In an interview with NBC News just before the ceremony, Taylor said he’s 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 archeological missions, and hosted several National Geographic expeditions.
Around 2010, Taylor became interested in finding historic military shipwrecks.
“I knew I had the technology and the skills and the background to find these things,” Taylor said.
He began researching lost submarines. Then he started plotting them out using the same navigational programs he turned to for other ocean exploration projects.
Technological breakthroughs changed the way ocean exploration could be done. Gone were the days of lowering hundreds of feet of cable into the sea and dragging an imaging device through the waters.
Now he had access to autonomous robots that use sonar to detect objects in the dark depths of the ocean.
“These autonomous vehicles, we just throw them in the water,” said Taylor, who added that they’ve been programmed for the task.
Taylor likened the robots to the rovers used to explore Mars.
A needle in a haystack
Built in 1918, the R-12 was the oldest submarine used in World War II. It was recommissioned as a training vessel in 1940.
On June 12, 1943, the R-12 headed out from Key West to practice launching torpedoes. But as the boat prepared to dive, the forward battery compartment began to flood and the sub sank in 15 seconds, according to the Navy Court of Inquiry.
The hunt for the R-12 came at a unique time in Taylor’s life. He was set to be married two months later to Dennison, a polar ocean explorer who became an integral part of the expedition.
They put up $750,000 of their own money to fund the search. And in October 2010, Taylor ventured out into the waters off the coast of Key West and detected a large object about 600 feet below the surface. He knew almost instantly that he had discovered the R-12.
“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack and when you realize you have found it, the magnitude of the moment hits home,” Taylor said.
As Dennison put it: “It wasn’t just locating that submarine, but it was locating a crew of heroes that had been in their final resting place.”
Taylor and Dennison returned to the site a year later with a new underwater vehicle equipped with a high-definition camera. They returned to land with high-resolution images of the R-12.
The discovery became a turning point for the intrepid newlyweds. They launched the Lost 52 Project dedicated to locating the 52 U.S. submarines that disappeared during World War II.
“It was not like any other discovery I had ever made,” Taylor said of finding the R-12. “There were 42 souls on board that vessel. And submarines contain and keep water out. They keep bodies and souls in. And it became a responsibility for us to connect those lost sailors with their families.”
They set out to raise money to help fund an expansion of their operations. And in the last 10 years, Taylor’s team has located six additional submarines in the waters off Hawaii, Alaska, Panama, the Philippines and Japan.
Taylor and Dennison are continuing to search for more World War II-era Navy vessels that never returned to shore. They believe it’s essential for private explorers – and the philanthropists that fund them – to take up the challenge of scouring the ocean floor for lost military vessels.
“This is a daunting task,” Taylor said after accepting his award from the Navy. “We strive to set an example that others will follow.”