Since she was a young girl, Helen Cashell Baldwin had been haunted by the mystery of what happened to the doomed Navy submarine USS R-12.
Baldwin’s father, Fredrick Edward Cashell, and 41 other men died in June 1943 when the submarine sank off the Florida Keys during a World War II training exercise. The R-12 could not be found, and as Baldwin went from an 8-year-old girl to a 75-year-old woman, she all but lost hope that it would ever be discovered.
“As a teenager, I found myself looking for him, because there was never a funeral,” Baldwin said. “There was never a memorial service. … There was nothing.”
But in 2011, a relative forwarded her a website claiming that the submarine had been found. Ocean explorer Tim Taylor, who set up the site, wanted to get in touch with relatives of the victims.
Within months of speaking with Taylor, Baldwin and her two siblings boarded a boat and headed out into the Atlantic with Taylor and his wife and fellow explorer, Christine Dennison. About 11 miles off Key West, Taylor took out his computer and pulled up drone images of the long-lost vessel — a sight that Baldwin said took her breath away.
Then they held a memorial service for her father and the other men who died aboard the R-12, tossing 42 roses into the water directly above where the submarine lay at the bottom of the ocean.
“That was a completion of 70 years of waiting,” said Baldwin, now 86, weeping as she spoke. “It was a life-changing experience.”
Taylor’s team has found a total of seven Navy submarines — five of which disappeared during World War II — bringing a measure of closure to hundreds of family members like Helen Baldwin.
Taylor was honored this week with the Navy’s highest civilian award, the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award. His team is credited with having discovered the final resting places of 288 men, all locked inside what had become sunken tombs.
“Every one of these lost submarines, along with our other ships, to the U.S. Navy is a hallowed site,” Sam Cox, a retired rear admiral who is director of Naval History and Heritage Command, said at the ceremony at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a last resting place of sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country, and in effect, it’s the Arlington National Cemetery for the Navy,” he said.
In an interview just before the ceremony, Taylor said he is motivated by a desire to bring comfort and closure to family members denied the chance to fully mourn their loved ones.
“It’s not about finding wrecks. It’s not about finding ships,” Taylor said. “The loss of someone even 78 years ago, and not knowing where they are, leaves a hole in families. The importance of our work is to connect families and bring some type of closure and peace even generations later.”
The son of a Navy veteran who fought in World War II, Taylor has spent his life exploring the ocean’s uncharted waters.
He began his career focused on scientific explorations, leading to his discovery of numerous reefs around the world. He participated in shark research projects and underwater archaeological missions, and he hosted several National Geographic expeditions.