Built by the Fore River Shipbuilding Company of Quincy, Massachusetts, and commissioned on 23 September 1919, USS R-12 (SS-89) spent most of her first ten years in Hawaii. She returned to New London in 1931 and then made her way to Philadelphia where, after decommissioning, she became part of the reserve fleet.
Nearly eight years later, in October of 1940, R-12 was called back into service. She spent much of 1941 patrolling the waters around the entrance to the Panama Canal, then returned to New London in October to begin patrolling the coast of New England. In February of 1942 she moved again, this time to prowl the waters between Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Key West, Florida. After a brief refit period in New London, R-12 was back in Cuba. But newer boats were available for patrol duties, so R-12 became a training vessel.
On 12 June 1943, R-12 headed out from Key West to practice launching torpedoes. In addition to the regular crew, two Brazilian naval officers were aboard to observe the exercise. As the boat prepared to dive, the forward end began to flood. Despite frantic efforts to close hatches and blow the main ballast tanks, within fifteen seconds the sub sank, coming to rest in 600 feet of water. R-12’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Edward Shelby, was on the bridge along with one other officer and three enlisted men when the boat dropped out from under them. They survived, but forty other crewmembers and the Brazilian officers did not.
A court of inquiry would later attribute R-12’s loss to massive flooding through one of the boat’s torpedo tubes, but the sub was too deep for the wreckage to be examined.
In May of 2011, an exploration team from the research vessel R/V Tiburon discovered the wreckage of R-12 about eleven miles off the coast of Key West. In August of 2012, the team returned to the site to take photos with its new remotely-operated vehicle. They showed one of the pictures to 89-year-old Robert England, a yeoman assigned to R-12 who remained ashore to complete paperwork on the day his boat sank. “It brought back memories of the people who were down there that I knew, and that they were gone, that they were entombed at the bottom of the ocean,” Mr. England said. “But they found them.”