1923 – Someday all submarines will carry airplanes

You sunk my battleship!

Growing up, we had a game called battleship. It was definitely old school and involved two plastic boards with a lid and an “ocean” that was punctuated by many small holes. Two players would sit across from each other and arrange their plastic ships and submarine at random places on their ocean without the other player being able to see the disbursement. Then as play progressed, you would call out a letter/number combination where you “hits” were aimed. If you were lucky enough to make a hit, eventually you would zero in on the targets and sink them. The first one that loses their ships loses the game.

A map of one player’s ships and the hits against them, from a game in progress. The grey boxes are the ships placed by the player, and the cross marks show the squares that their opponent has fired upon. The player would be tracking the success of their own shots in a separate grid.

The Naval Arms Limitations Treaty short circuited the game by destroying battleships before anyone could even fire a shot. 

The Bleak Years

1923 started out as a bleak year for the United States Navy. The destruction of so many battleships and freeze in major construction for newer models was certainly a shock to the system of the leadership. Gone were the heady days of national enthusiasm and support. After all, the world was at peace and we had just completed a Naval Arms Limitation treaty. The first of many “peace dividends” would satisfy the many citizens who were tired of war and its personal costs.

The Navy emerged from the war with a collection of ships and submarines that seemed on paper to be sufficient. Since the end of the war had eliminated some of the countries from competition in the arms race, the treaty was a natural way to limit growth on the rest. 1923 saw the rise in modern devices that made life easier and simpler. Automobiles were being produced and the nation was on the move. Radio was fast becoming a powerful new way to communicate and the reach of the telephone systems spread all across the continent and indeed the world. Undersea communications cables linked all of the continents like never before.

Flight was becoming more of a reality to further connect the separated land masses. Even at home, the advent of commercial flight was in its rough beginnings. While expensive and limited, engineers and visionaries were already predicting that airplanes would someday rival and even replace trains as the principal mode of mass transportation. One engineer even predicted that as many as fifty airplanes a day could connect New York and Chicago.

The navy was trying to keep the public interested in its efforts to modernize. An organization called the Navy League was promoting a new idea called Navy Day that it had started the previous October. The lackluster start was replaced with a lot of enthusiasm by 1923. The Norfolk Virginia celebration would even have something never before seen.

Plane To Fly From Submarine’s Deck

By International News Service.

NORFOLK, Va., Oct. 20. –  One of the thrillers of Navy Day, October 27, will be the flight of a tiny airplane, piloted by Lieut. Comdr. R. M. Griffin, from the deck of the huge submarine S-2, and, after a speed flight, returning and landing back on the deck of the underseas craft. Then officers and men aboard the submarine will “knock down” the plane, take it below decks, and in less than a minute the submarine will disappear beneath the waves. Griffin will do this stunt twice on Navy Day for the benefit of visitors to the submarine base at Hampton Roads

Enthusiasts even predicted that someday in the future, all submarines would carry aircraft.

Navy Day

In the United States, the Navy League of the United States organized the first Navy Day in 1922, holding it on October 27 because it was the birthday of 26th President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919, served 1901–1909), who was a naval enthusiast/promoter of sea power and former assistant Secretary of the Navy just before the Spanish–American War of 1898. Although meeting with mixed reviews the first year, in 1923 over 50 major cities participated, and the United States Navy sent a number of its ships to various port cities for the occasion.

From the Harvard Crimson:

“With the approval of President Coolidge and the United States Navy Department, the United States Navy League has designated October 27 as Navy Day, and asks the cooperation of the country at large in making the celebration successful and fruitful of results.

“The League is an organization of civilians formed to disseminate information concerning the state and needs of the Navy and to promote interest in maintaining the first line of our national defense. It was organized in 1902, at a time when it became apparent that the navy built up during the Spanish War was in danger of deterioration because of lack of interest and understanding on the part of the people and their Congress.

“At the time the Navy League was formed, President Roosevelt wrote from the White House: “It seems to me that all Americans, interested in the growth of this country and sensitive to its honor, should give hearty support to the policies which the Navy League is founded to further. I congratulate the country because it has been formed.”

Roosevelt Gave Noble Money to League

After fifteen years of active friendship for the League, it is an interesting fact that President Roosevelt gave the League five hundred dollars of the money he received from the Nobel Peace Prize, a fund which he distributed to the organizations and causes he considered most worthy of support.

The League is heartily in accord with the Washington Conference and the principle of limitation of naval armaments by agreement laid down by it. It stands for the full acceptance of the implication of the 5-5-3 ration; that is that the United States should not only Keep within the limits of the treaty but that it should maintain its naval strength in every essential respect as permitted under the treaty.

What is not generally realized is that the United States Navy is not as strong as it is permitted to be under the treaty. It is not as strong as it should be. Thirteen of eighteen battleships need modernizing. Twenty scout cruisers are necessary to maintain the treaty ration in this weapon as compared to Japan, and even more as compared to Great Britain. The United States is deficient in cruise submarines. The number of enlisted personnel is low. In many ways it is under the treaty strength.

League Wants Strong Navy

The League tries to inform those who do not know the value and necessity for a strong navy. It tries to impress upon friends of the navy. It is not even enough that their representatives in Congress vote for sufficient appropriations for the Navy. It is necessary to have the vote of majority of representatives in congress. The League joins the friends of the navy in spreading correct information concerning the why and how of the Navy.

The day after Navy day, another submarine tragedy gripped the nation.

Whatever positives may have come out of October 27 were quickly lost as another submarine accident stole the headlines.

October 28, 1923

Imprisoned in Sunken Submarine, Two Desperately Fight for Life

Wait, Endure and Watch for Rescuers During Long Hours in Watertight Chamber—Nearly Overcome Before Disabled Craft Is Finally Raised From Bottom of Sea by Heroic Efforts of Navy’s Divers and Sailors—Hydrogen Blast and Chlorine Freed by Acid Add to Perils of Situation—Weird Flames and Heat


A CLIMAX of terror, weirdness and startling fantasy is to be discovered in the full report of the recent sinking of the United States submarine 0-5 off Panama.

The undersea boat is rammed by a merchantman and founders in forty feet of water. Twenty-four of her thirty men get away safely as she plunges. Six men go down with the broken hulk. Three die. One, trapped in a flooded compartment, makes a ghostly escape to the surface. Two are imprisoned in a water-tight chamber. For a phantom-haunted day and a half they lie in their black vault at the bottom of the sea, enduring an ordeal monstrous in fright and unearthly menace. Then they are rescued from their sunken tomb.

At sunrise three underwater craft running awash, slid into Union bay, bound for the Atlantic entrance of the canal to make the transit into the Pacific. The 0-5 was in the lead.

Steaming toward them came the United Fruit liner Abangarez. The 0-5 lay across her bow. There was a blunder. The two vessels sought to elude each other, but the oncoming merchantman bore directly upon the submarine. It was seen that the 0-5 must take the crash. There were frantic shouts. Men rushed up from below.

“Close the torpedo room door”’ the command sounded, as the officer on deck of the submarine ordered the compartment shut. With these air chambers sealed the craft might float. A man ran to the hatch —Henry Berault, the torpedo dispatcher. He flung himself down the hatch, to the torpedo room. In the dim light he saw a man sleeping on a cot there. He was crazed with the desire to get back up to the surface, but he darted into the long, low chamber and roused the slumberer, whom he saw to be Lawrence Brown, the electrician’s mate.

A crunching impact outside, and both men went sprawling to the floor. The boat lurched and swung over onto one side. Water poured down the hatchway and flushed the torpedo room. They struggled to the door. They would not be able to make their way up against the rush of water. They forced the door shut in front of them. A foot of water lay at the lower slope of the floor. They scrambled to the upper slope and clung to a stanchion to keep out of the water and waited in pale anxiety.

The bow of the towering merchantman had rammed the submarine at the middle. Iron plates had been wrenched apart and water was flooding the craft’s vitals through large gaps. The 0-5, listing still further, began to settle. Two dozen men leaped from the slanting deck into the sea and swam. A rescuing boat swung down the side of the steamer.

SOMEWHERE in the intricate vitals of the doomed submarine were Clyde Hughes, motor machinist’s mate; Thomas Metzler, fireman, and Fred Smith. Panaman mess attendant. The water came upon them and they struggled and died.

On the steep spiral stairway to the aft hatch a man waged a mad fight. Charles R. Buttler, chief machinist’s mate, was at the throttle in the engine room when the crash came and flung him to the floor. He ran to the gangway, scampered up and was near the top when a torrent of water through the pipe-like hatchway knocked him stumbling back. He struggled to his feet and lurched his way up again, but once more the rush of water beating on the narrow iron stairway flung him back, now into the rising water. He floundered up and for a third time was thrown back. The surging water engulfed him. He struck out with frantic swimming strokes, got to the engine and climbed up its side, as the water rose around him. On top of the engine he waited like a trapped animal. Then he saw that the water had ceased to rise. An air pocket had formed at the top of the compartment, and he was in this pocket.

He rested for one appalling moment, contemplating his destiny, The pressure in the air pocket was Increasing oppressively as the boat slowly sank. Now there was a slight shock as it settled on the bottom. His head was bursting, his thoughts wandering. He could not live in this strange prison nook for more than a few minutes. Delirium and death were before him.

He summoned all of his senses for a last despairing effort. He knew the boat well and could tell that she had listed in such a way that the air pocket had formed just beside the hatchway. With a dive into the water beneath him and a few swimming strokes, he might rise up through the opening to the surface of the sea. How deep the sea was here he could not guess. He might die before he got to the surface. But it was his only hope.

Swiftly he threw off his clothes and made a reckoning of the exact position of the hatch opening with the desperate intensity of a man who stakes his life on his guess. He let himself into the water, beat his way down and in the direction where he supposed the hatch was. Then he let himself rise. His head struck heavily against an obstacle. A wild clutch of despair, hut his crazily groping hands told him that he had struck the hatch cover. The hatch was only half open. Trapped in the sunken shell at the bottom of the sea, the terrified man made a last effort. With a mad wrench he slid the hatch cover fully open. But now a weird force caught and swirled him.

The margin of the air pocket had lain near the edge of the half closed hatch cover. The cover pushed open, a great mass of the heavily compressed air was released. It shot upward. It caught the body of the man in its fantastic grip and propelled him like a missile toward the surface. He was twisted by the blast, straightened out, and shot up head foremost.


Nine minutes after the 0-5 had gone down the survivors in boats and the people of the ship saw a vast bubbling of the water and a man arose upright, flung up out of the sea as if by some demonic power, until his feet were out of the water. He fell back, swimming.

In the torpedo room the two youths, Berault and Brown, clung to their places at the upper slope of the floor and waited in nerve-tearing anxiety. After thirty seconds the lights went out. The water had got into the battery. Berault had a flash lamp, and quickly a narrow white beam cut the utter darkness. They thought of the torpedo tube. They had heard of men shooting themselves out of torpedo tubes and rising to the surface of the water. It was said that prisoners in the holds of battleships had released themselves in that way. A torpedo was merely pushed out into the water by compressed air. A man could lie in the tube and by hunching up his knees could fill it sufficiently for the pressure of the packed air to thrust him into the water. Berault inspected the torpedo discharging apparatus. Everything was workable. Boats would be lying on the surface to make rescues, and there was only a small chance of the escaping men striking their heads against a bottom and drowning stunned.

The torpedo dispatcher could propel his mate out, and then, with his practiced knowledge, could get out himself. But the gauge, in the torpedo room showed that they were lying beneath forty feet of water. They could not guess whether they would come alive to the surface from such a depth. They were certain that divers and a crane would come and raise the wreck in the hope that men might be alive in it. That would take many hours—a day, perhaps, or two days. The torpedo room might leak and fill. If it did they would wait until the last possible moment, and then the torpedo tube.

The chamber seemed staunch and water-tight. But would it prove gastight when the salt water had reached the acid in the battery room next to them and had released the deadly chlorine gas? They resolved that at the first choking breath of chlorine they would make for the torpedo tube. But they could detect no odor of chlorine, although they guessed the salt water must have mingled with the acid. They could look into the battery room. The door between had a glass window. By flashing their light into the chamber they could see that it was .half full of water.

Thus forty-five minutes passed.

A blinding flash of an eerie blue and frightful crash and boom arose. The steel vault trembled. The batteries had exploded. Salt water and acid had engendered a fearful cloud of chlorine and hydrogen. An electric spark had detonated .the hydrogen.

The shaken youths flung themselves to the door. The heavy glass pane had not broken. They then saw a weird and marvelous spectacle. The gas continued to burn with a strange, menacing roar and with fantastic darlings of blue hydrogen flames. In the sunken, half-filled chamber the water bubbled with great emissions of gas, the gas took fire as it arose, and wild flames leaped and danced over the swirling surface of the water. Surely no stranger sight has ever been seen at the bottom of the sea.


IT grew very hot in the torpedo room. The burning hydrogen emitted an intense heat, to which the acid mixed with water added.

The heat abated as the fire burnt down until it was no more than ghostly occasional flicker. The men were thirsty now. There was water in a lead-lined tank in the torpedo room, but not water for drinking and they were afraid of lead poisoning. They had no food. They reasoned that under the conditions they would be able to hold out for forty-eight hours. If at the expiration of that time the hull was not raised to the surface they would chance the torpedo tube.

They settled down for a for a forty eight-hour wait. An hour had passed since the 0-5 sank. There was a clock in the room. With occasional flashes of the lamp at its face they watched it. But as the hours dragged by they found the agonizingly slow progress of the hands unbearable and they ceased looking at the clock.

Three hours after the sinking a diver came alongside the boat. They could hear him thumping around. The joy-maddened youths gripped hammers and pounded signals to him. Taking their posts at opposite ends of the room so that he might know where were two, they played drumming tunes, dancing rhythms of glee.

Twelve hours after the sinking the first hoist was made. The boat rose. Then the joyous prisoners heard something snap and the 0-5 settled on the bottom again. She settled on an even keel now and the imprisoned men were more comfortable.

Hour after hour passed in a long silent, moveless, dismal succession. The waiting men understood that some difficulty had been encountered by the hoisters, that night had come upon them and they were compelled to wait until daybreak to continue.

By the twentieth hour of their imprisonment Berault and Brown were in torment. The air pressure had become agonizing and their mouths were baked with thirst.

The time for daybreak passed, and still hour after hour of movelessness and silence went by. During the thirty-first hour a diver was again heard alongside. Chains were placed again. Now, with a small jerk, the 0-5 was raised and moved steadily upward. Sunlight, air, the upper world! But the joy of the spirit was tempered with the aches of the flesh. The two rescued men rejoiced with swelling gladness, but had to endure the pains that come to those who pass quickly from poisoned air to free air. That was small discomfort, though, after the ghastly terrors they had endured.

Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 09 Dec. 1923.


As often happened in the early days, his name was incorrectly spelled throughout the entire story

Petty Officer Breault was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Calvin Coolidge on 4 April 1924. It was awarded for Breault’s uncommon valor in going to the aid of a fellow shipmate who most certainly would have died if Breault had not intervened, with complete disregard of his own safety. For his role in the rescue, Sheppard Shreaves later received the Congressional Life Saving Medal, presented personally by Breault and Brown that same year.

The first submariner awarded the Medal of Honor. To this date, the only enlisted submariner who has ever been awarded the MOH


By the end of 1923, the effects of the past war draw down were being felt all around the fleet.

In his annual report, the Chief of Naval Operations sounded the alarm.


Admiral Coontz Declares Naval Service Hampered by Small Man Power.

The United States fleet during the past fiscal year was seriously hampered by the insufficiency of the allowed personnel, Admiral R. E. Coontz, chief of naval operations during that period declared in his annual report made public today.

The report said the necessity of finding crews for several new light cruisers commissioned during the year required cutting down of complements at submarine bases and elsewhere to a point that meant loss of efficiency. Admiral Coontz added that it has been necessary to use first class battleships for the practice cruises of midshipmen and to use destroyers for experimental work, taking them away from their regular duties. “This should not be,” declared the admiral.

Delays In Construction Cited.

In connection with delay in completing the S-class submarines of the program laid down in 1917, the report I said all of these should be completed during the current fiscal year. “It is a sad commentary on shipbuilding facilities in the United States,” the report added, “when it takes seven years to complete fifty submarines and then have the majority of them unsatisfactory.” The S-boats are the 800-tonners of the war-time program.

Speaking of work on three larger fleet submarines, building at the Portsmouth navy yard, the report said: “Not even one of these will be commissioned during the next fiscal year.”

Submarine Force June 20

On June 30, 1923, the submarine force consisted of seventy-five first-line submarines, twenty-seven second-line (out of commission), twenty one boats under construction, three fleet submarines (T-boats out of commission because of “Inferior” performance. There were twelve first-line boats commissioned during the year in addition to the three fleet submarines, which were laid up again almost as soon as they were completed.

Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 26 Dec. 1923


Congress responded by demanding the navy lower the number of men in uniform even more.

New construction money slowed to a crawl.

Across the Pacific, 1923 would prove to be a pivotal year for the Japanese military

In Japan, Admiral Baron Kato who had helped negotiate the Washington Naval Arms Limitation treaty died in August of 1923. He was known as the Peace Premier and had set a course of developing better relations with the United States based on peace and prosperity. Kato had been a war hero during the Russo Japanese war but in his later years advocated for peace.

Following his return to Japan, Katō was appointed 21st Prime Minister of Japan in recognition of his performance at the Washington Naval Conference. His cabinet consisted mainly of bureaucrats and members of the House of Peers, which proved unpopular with the Imperial Japanese Army. During his tenure as prime minister, Katō implemented the provisions of the Washington Naval Agreement, withdrew Japanese forces from Shantung in China and ended Japanese participation in the Siberian Intervention. Katō succumbed to late-stage colon cancer and died a little over a year into his term.

Katō was given the honorary rank of Marshal Admiral the day before his death, and posthumously awarded the Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum and his title raised to shishaku (viscount).

His death came only a week before the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, and therefore Japan was without a prime minister during that disaster.

After his death, the military gained power and influence that it had not seen for some time.

It also quietly started building up its naval might.

Mister Mac

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