The Sinking of the USS O-5 (SS-66)

At 1.30 pm on October 29th, 1923, the USS O-5 (SS-66) was successfully brought to the surface, after sinking in 42 feet of water near the entrance to the Panama Canal.

This recovery also ended the ordeal suffered by Torpedoman Henry Breault and Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence T. Brown.  They were trapped in a small watertight compartment for over 30 hours inside the stricken sub.

History of the USS O-5

The USS O-5 (SS-66) was one of 16 O-class submarines built for the U.S. Navy during the First World War.

USS O-5 (SS-66)

USS O-5 (SS-66)


She was 172 feet in length with a beam of 18 feet and displaced 529 tons. She had a diving depth of 200 feet and a crew of 29 officers and enlisted sailors.

At that time, the O-5 was based at Coco Solo, a U.S. Navy submarine base and air station on the north side of the Panama Canal zone.

US Navy Base Coco Solo Panama

US Naval Station Coco Solo, Panama

Here, shipping entered from the Atlantic Ocean to transit the canal south to the Pacific Ocean. This base was active from 1918 to the mid-1960s.

The Collision

The drama started around 6.30 am on September 28th. The USS O-5 was leading a group of four submarines across Limon Bay towards the entrance to the Panama Canal and the Gatun Locks. She was under the command of Lieutenant Harrison Avery.

Gaillard Cut Panama Canal

At that same time, the freighter SS Abangarez, was in the area and making her way towards the port of Cristobal, a town in the Dominican Republic. The United Fruit Company owned and operated the SS Abangarez. And that morning she was under the command of Captain W.A. Card.

The USS O-5 stopped to pick up the Panama Canal pilot, and to switch from its diesel to electric engines.  She was temporarily dead in the water and unable to maneuver.

And it was at this moment, as a result of poor communications and a series of maneuvering mistakes, the steamship collided with the submarine.

SS Abangarez

SS Abangarez

The O-5 didn’t stand a chance against the 4,954 tons freighter. It gashed the submarine’s starboard side and penetrated the number one main ballast tank.

This damage caused her to roll sharply and sink bow first, in under a minute.


Torpedoman Henry Breault could have escaped the sinking submarine.

He was working in the torpedo room when the accident happened and made it on to the deck. But he decided to return below and waken the Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence T. Brown.

His actions saved Brown’s life.

With the submarine rapidly filling with water, they couldn’t find a way out. So they returned to the torpedo room and closed the watertight door.

They were now trapped, and they knew the submarine was sinking fast by the bow.

But they also knew the Navy would start a salvage operation immediately. They had to find a way to let the crew above know they were alive.

Neither of them knew Morse Code, so they started to bang on both sides of the hull.  And around 10.00 am they heard divers outside the hull and got answering hammer blows to their banging.

This gave the two men hope. Although they had no food or water, they were confident they had enough air to last 48hrs.

But would this be enough time to rescue them.

The Rescue Operation

The divers told surface crews there were at least two men still alive inside the boat. And a full-scale rescue operation started.

However, in the 1920s the Navy didn’t have the sophisticated rescue equipment available today.

They realized their only option was to lift the O-5 to the surface. If they tried to open a hatch and get them out, the water gushing in would drown the men before divers could get breathing equipment to them.

The Navy had never attempted this type of underwater rescue. So they turned for help to a local diver, and manager of the Panama Canal Salvage Crew, Sheppard Shreaves.

As it happened, two of the largest crane barges ever built were sitting in the Panama Canal basin. They’d been used to move the massive lock gates during construction.

Floating crane Ajax Panama Canal

Floating crane Ajax, Panama Canal

Shreaves decided this was the best option for raising the O-5.

Frustratingly, the cranes were in the south section of the canal area at Gaillard Cut, trapped after an earth slide in the area.  So two large dredges – the US Cascade and the US Paraiso – went into action and by early afternoon had created a large enough gap for the barges to squeeze through.

By late evening that same day, the massive floating crane Ajax was in place over the sunken submarine.

Broken Cables

The rescue operation didn’t go smoothly.

Shreaves and his salvage crew divers dug channels under the O-5 to create a cradle of cables around her. But when the crane took the strain and tried to lift the boat, the cables snapped.

The cables were replaced, but again they snapped as the crane tried to pull the boat from the mud.

They couldn’t handle the combined weight of the submarine and the suction created by the soft mud surrounding it.

Shreaves and his divers worked non-stop through the night and the following day, replacing the broken cables. Everyone on the surface knew the men were now running out of air.

So the next attempt had to work.

After securing more cables around the submarine, Shreaves swam into the flooded Engine Room to check the damage.  He decided they would blow the water from this area to give extra buoyancy.

The crane took the strain and slowly the O-5 began to move.

A short while later, the submarine breached the surface.

Rescuers swarmed over the O-5 as soon as she appeared and opened the hatch.  The two men were almost unconscious from the poisoned air inside the compartment – but they were alive.

They later said the last 20 minutes of the operation were the worst. They could feel the submarine moving and hoped the cables would hold.

In total five crew were missing after the collision. The bodies of Mess Attendant Fred C. Smith and Fireman Thomas T. Metzler were later recovered.

But the body of Petty Officer Clyde E. Hughes was never found.

Congressional Medal of Honor

For his part in the rescue operation, Sheppard Shreaves was awarded the Congressional Life Saving medal.

Sheppard Shreaves

He had unknowingly created a world first as the duration of his dives were the longest any diver had spent underwater at that time.

And the grateful sailors at the Coco Solo base presented him with a gold watch.  It was engraved with the words, “To S.J. Shreaves, from Submarine Force, Coco Solo, C.Z., for his heroism in raising the O-5.

On March 8th, 1924, at a ceremony in the White House, Henry Breault was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor by then President Calvin Coolidge, “for his heroism and devotion to duty.”

Henry Breault

Breault was the only enlisted sailor on a submarine to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

And today Breault’s medal is on display at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.




Image credits:

U.S. Navy Naval Aviation News July 1964
Map data (c) OpenStreetMap (and) contributors, CC-BY-SA
Panama Canal Review staff – The Panama Canal Review, May 1969

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