On January 25, 1917, HMS Laurentic struck two German mines off the coast of Ireland and sank. The ship was carrying 44 tons of gold bullion to the still-neutral United States via Canada in order to finance the war effort for Britain and its allies. Britain desperately needed that sunken treasure, but any salvage had to be secret since the British government dared not alert the Germans to the presence of the gold.
Lieutenant Commander Guybon Damant was the most qualified officer to head the risky mission. Wild gales battered the wreck into the shape of an accordion, turning the operation into a multiyear struggle of man versus nature. As the war raged on, Damant was called off the salvage to lead a team of covert divers to investigate and search through the contents of recently sunk U-boats for ciphers, minefield schematics, and other secrets. The information they obtained, once in the hands of British intelligence, proved critical toward Allied efforts to defeat the U-boats and win the war.
But Damant had become obsessed with completing his long-deferred mission. His team struggled for five more years as it became apparent that the work could only be accomplished by muscle, grit, and persistence. Using newly discovered sources, author Joseph A. Williams provides the first full-length account of the quest for the Laurentic’s gold. More than an incredible story about undersea diving adventure, The Sunken Gold is a story of human persistence, bravery, and patriotism.
5 ***** stars!
|I was totally fascinated with this book and story. I had never heard of “The Laurentic” also known as “the mini- Titanic”, both made by the White Star line. “The Laurentic” was modeled after the much larger Titanic, including all of its luxury and amenities, but in miniature. After WWI had begun, the British Navy used it for war purposes, and a secret cache of approximately 5,000,000 pounds (WWI figures) were taken aboard discretely bound for North America to secure funding for the war effort. Unbeknownst to the Germans, who were busy trying to sink any ocean vessel not theirs, fired upon this ship with its treasure, sending it to the bottom. Over the course of many years, an ongoing effort to salvage as much of the gold ingots as possible ensued. (All, to this day, still has not been recovered.) It is considered the greatest salvage of sunken treasure in history. The search to recover the gold started in the midst of WWI, secretly, while deep water diving was still in its infancy, and thus, extremely dangerous. This is the story of Captain G. C. C. Damant as well as the Laurentic, being a pioneer in deep water diving, research and methods. Many of the practices he developed in order to keep people alive and not suffer “the bends” or “Caisson’s disease” upon returning to the surface are still in use today. I think this is one of the best historical books I have read this year. I was engrossed with a tale I am sure most people have never heard. I can’t wait to read more by this talented writer & researcher!
I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. My thanks!
5 ***** stars!
This is a nonfiction book about the interesting history of the sunken treasure ship Laurentic, and the fascinating man named Guybon Damant who was put in charge of salvaging the gold. With extracts from Damant’s personal papers, extensive research, 46 pictures and photographs, and 2 maps, I do not doubt that this is the most in-depth and informative work ever written about this historical event: the greatest treasure salvage in history.
In January of 1917, the Laurantic, carrying 44 tons of gold that was to be used for the war effort, was hit and sunk by the Germans in Lough Swilly off of Ireland. That same month, Damant was contacted by the British government and put in charge of salvaging the lost gold. Conditions were horrid. Weather would not cooperate, reporters nagged them constantly, there was the chance that the Germans would catch on and blast them out of the water, the equipment available at the time wasn’t suitable for the job at hand, not much was known about decompression times, and furthermore the wreck was crushed in upon itself making the gold completely inaccessible to divers. It took seven salvage seasons in eight years for Damant to finish his mission, and even then there were 25 bars of gold left on the ocean floor. This book tells that remarkable story.
It was very well written, and very interesting, not just simply a boring history book but a true story of action, adventure… and treasure. I was very impressed not just by how well written it was, but also by how well researched it was. The author really went to a lot of trouble to find original sources for his information, and throughout the entire book, chapter by chapter, he never failed to surprise me with the things he was able to uncover. The newspapers and magazines of the time would offer but little help, as much of what they wrote was either from unreliable sources or completely fictitious. It is astounding to me how, 100 years later, Joseph Williams was able to find out more than the people writing about the Laurentic at the time were. I would highly recommend this book to both historians and lovers of good seafaring tales alike. This is a must-have resource for any nautical library.
Interview with Author Joseph Williams:
twogalsandabook: Did you always want to be an author?
Joseph Williams: Yes. That has always been a constant in my career ambitions inasmuch as I am satisfied writing part-time while working full time as a library administrator. In my past careers I had been a high school teacher and text book editor; as well as working in corporate positions. However, in 2006 I turned to libraries, which is a nice merger of my research skills and my desire to educate. When I was younger I always thought I would be a novelist and planned by age 25 to turn out my first novel. Well, I ended up publishing my first book at age 39 and it was nonfiction. So while a little bit behind the schedule, I am pretty satisfied.
twogalsandabook: At what age did you start writing?
Joseph Williams: I wrote a poor Tolkien-knock off novel in eleventh grade. I ended up finishing it but never did submit. Of course that is the work of a teenager, but I do have to say I was proud at the time of finishing it since writing a book is truly a marathon experience. I really credit by English teacher, Frederick Von Berg, for encouraging me to write.
twogalsandabook: Are you an avid reader, and if so, have you always enjoyed reading?
Joseph Williams: Since a young age, I always carried around books with me. To any family event I would bring with me a heavy pile. The books would be on all sorts of topics, but my usual bread and butter were (and are) history books, science books (of the popular layman variety – I’m still looking for a good book that can explain quantum mechanics), dinosaur books, and an occasional genre novel.
twogalsandabook: Do you have any favorite authors, poets, or books?
Joseph Williams: I have quite a number of them. The first author of whom I would say I became a fanboy was J.R.R. Tolkien. Nowadays, I prefer to keep my reading eclectic ranging from narrative nonfiction like Eric Larson to light and fluffy easy reads such as A. Lee Martinez to historical fiction with James Clavell’s Shogun being at the top of the list. Of history books, my favorite topics are Roman History (Michael Grant is the best, but a highly readable book is Ghosts of Cannae by Robert O’Connell and stands as one of my favorite) and colonial history.
twogalsandabook: Are there any authors or books that you feel have influenced your writing?
Joseph Williams: Definitely Larson, Tolkien, and Clavell. When I write, and for books it has been narrative nonfiction, I tell a story with the idea that I am going to present a historical experience so that the person feels like they are present at the time the action is occurring. I believe Larson called this an ‘immersive experience’ which is a nice way to put it for The Sunken Gold. To me this means making sure that there is a) a narrative arc b) strong characters and c) narrative tension.
twogalsandabook: Where is your favorite place to write? Do you have any special writing atmosphere or rituals?
Joseph Williams: I tend to do most of my writing in local libraries or coffee shops – I have trouble writing at home and certainly cannot do it at my work. Libraries are far better since they tend to be quieter. Sunken Gold, as an example, was written mainly at the New York Public Library, the Harrison Public Library, the Rye Free Reading Room, and the Starbucks in downtown Rye, NY. The only ritual I have involves the coffee shops since you have to pay your toll of a drink to hang out and work – I just make sure I don’t imbibe too much caffeine, especially in the evening.
twogalsandabook: How do you deal with writer’s block?
Joseph Williams: There are two forms of writer’s block for me. First there is the writer’s block when I am actually in the midst of a project – for example if I am working on a chapter and I get stuck. In these cases I usually move onto a different section of the book with the plan to come back to it later. Second, there is the block in coming up with a valid story topic, which I find more troublesome since my checklist for a good topic needs to include those items that I mentioned before (narrative arc, strong characters, and narrative tension) plus, at least for nonfiction, has to also have some sort of relevance as well as be something that hasn’t been written about at length; not to mention good source material. I’ve been fortunate so far in that for my three books this criteria has been met. But finding the topics can be a harrowing process and to try to break that block means to read a lot, looking for possible story ideas and the like. This might mean finding a mention of a story in a larger work. It also might be serendipitous, such as combing through an archive and stumbling on remarkable material.
twogalsandabook: How do you handle negative reviews or criticism?
Joseph Williams: I think constructive criticism is essential to building a better story. Before I submit a final manuscript to my editor I send out drafts to acquaintances who I know will give me unvarnished opinions. Perhaps the most constructive criticizer is my wife, Michelle, who sees all my drafts before it goes out to any other reader. She has a degree in creative writing and is invaluable for making sure I keep on the story telling track. As for negative reviews post-publication… as long as the criticism is well-thought I take it seriously with an eye to improving the writing. After all, I write for the reader, but you still need to have a thick skin. It took me a while to develop it, and sometimes I am still pervious. But learning is an ongoing process. I remember that for my first book, I had submitted draft chapters to my editor. He was a faculty member of the college I worked at. At a graduation ceremony he was sitting two rows in front of me and right before the ceremony began he turns around and said, “I’ve read your stuff.” So I ask him what he thought. He replied, “We have some problems.” I said, “Oh? Is it something with the content?” He said, “No. It is deeper than that. It is your narrative voice.” Well now – that took a while to absorb, especially since I couldn’t talk to him during the ceremony. I have no idea what put it in his head to tell me right then and there. In any case, he worked with me and at some point I had an epiphany in my writing and it starting clicking. But it is tough medicine.
twogalsandabook: Do you have any advice for new writers in regards to doing research for their books? How do you determine what information should be included or excluded?
Joseph Williams: I would advise not to get lost in the weeds of unnecessary details that do not benefit the story telling. I am at times guilty of this and in draft after draft you need to cut the extraneous in favor of what shows you most about the characters and stories. It is true sometimes details help, but only inasmuch as they explore a character, make a point, or set a scene visually for the reader. In The Sunken Gold, for example, one of my source materials indicated a number that was labeled on a mine that had fouled into a U-boat. Does it advance the story? Not necessarily, but that level of detail helps to form a more vivid picture for the reader. However, with that being said, the writer should be thoroughly in the weeds with research because the writer needs to know their topic inside and out. It is the only way that a compelling story can be written. The hard choice is when you need to pick and choose from all your weeds to determine what is of value and what is not. Also, it is very important that any writer of nonfiction get as close to primary source material as possible – secondary sources are nice for background, but if you are a serious researcher, then you need to have your own interpretations of a source and not look at it through the eyes of another writer. Also, beware of oral accounts or interviews with descendants. They are almost always off – using written primary source material is by far the best.
twogalsandabook: What ambitions do you have for your writing career?
Joseph Williams: I am a part-time writer with a full time career in libraries but I would naturally like to continue writing with an eye toward the best seller lists! But I think I got into writing in the first place because I view it as a way to educate through story telling. There is also a personal sense of satisfaction that you’ve accomplished an enormous job (when done) and that you are making a contribution to the historic record or the arts. That is priceless.
twogalsandabook: Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?
Joseph Williams: Sure – I live in Connecticut with my wife, two daughters (ages 4 and 1) and two cats. Aside from writing I also have practiced martial arts for a number of years and almost do all my reading now through audiobooks.
twogalsandabook: What first sparked your interest in maritime history?
Joseph Williams: I have a masters degree in American History and an MLS (Masters in Library Science). In 2008 I had joined SUNY Maritime College’s Stephen B. Luce Library as the Head of their Collections. The library contains a fairly significant (but unknown) collection of maritime archival documents and that led to my first book, Four Years Before the Mast. This too led to my second book, Seventeen Fathoms Deep. The first book was published through an academic press, but for the second I obtained a literary agent who sold it to Chicago Review Press, who then asked me for another book, which brought about The Sunken Gold. So my interest in maritime history was sparked by my exposure to it at the Stephen B. Luce Library as well as my own educational background in history.
twogalsandabook: What first sparked your interest in the Laurentic and why did you choose this ship to write about?
Joseph Williams: While I was writing Seventeen Fathoms Deep (the book prior to The Sunken Gold) I had to do a great deal of research on historical diving. This led me to books which referenced the Laurentic and its gold time and again, but there was nothing written about it in great detail. After I completed Seventeen Fathoms Deep, I told my agent about the Laurentic’s story and he immediately loved it. So it went from there. The tale of the Laurentic has all the elements of a great story: strong characters, narrative arc and tension, plus relevance to today.
twogalsandabook: How long did “The Sunken Gold” take to write from conception until the end?
Joseph Williams: It took a little almost three years from initial proposal to publication. I started work on it in late 2014 and it came out in print in September 2017.
twogalsandabook: What was the hardest part of researching and/or writing the book?
Joseph Williams: One hard part was actually obtaining the archival documents. Almost all the relevant documents were located in the UK and I live in New England. Originally, I got an estimate to digitize the documents for me, but this would have been several thousand dollars. So while I was attempting to work out cost estimates to fly to the UK and stay a week to work in the archives, I contacted them again to try to get a better idea of what they had. They sympathized and suggested I engage a private researcher from their official researcher list which would prove to be more cost effective. So I contacted Ms. Ruth Bloom, who helped me understand the scope of the materials. She later sent to me several thousands individual jpg files of the pages of these admiralty records which I then compiled into a PDF document for indexing. I must say it is truly remarkable how research has changed and the opportunities people have to remotely research topics with modern technology. I would also add that one of the hardest parts of book writing for any author is the actual promotion of the book. Unless you are an A-lister with great name recognition a writer has to be prepared for a slog of book talks, engagements, outreach, etc. I really appreciate it when reviewers like you approach me since every little bit helps.
twogalsandabook: Did you hit any snags while working on “The Sunken Gold”?
Joseph Williams: One snag was that I wanted to get Guybon Damant’s (my main character) personal papers. We had tracked down Damant’s youngest daughter who was living in Edinburgh, and I sent off a letter. But there was no reply. Then perhaps three months later I received a letter in the post from the UK. It was from one of her cousins who found the letter just laying about her house. He offered his help and as a result I was able to obtain personal documents including an unpublished memoir of Damant’s that really lent humanity to the story.
twogalsandabook: In your opinion, what was the most intriguing or surprising thing you discovered about the story or its characters?
Joseph Williams: Once I obtained Damant’s memoirs, I was very much surprised at how sardonically humorous he was. He was really in touch with himself inasmuch as he knew he was this aspiring physiologist that in one moment might be diving for sunken gold while at the next moment be writing to his best friend about the speed of snails or gnat larvae. Another was that the compressed air that the divers breathed affected their vocal cords so they sounded like Mickey Mouse. So I am writing the manuscript and begin imagining all this harrowing work being done underwater with the divers squeaking over the telephone connection as if they just sucked in helium.
twogalsandabook: What do you believe happened to the missing remainder of the gold? Do you think it is still down there?
Joseph Williams: The odds are it is still down there. The chance of theft, while of course possible, was remote since everything was so highly monitored. The problem is that any gold is under tons of wreckage and probably in the seafloor itself. In order to get to the gold, you need to remove all the rubble on the chance that you might find all twenty bars of gold – worth about $11 million. So you need to work that into your risk-reward calculus. I think that if the price of gold suddenly skyrockets, that a new serious expedition may be mounted, but currently I can’t see a salvage firm conducting a multi-million dollar salvage operation for what might end up being a loss.
twogalsandabook: If you had the chance to dive down to the Laurentic, would you?
Joseph Williams: Of course! I have on my bucket list diving in one of those traditional diving dresses. However, if I went to the Laurentic, I think I would use scuba. I am slightly intimidated, however, since the more I learn about divers, the more I realize that the more they go down, the less they come up.
twogalsandabook: What do you think was the main factor that kept Captain Damant and the divers safe during the salvage efforts and not getting discovered by the Germans? Do you think it was sheer luck, or was there other factors at play as well?
Joseph Williams: Damant speculated on this since the entire area was crawling with German U-boats. He thinks that the Germans thought that his salvage ship was a Q-ship – that is a decoy ship meant to lure in U-boats in order to destroy them at the surface. This seems like the most reasonable explanation. Also, the salvage ship was quite small, and U-boats typically hunted larger merchant ships.
twogalsandabook: Are there any books (other than your own), that you would recommend to people interested about maritime history?
Joseph Williams: For the time period I cover in The Sunken Gold the best book is Arthur Marder’s multivolume monster, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. You need to be dedicated for that one. A good single volume work on the Royal Navy is Arthur Herman’s To Rule the Waves. For American naval history, I particularly enjoy the books of Ian Toll. His Six Frigates book is excellent. Then of course there is Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea and a good adventure story is Endurance and more recently In the Kingdom of Ice.
twogalsandabook: How many books have you written?
Joseph Williams: Three – Four Years Before the Mast: A History of New York’s Maritime College (Fort Schuyler Press, 2013); Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster (Chicago Review Press, 2015), and of course now The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History (Chicago Review Press, 2017).
twogalsandabook: Would you like to tell us a bit about your other books?
Joseph Williams: Four Years Before the Mast is a history of Maritime College in New York – the nation’s oldest school that trains the merchant marine. I was working at the college at the time I wrote it –it is always interesting writing about the place you write, especially when you strive to do so in an unbiased manner! The book I think has a broader audience than you may imagine since it really is a history not only of the school, but of the development of the American merchant marine – plus it is chock full of sea stories.
Seventeen Fathoms Deep is about a submarine disaster in 1927 off Cape Cod when a Coast Guard destroyer, hunting for rumrunners, accidentally rams the submarine S-4. It is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions because a number of the submarine’s crew were left alive inside the sub while divers attempted to rescue them. The lessons learned from the disaster led to important developments in submarine rescue technology which enabled spectacular rescues in the coming years.
twogalsandabook: Are you working on anything now? Can we expect to see anything in the near future?
Joseph Williams: Right now I have been mostly concentrating on The Sunken Gold but I do have a couple of topics in mind. What do you think of this title: The Rum War: America’s Most Intoxicating Conflict?
twogalsandabook: We love the title of that potential book! That would be another interesting book of yours to look forward to! : )
twogalsandabook: Has a trailer been made for “The Sunken Gold”?
Joseph Williams: I made one that can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFwk4… — note I am not Stephen Spielberg, but I think it came out nicely.
twogalsandabook: If the book was adapted for a t. v. series or movie, who could you imagine playing the main characters?
Joseph Williams: I see Paul Bettany as Guybon Damant since I think he captures the spirit of adventurous/distracted scientist in the roles I’ve seen him play.
twogalsandabook: Is there anything else you would like to discuss that we have not covered?
Joseph Williams: I am still in book talk mode so if you are interested, you may consult my Facebook author page or Goodreads page for appearances.
twogalsandabook: Are there any social media platforms readers can connect with you on?
Joseph Williams: https://historybythebook.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/Bibliomariner/
From Darien Public Library: The Sunken Gold with Joseph A. Williams
Joseph A. Williams Bio:
Joseph A. Williams is the Deputy Director of Greenwich Library (CT). Formerly, he was Assistant Director at the Stephen B. Luce Library of SUNY Maritime College and the Director of the Briarcliffe College Library. He lives in Connecticut.
Other Books by Joseph A. Williams:
Enter Giveaway for a Copy of “The Sunken Gold”!
twogalsandabook would like to thank author Joseph A. Williams for the honor of reading his book, doing this interview and for the generous giveaway. Also thanks goes to Chicago Review Press for making this possible as well! Merry Christmas!