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Editor’s Note: Captain Bill Searle was a Naval Academy graduate and completed a degree in Naval Architecture at MIT in 1952. He spent most of his naval career in salvage, culminating in his assignment to the Bureau of Ships as Supervisor of Salvage. After his retirement he remained active ill the field of marble engineering, towing, salvage and diving. Mr. Thomas Gray Curtis, a Civil Engilleerfrom MIT worked with Captain Bill Searle in the Office of the Supervisor of Salvage. He returned to MIT for a degree ill Ocean Engineering. He continued to work for the Navy both in salvage and in the Facilities Engineering Command. He later received a PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota and subsequently taught at several Universities.

Bill Searle’s business partner, RADM Mal MacKi11-non, suggested excerpting the book Undersea Valor for THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. This section about the sinking of USS 0-5 in October of 1923 is considered particularly appropriate since it concerns the awarding of the first Congressional Medal of Honor to a submariner.

Since Submarine Division Eight lacked a tender at that time, on a pleasant Sunday morning 28 October 1923, USS 0-5 (SS 66), under the command of Lt. Harrison Avery, was to guide three sister subs of the division, the 0-8, 0-6 and 0-3, (in that order) through the Panama Canal. The boats were all built by the Fore River Shipbuilding Co. in Quincy, Massachusetts and had basically the characteristics of 0-5, which are listed in Table 10-1.

Length Overall 142’4″ Propulsion Diesel Electric Drive
Beam 18’1’4″ engines model 8-EB-15NR
Displacement 2 x 440 hp
surface 520.6 tons motors 2 x 370 hp
submerged 629 tons speed
Armaments surface 14 kts
tomcdo tube 4-18″ submerged 10.5 kts
torpedocs Bliss-Leavitt Mk VII Battery Cells 120
Fuel 21,897 gal.

The 0-5 had left the dock at the submarine base at Coco Solo at 0550 and headed for Cristobal to pick up a Panama Canal pilot. The pilot, Captain G. 0. Kolle, came aboard while 0-5 was stopped in the channel at the Cristobal mole from 0615 until about 0618.

The flotilla then proceeded south down the east side of the Panama Canal channel. Going ahead on both engines, steering 180 degrees true, A very had been underway only three minutes when forced to stop engines by the United Fruit Co. freighter, ABANGAREZ, which was overtaking the 0-5 to starboard, without signaling her intention.

At 0622 the freighter was observed changing course sharply to port across the bow of the submarine. Lieutenant Avery, with the advice of Captain Kolle, called down through the conning tower hatch for hard left rudder and for the boat to come ahead on both motors, but to no avail.

The freighter, on route from Cuba to Christobol, had anchored in Limon Bay earlier in the morning, waiting for first light before proceeding to Dock No. 8. Anchored about 200 yards west of the channel, about 600 yards south of channel buoy No. I, she got underway at 0614 and came south on a course nearly parallel to that of the 0-5 prior to making the sharp turn to enter Colon Harbor.

The engine room did not respond to the orders to come ahead and tum to mitigate the damage of an imminent collision. Slowly and inexorably the 0-5 went under the bow of ABANGAREZ.

Four short blasts on the freighter’s whistle, the danger signal, rent the air at 0622. She was then approximately 800 feet west and I 00 yards north of channel buoy No. 4 and less than 500 feet from 0-5 when Captain W.A. Card, master of ABANGAREZ, let go her starboard anchor and put her engines in full reverse.5 At the speed she was making, probably between 7 to 10 knots, there was neither enough time nor distance to avoid collision.

About 0624, ABANGAREZ, of 5000 dwt, rammed into the starboard side of the 520-ton 0-5 amidships, tearing a ten-foot-long by three-foot-wide gash in her control room and No. l ballast tank to a depth of forty inches. No hatches were secured, with the exception of the torpedo room deck hatch and the torpedo-loading hatch. No interior bulkhead doors were secured except those between the torpedo room and the forward battery room and that between the after battery room and the engine room. Flooding sent her to the bottom of Limon Bay in less than a minute.

Although the freighter was not damaged, three crew of the submarine lost their lives. More would have perished but for courageous actions and timely salvage efforts. Prior to the sinking, the word had passed to close watertight doors and hatches. Upon collision, the crew abandoned ship. SS ABANGAREZ, the Panama Canal tug PORTOBELLO, the tug TRA VENILLA, and the Panama Canal launch RODMAN rescued most of the crew.

Henry Breault, torpedoman second class, made it to the main deck before going below to the forward battery room to wake his friend Lawrence T. Brown, chief electrician’s mate. As the boat sank, they were trapped, but found refuge, securing themselves in the forward torpedo room.

Rescued crew returned to the submarine base at Coco Solo by bus. Less fortunate were the three that were lost:

C.E. Hughes, MoMM I c
Thomas T. Metzler, Fie
Fred C. Smith, Matt le

The bodies of Merzler and Smith were found two days later floating in the sea off Colon breakwater; Hughes was never found.


Significant, timely salvage saved the lives of Breault and Brown trapped in the forward torpedo room. The commander of the submarine base Coco Solo, Captain Amos Bronzon Jr., tasked Lieutenant Albert Osenger as salvage officer. He could claim the first successful rescue operation by salvage.

Even before Osenger was put in charge, rescue efforts were underway. By 0720 bubbles from the 0-5 were observed, locating the submarine seventy-two yards north of channel buoy No. 3 in water depth of seven fathoms.

Immediate salvage response started with a survey of the wreck by divers off RODMAN. They report, at 0850, that men were alive in the torpedo room who responded to rappings on the hull by returning raps. This made the need for swift salvage obvious. Dockmaster and foreman shipwright for the Panama Canal Mechanical Division, Sheppard J. Shreaves was a qualified diver and supervisor of the Canal’s proficient salvage and diving crew. He personnally did most of the diving.

By 1315 Chritobal Shops Crane No. 287 was moored over the submarine. During the afternoon, preparations were made to lift the bow of the 0-5 by the submarine’s towing pendant. This parted on the second lift attempt in the early evening. Divers then rove I %-inch wire rope, double, through the bull nose in the stem as an alternative. When the 287 took a strain of about fifty tons, her maximum lift capacity, at about 1930, the bow rose slightly and the list to starboard was reduced.

Fortunately, being in the Panama Canal Zone, two large derrick barges, US AJAX and US HERCULES, were nearby. They were used to handle lock gates. Made in Germany, they each could lift 250 tons. When Captain Bronson requested one of these crane barges, they were at Paraiso and unavailable, due to a slide in the Gaillard Cut that trapped them in the Canal.

A landslide of between 250,000 and 300,000 cubic yards of earth cascaded into the Canal on the west side of the Gaillard cut. Working to clear the channel, two dipper dredges, US CASCADES and US PARAISO, blocked passage of vessels through the cut while they worked. At 1400, the dredges were shifted, and waiting vessels on either side of the obstruction were able to pass. CURLEW with AJAX in tow reached the scene of the sinking around 2130 so that the derrick barge could moor over the starboard side of the 0-5 and go to work.

By 2230 AJAX was ready to take a strain on two I 5s-inch wire ropes secured to lifting pad eyes on the deck forward of the conning tower. They immediately carried away.

With time of the essence, divers immediately began rigging two 2 ~-inch straps, each of 150-foot length, shackled to the lifting pads. The port sling carried away after the bow had been raised about eight feet. Under increased load, the starboard lifting eye broke.

This last failure may have been the result of bad rigging. The rigging implied by the Jog entry, “rigging two (2 ~ “) straps 150 feet long to forward lifting pads, eyes to hook and shackled to pad,” suggests that the wire rope strap was bent sharply at the shackle at the pad eye, too sharply to hold the load safely without failing.

Beside the material properties of the metal used in construction, the properties of the wire rope are highly dependent upon how it is constructed, whether it has a core, how many wires are laid up in a strand, how many strands are wound into the rope, and what the strand diameters are. The efficiency of wire rope is indicated by the bending factor, Kb. During bending the efficiency decreases as stresses in the rope due to bending increase as a fraction of the total stress. The service life of a wire rope is drastically shortened by bending it too sharply, as defined by the ratio of the diameter of the bend, D, to the diameter of the wire rope, from the U.S. Navy Ship Salvage Engineer’s Handbook, advises the diameter ratio D/d exceed 14, but also states, “The absolute minimum D/d ratios correspond to rope efficiencies of approximately 90 percent (Kb ;; 0.9).

The bight of the rigging straps was shackled to the pad eye. The diameter of the band around the shackle was perhaps three inches. Consequently the diameter ratio, Did, was approximately 1.2. This sharp bend would have caused the wire rope failure.

An alternative approach was taken. The hull of the submarine would be used as a fairlead to prevent the strap from bending too sharply.

Diving expertise enabled lifting slings to be passed under the bow of the 0-5, in preparation for lift. By use of a fire hose, a tunnel was washed through the soft mud on which the submarine rested approximately twenty feet from the stem. Careful not to excavate too much mud and cause the tunnel to collapse, Shreaves passed a messenger line through the tunnel that drew two 2 % -inch straps under the bow. The strap eyes were secured to the lifting hook of the AJAX. A 1-inch wire preventer, secured to the port lifting pad eye, kept the straps from moving forward.

At 1303 AJAX started lifting slowly so that water could seep beneath the boat and release the mud suction. The bow was raised until the torpedo hatch was above the water surface. The two trapped men were able to escape from the wreck.

It was kismet! After thirty-one hours entombed in the torpedo room, Henry Breault and Lawrence Brown were taken to the chamber at Coco Solo for decompression and then to Colon Hospital for examination.

The sea, fortunately, was calm during salvage; it was free of the normal two-to four-foot chop. The boat was in shallow water, just seven fathoms. This made the trim angle on the boat fairly small when her bow broke the surface. Most importantly, the shallow water enabled Shep Shreaves to work for nearly twenty-four hours. This Herculean effort could not have been made at deeper depths.

Sheppard J. Shreaves was awarded the Congressional Lifesaving Medal in recognition of his contribution to the rescue. He had established a world record for the longest dive.

On 4 April 1924 Henry Breault was presented the Medal of Honor by President Calvin Coolidge on the White House lawn, “for heroism and devotion to duty … Instead of jumping overboard to save his own life, he returned to the torpedo room to the rescue of a shipmate whom he knew was trapped in the boat. … ”

The submarine and her commanding officer did not fare as well. A wooden cofferdam around the torn hull of the 0-5 enabled sufficient dewatering that the boat could be towed back to Coco Solo. Most of her electrical equipment was destroyed by seawater. It was not considered economic to salvage the boat. She was struck from the Navy register and sold for scrap in 1924.

The court of Inquiry found that Captain W. A. Card was solely at fault for the collision between ABANGAREZ and the 0-5; he had violated the “Rules of the Road” and the Rules of the Operation and Navigation of the Panama Canal ” … he failed to signify his intentions by making whistle signals … when he was overtaking … he attempted to cross ahead of the USS 0-5 without signifying his intentions by making whistle signals, which maneuver is contrary to the above rules.” Despite the apparently clear cut case, a lawsuit, United States v. United Fruit Company (Submarine 0-5 -SS ABANGAREZ), lingered in the court of appeals for years. On 20 August 1932, Judge Wayne G. Borah of the Federal Court in New Orleans held “that the USS 0-5 was solely responsible to the collision with the United Fruit Company’s ship ABANGAREZ at Colon in 1923.

The Court of Inquiry had recommended that Lieutenant Avery be tried at general court-martial on charges of (a) neglect of duty and (b) culpable inefficiency in the performance of duty. He had been so tried and acquitted.

The tragedy of this accident was compounded when, years later, Harrison Avery committed suicide. “His memory seemed to be very nearly blank for things immediately at hand while he apparently remembered and used to describe in detail various incidents which had happened many years ago.”

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