Three times the cable
broke from the weight of the O-5. Each time new
cable was wrestled under the bow. Aside from the submarine’s
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
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 – paramount in his
thoughts were those two entrapped men in the blackness
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.
was a big hero for a while,’ Shreaves later recalled.
"The boys carried me around on their shoulders.
Everybody rushed down to the Stranger’s 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.
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.
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-5’s 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
boat’s 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
was for Breault’s 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
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.
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
For this rescue
attempt, he received recognition from John Barton Payne,
Chairman of the American Red Cross. Payne’s
commendation, which applied equally to his O-5 exploits,
"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
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
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 – 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
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 Company’s
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 Explorer’s Journal.
(For more on Grigore, GO
Copy of this article was
provided to WHO by Julius Grigore, Jr., for this site.