United States naval history is rich with the lore of heroic rescues, but the long-ago actions of one young sailor aboard an early Navy submarine are in a category by itself — literally.
While aboard the USS O-5 on Oct. 28, 1923, Torpedoman’s Mate Second Class Henry Breault performed actions so spectacular that they earned him a permanent place in Navy history, and made him the only enlisted U.S. submariner to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions aboard a U.S. submarine.
As Breault’s vessel led a column of submarines toward the entrance to the Panama Canal that day, a steamship reportedly carrying bananas collided with it, opening a large hole and causing the submarine to begin sinking, according to the Submarine Force Library and Museum.
Despite calls to abandon ship and take refuge within the nearby steamship, Breault chose another path; one that later earned him the nation’s highest award for military service from then-President Calvin Coolidge.
As he began climbing the ladder from the torpedo room to head topside and escape to the steamship, the 23-year-old realized that his buddy, Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence T. Brown, was asleep below and would die unless someone rushed to his rescue.
So without a smidgen of hesitation, Breault slammed the hatch closed just as the forward portion of the submarine slipped underwater and climbed back down to wake Brown. It turned out Brown was already awake, though he was unaware of the order to abandon ship.
Here’s what happened next, according to the submarine museum:
“Both men headed aft to exit through Control, but the water coming into the Forward Battery compartment made that escape route unusable. They made it through the rising water to the torpedo room and had just shut and dogged the door when the battery shorted and exploded. Breault knew the bow was under, and they were trapped.”
And trapped the two remained for 31 hours until a salvage party finally managed to rescue them, according to the Medal of Honor citation Breault received in February of the following year.
Now think about this. Both men could have died — Brown because he had been asleep, and Breault because he voluntarily risked his life to save his buddy.
Some say it’s how a man acts in a moment of crisis that defines his soul. If that’s true, then there’s no denying that Henry Breault, who died in 1941 at the age of 41, was a man of the utmost character deserving of the greatest rewards available to him in heaven.
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