Their service is often silent, but valorous nonetheless, and exactly a century ago Friday, a Navy submariner became the first of his kind to receive the Medal of Honor.

President Calvin Coolidge presented Torpedoman’s Mate 2nd Class Henry Breault the military’s highest military decoration on March 8, 1924.

Actions in the Panama Canal the year before led Breault to become the silent service’s first Medal of Honor recipient.

On the Atlantic side of the canal, Breault was serving aboard the USS O-5 on Oct. 28, 1923, when a commercial vessel struck the sub, sinking it in less than a minute, according to his Medal of Honor citation.

Breault was in the torpedo room at the time of the collision but managed to make it to the hatch and escape.

But according to Navy General Orders 125 from Feb. 20, 1924, he soon realized a fellow submariner was left behind.

“Upon reaching the hatch, he saw that the boat was rapidly sinking,” the orders read. “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.”

That shipmate was Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence Brown. The ship’s compartments were flooding fast, but Breault secured the watertight door to the torpedo room, giving the pair precious air and time. Breault locked himself and Brown inside. Safe there, they planned to wait for salvage divers.

Brown’s account made it into an article called “The O-5 is Down!″ by Capt. Julius Grigore, Jr., published in a 1972 edition of the U.S. Naval Institute magazine “Proceedings.”

“Breault and I separated to pound on each of the boat’s sides. In this way, the rescuers would know there were two of us,” Brown recalled. “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.”

It took 31 hours, but the pair was rescued.

“Breault’s shipmate almost certainly would have died had Breault not intervened at the risk to this own life,” note National Medal of Honor Museum records.

This action prompted the vessel’s commanding officer, Lt. Harrison Avery, to submit Breault for a Navy Cross.

Researcher Ryan Walker speculates in a 2022 article that the reason Avery did not recommend the Medal of Honor is because Avery’s lower rank didn’t permit him to do so.

Control Force Commander Rear Adm. Montgomery Taylor ultimately made the adjustment and upgraded the recommendation to a Medal of Honor.

“The unusual heroic conduct of Breault and his devotion to duty, particularly in that he almost surely saved Brown’s life at the risk of his own and in that his devotion to duty saved a [considerable] loss of Government property, deserves recognition,” Taylor wrote.

Breault reenlisted several times and was promoted to the rank of Torpedoman’s Mate 1st Class, according to his service record. His last duty station was at the submarine base in New London, Conn.

He ultimately served in the Navy for 20 years before developing a heart condition, which claimed his life on Dec. 5, 1941. He was 41 years old.

The Vermont state legislature is honoring his service 100 years later with a resolution to be presented on March 15.

Though born in Connecticut, he is accredited to Vermont, according to his citation.

Breault specified that he was from Vermont when he received the award, Bill Mattoon of the Green Mountain Base Submarine Veterans group wrote in an email to Military Times.

“For us Submariners in Vermont, this is a special moment in our history,” Mattoon said.

Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.

In Other News
Load More