A team of New York-based explorers took Helen Cashell Baldwin out in their research vessel off the coast of Key West, Florida last summer. More than 600 feet below lay the wreckage of a World War II submarine -- the final resting place of her father and 41 fellow sailors.
Baldwin, 78, threw a rose into the water and whispered her father’s name. She did the same for each of the men who died when the submarine R-12 sank during a training mission on June 12, 1943, one of 52 lost during the war.
Two years after Tim Taylor and Christine Dennison put up $750,000 of their own money to find and document the R-12, and 70 years after the vessel sank, the two explorers are tapping crowd-funding site Kickstarter to finish a documentary about the discovery.
“It gave me chills, absolutely,” said Baldwin. “The fact that Tim could show us the actual submarine on his sonar, it was so freeing. We were talking and we were grieving, which was something my mom had never done.”
The R-12 was the oldest submarine used in WWII, built in 1918 and recommissioned in 1940 as a training vessel. Bob England, 90, was on the Key West Naval base the day the R-12 didn’t return.
“I saw the ship off that morning, but I was fueling so I was the only person from the crew not aboard,” England said in a phone interview from Inverness, Florida. “That afternoon we were notified by the operations officer that the R-12 was overdue. Then they told us they were looking for survivors.”
Five Men Saved
Five men were pulled from the water eight hours later, England said. The Navy Court of Inquiry convened in Key West 10 days later found that the forward battery compartment most likely started to flood and that the R-12 sank in 15 seconds. Forty-two crew members, including two Brazilian observers, died.
Scanning the ocean floor with sonar, Taylor’s researchers found the wreck in June 2011 and alerted the Navy. After securing a permit for non-intrusive exploration, they custom-built a remote-operated vehicle equipped with a high resolution camera and returned in August 2012 to bring back sharper images of a wreck few expected to ever see.
“If you live your life on the ocean, you kind of have a kindred spirit to these guys who were out on the submarine,” Taylor said. “I could always feel that the ghost of the R-12 was out there, and you have all the tourists that come in on cruise ships and never know they’re passing right over it.”
Dennison and Taylor, who were married at the Explorers Club in New York two months after they found the submarine, are seeking $89,000 on Kickstarter to complete a documentary about the R-12 that they hope will honor the sailors who died and fuel interest in future exploration efforts.
With more than 3,000 U.S. Navy shipwrecks and 12,000 aircraft lost at sea around the world, the Navy was “not actively searching” for the R-12, said Robert Neyland, director of the underwater archaeology branch at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington.
The wreck is Navy property and protected under the Sunken Military Craft Act. Neyland said he appreciates the initiative of independent explorers, and the Navy does not have any plans for technical or financial collaboration.
“We’d like to see a good site report from Tim and his group so we could know the condition of the wreck, what it looks like and if it’s fairly stable or deteriorating rapidly,” Neyland said in a phone interview from Orlando. “It’s probably best preserved by leaving it in place.”
This month marks 70 years since the R-12 sank. At the time, family members were told there had been an accident and sailors were missing. Their sacrifice was recognized piecemeal: a letter from President Harry S. Truman, a monument in a military cemetery in Rhode Island, a display in the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park in Honolulu and a plaque in the chapel on the Key West base.
Of 52 U.S. submarines lost during WWII, six have been found in the last eight years, said Jerry Hofwolt, director of the Bowfin Museum. The museum hosted a memorial for the USS Wahoo when it was identified in 2006 off the coast of Japan. Family members of the men lost on the USS Grunion organized a memorial in Cleveland when it was found off the coast of the Aleutian Islands in 2008, Hofwolt said.
Ed Flisher, whose uncle, Raymond Flisher, was aboard the R-12, said that in June 1943 his grandparents got a telegram saying there had been an accident, then a letter from President Truman two years later when the war ended. He said Taylor’s discovery brought closure for his family as well a sense of community with other families who he said had “never properly mourned” for the men lost at sea.
Key West Memorial
Flisher is organizing a memorial for June 12, the anniversary of the sinking. More than 50 family members will gather at the Customs House in Key West, now a museum, which was the last place the R-12 registered before setting out on the ill-fated training mission.
Dennison and Taylor are planning two more missions this year to map the wreck and surrounding debris field. Last month they secured approval from the Navy to place a plaque on the site of the submarine resting on the ocean floor.
“You say you accomplished the mission by finding the wreck, but then you can’t just leave it because you know there are 42 souls entombed there,” Taylor said. “We will leave the wreck itself alone, but the least we can do is bring back these images as a token for the families.”
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