At the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut, there’s an area reserved for the Submarine Force’s Medal of Honor recipients. Visitors can read about the lives and service of Capt. John P. Cromwell, Cmdr. Samuel David Dealey, Rear Adm. Eugene B. Fluckey, Cmdr. Howard Gilmore, Rear Adm. Richard O’Kane, Vice Adm. Lawson P. Ramage and Capt. George L. Street III, who all served as the commanding officers of submarines.
There’s another who stands as a peer among them, TM2 Henry Breault, the only enlisted submariner to receive his Medal of Honor for actions performed in such a role.
My article in the International Journal of Maritime History details his story by adding new details, and my upcoming book, The Silent Service’s First Hero, will be the culmination of research into his life, but there are numerous small episodes that are good to note.
Medal of Honor action
Henry Breault had prior military service under his belt before joining the US Navy. At only 16, he’d enlisted with the British Royal Navy, under the Royal Navy Canadian Volunteer Reserve, during the Great War, and transferred to the American service in 1920.
On October 28, 1923, the torpedoman second class was serving aboard the USS O-5 (SS-66) when the vessel suffered a collision in the Panama Canal. At the time, the submarine was serving with the US Atlantic Fleet, under the command of Lt. Harrison Avery, who was leading the submarine, as well as four others, toward the entrance of the canal.
A series of errors ultimately led O-5 to crash into the United Fruit Company steamship SS Abangarez, with a 10-foot hole ripped into the submarine’s starboard side. While 16 crewmen were saved during the initial rescue operation, five still remained missing, including Breault.
Like other Medal of Honor recipients, the submariner put his own safety behind that of his comrades, choosing to remain inside the vessel and help fellow crew member Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence T. Brown. They became trapped in the torpedo room and remained inside O-5 until they were rescued the following day during salvage efforts.
Henry Breault was originally recommended for the Navy Cross
Harrison Avery initially recommended Henry Breault for the Navy Cross, which Cmdr. R.H. English and Capt. Amos Bronson concurred with. However, Rear Adm. Montgomery M. Taylor upgraded it to the Medal of Honor.
The first public announcement that Breault would receive the distinction was in the Baltimore Sun on February 20, 1924. The Navy Board announced his award, but gave no date. Its members likely didn’t know when he’d show up, as they’d organized transportation via ship and set a tentative date as a placeholder. Breault received his orders to go aboard the USS Capella (AK-13).
Late to his own award ceremony?
On February 23, 1924, Henry Breault boarded the USS Capella, which was scheduled to arrive in Hampton Roads on March 5. A surprising accusation surfaced in some of the newspapers around this time: he was allegedly late to his own award ceremony!
Several publications offered an alternative motivation. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle suggested the delay was due to Breault’s need for a new uniform, which makes sense in the aftermath of the loss of the USS O-5, for which he filed a property claim, indicating he may have lost all of his uniform items.
The only thing close to a reason or excuse given by Breault himself was during an interview with a reporter from The New York Evening Post on March 15, 1924. According to the reporter, Breault gave the justification, “He could see no reason to hurry.”
Breault’s ceremony occurred on March 8, 1924. No mention of the submariner’s tardiness can be found in his Official Military Personnel File, indicating Breault wasn’t punished for any infraction of decorum. If he was tardy, as alleged, we can conclude it was almost certainly not his fault.
Still, if the newspapers are to be believed, it appears Breault also shares another first, being the only Medal of Honor recipient to be late to his own ceremony.
A century has passed since Henry Breault received his Medal of Honor
Even if it wasn’t his fault, for a service that reveled in displaying an independent streak and a tendency to being nonregulation in the period in question, this episode likely added to Henry Breault’s legend in his lifetime, rather than detracting from it.
He served in a period where the Submarine Force was becoming a separate and distinct entity within the US Navy, one that offered better pay for sailors willing to brave the experimental boats of the interwar period.
Likely because he was a Medal of Honor recipient, Breault has information preserved that an average submariner from the period wouldn’t. As such, reconstructing his experience has involved digging into numerous areas that have rarely been linked together, such as Medal of Honor recipients and timeliness.
On March 8, 2024, the centennial anniversary of Henry Breault’s award will be celebrated. This marks 100 years since the Navy’s Submarine Force has had a recipient and the recognition that comes with it.
Written by Ryan C Walker, MA, BA, Qualified in Submarines