unflood that compartment and lighten the boat. Water and mud bubbled to the surface as from a boiling cauldron. The Ajax took a strain on the cable. When Shep sensed that the moment was right, he signalled the Ajax to commence lifting.  The silence that followed was almost unbearable.  The bay was as calm as glass, for which all were grateful.  Usually, there was a two to four-foot chop, which was disruptive to diving operations.  The Ajax continued to haul, and the bow of the O-5 inched upward.  After what seemed an eternity, the bow broke surface and a roaring cheer was heard even in Cristobal.  When the hatch leading to the men became accessible, a score of rescuers tried to jump onto the O-5 to open it.

The two imprisoned men crawled from the O-5.  Topside, Brown fainted from prostration.  The moment was charge with emotion and many wept unashamedly in relief and thanksgiving.

Breault and Brown, while on the deck of the Rodman, hugged each other with joy at being alive and among their fellow men again.  Rushed into a decompression chamber at Coco Solo Hospital, they were later taken to Colon Hospital to determine what ill effects they might have suffered from 31 hours of tortuous confinement.

"I was a big hero for a while,í Shreaves later recalled. "The boys carried me around on their shoulders. Everybody rushed down to the Strangerís Club in Colon for a big celebration and to relieve their tensions. But me, I went to sleep at the party."

The O-5 incident established a world record for Shep.  His were the longest duration dives up to that time.



Luck and skill played equally important roles in the rescue of Henry Breault, above.  For despite the heroic efforts of burly "Shep" Shreaves, upper photograph.  Breault and Brown would have perished had it not been for the availability of the cranebarge Ajax, seen at work in the Gaillard Cut two months before the sinking of the O-5.


There was now time to obtain the answers to the important question.  How did Breault and Brown become confined in the O-5?

When the collision occurred, the 23-year-old Breault had been in the forward torpedo room.   Upon hearing the order to abandon the O-5, he escaped to the main deck, but he quickly realized that his friend, Chief Lawrence T. Brown, was asleep in the forward battery room.   Breault, with more concern for warning Brown than for saving his own life, dropped into the O-5, as she was sinking, securing the hatch cover.  Brown was awake but had not heard the order to abandon the O-5. Until Breault appeared he remained unaware of what had happened. With water engulfing them, they attempted an escape through the conning tower, but the deluge blocked that route.  They struggled back into the forward torpedo room and forced shut its watertight door.

Immediately thereafter, the forward battery room, where Brown had been sleeping, filled with sea water.  The batteries shorted, an incandescent arc ignited the chlorine gas, and a violent explosion erupted.  Miraculously, the door to their steel tomb held.  (This was the second battery explosion during the O-5ís short life.  On 5 October 1918, someone had accidentally left the ventilator to the battery room closed, causing gas to accumulate and explode. Two lives were lost, and two men were injured.)

About three hours after Breault and Brown became trapped, a Navy diver hammered the hull. Brown recalled:

          "Breault and I separated to pound on each of the boatís sides. In this way, the rescuers would know that were two of us.  Breault played a kind of tune with his hammer, indicating to the diver that we were in good shape and cheerful.  Neither of us knew Morse Code.  We had no food or water, and only a flashlight.  We were confident we could stay alive for forty-eight hours.

          "The high pressure and foul air gave us severe headaches.  We did very little moving or talking; it excited our hearts too much.

          "We heard scraping on the hull for hours.  A couple of times we felt the O-5 being lifted, and then we got tossed roughly when the slings broke.  We knew they were hard after us.  This buoyed our hopes for rescue tremendously.

          "Finally, the sub began to be tilted upward slowly.  We felt we would escape this time, but  it seemed like forever.  The last 20 minutes were unbearable.  We heard our comrades walking on deck.  Breault opened the hatch and we could see daylight.  We were saved!!!"

It was for Breaultís act of selflessness and valor, by going to the assistance of his shipmate, in the face of almost certain death, that he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Calvin A. Coolidge on 4 April 1924.

Shep also was honored for his heroic O-5 exploit.  The Acting Governor of the Canal Zone, H. Burgess, recommended Shep for a Congressional Life Saving Medal.  He also received a 14-karat gold watch from 800 grateful members of the Coco Solo Submarine Base.  The presentation was made at a Navy night banquet to inaugurate the opening of the Y.M.C.A. Army-Navy Club, Cristobal.  The watch was inscribed, "To S.J. Shreaves, from Submarine Force, Coco Solo, C.Z., for his heroism in raising the O-5."  Breault and Brown presented it to Shep.

Shepís performance on the O-5 was not the end of his heroic deeds.  On 16 July 1924, four laborers were trapped in the hold of the SS Columbia.  Shep went down after them, but he was too late.  The laborers were dead from poisonous fumes, and Shep was hauled up unconscious.

For this rescue attempt, he received recognition from John Barton Payne, Chairman of the American Red Cross.  Payneís commendation, which applied equally to his O-5 exploits, read:

          "Your extraordinary heroism has aroused my admiration.  It is one thing to calmly perform a heroic act under the stimulation of a great wave of excitement, without having time to think much of danger, and quite another to calmly face death without excitement and inspiration of dramatic circumstances."

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

Other lives were touched by the O-5 sinking. R. G. Lewis, a photographer for Fox Movietone News, who now resides in retirement in the Republic of Panama, was awarded a five-dollar bonus by his company for the best subject of the current week. His extraordinary film documented the full pictorial sequence of the O-5 rescue and salvage operation.

W. H. Stone received a commendation for efficient and valuable services rendered in connection with the fund raising of the O-5.  It was Stone who suggested a plan for fitting a wooden cofferdam around the gash in the O-5. It permitted the O-5 to be pumped out sufficiently to raise and tow her to the U.S. Submarine Base, Coco Solo.

On 26 November 1923, Lieutenant Avery was found to be responsible for the collision, but a Court of Naval Inquiry later cleared the O-5 of blame for the collision.  At the time of his death, in October 1934, Lieutenant Commander Avery commanded the USS Isabel (PY-10) of the Asiatic Fleet.

The ordeal suffered by the O-5 made her valueless for future naval service. She was stripped of valuable fittings and equipment and sold to a private individual for $3,125 on 12 December 1924. Her original cost had been $638,000.

This did not end the O-5 incident. On 14 August 1927, the SS Abangarez was seized by U.S. marshals on her arrival in New Orleans from Havana. Libels exceeding $336,000 were brought against the vessel.  The government charged negligence among the reasons for seizure. United States vs. United Fruit Company (Submarine O-5 Ė SS Abangarez) continued in the courts until 20 August 1932, when Federal Judge Wayne G. Borah, New Orleans, ruled the O-5 was at fault in the collision.

At a time when modern rescue and safety devices did not exist, and while submarines were still in their infancy, it remains a remarkable feat that the two men strapped in the O-5 were not only rescued, but that their submarine was raised quickly thereafter.  Rescue of personnel from within a disabled submarine was not duplicated until 16 years later in 1939 when 33 men were saved from the USS Squalus (SS-192) through the use of a submarine rescue chamber.

Had the Abangarez and the O-5 collision occurred elsewhere, Breault and Brown would have perished for want of the rare combination of humanity and technology that was required to effect their rescue and which made the O-5 incident unique in the annals of submarine rescue.


Captain Julius Grigore, Jr., USNR, is Supervisor of Shipbuilding, Conversion and Repair, U.S. Navy, Fifteenth Naval District, Fort Amador, Canal Zone. Before being recalled to active duty, he was Assistant Chief, Industrial Division, the Panama Canal Companyís shipyard complex. He is a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, the University of Detroit, and of the Harvard Business School, Advanced Management Program. He is the author of numerous articles for the National Transportation Journal, Military Engineer, Panama Canal Review, and Explorerís Journal.

(For more on Grigore, GO TO)


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


preceding page

Site developed, owned and maintained by  

William H. Ormsbee, Jr.   2006