The Story Behind This Historic Coin. Torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Arabian Sea more than 185 kilometers (100 nautical miles) off Oman in August 1944, the John Barry sank in waters so deep that no one thought she could ever be reached. Among the debris that marked her grave swirled rumors that, in addition to the coins, she was carrying a huge cargo of silver bullion. Gerald Richards, now in his mid-70's, vividly recalls the night the John Barry sank. "We were two days and eight hours out from Aden, " he says.I was just getting around to going to bed at 9:55 p. When the first torpedo hit. It rocked us, I'll say that. Richards was thrown into oil-covered, wreckage-strewn seas when one of the davits holding his lifeboat snapped before the boat could be lowered. After an endless 15 minutes in the water, he was picked up by another lifeboat. Later that night he and his shipmates watched as another torpedo slammed into the John Barry, breaking her in two and sinking her in 2600 meters (8500') of water. That kind of security was "very, very unusual, " he recalls. Amid a torrent of cargo that included refinery equipment, lengths of pipe, military trucks and a Caterpillar tractor, Richards didn't see 750 wooden boxes go into the heavily guarded No.
Stencilled on each box was the word "Dhahran, " the name of a new Middle East oil outpost. Secrecy was the watchword in wartime, and the John Barry's crew should have known nothing about her secret cargo. But, says Richards, I always figured there was silver bullion aboard because of the security they put on until we sailed.
After the war, he says, he forgot about the matter until 1994, when he was shown a 50-year-old letter from the superintendent of the United States Mint in Philadelphia stating that three million silver coins had actually been on board. The John Barry crossed the Atlantic in a convoy and proceeded south through the Suez Canal to Aden. Then, mysteriously, she was ordered to sail through the Arabian Sea-alone, on a zigzag course, and in radio silence. When a German submarine picked up her trail, the John Barry didn't stand a chance. Astonishingly, only two crewmen were lost in the sinking.
Since silver was then worth 48 cents per troy ounce, that reckoning-never corroborated by the US government-would mean that the vessel's cargo had included more than 1688 metric tons (1857 US tons) of silver. "I've asked myself how I knew: Everything was confidential then, " says Richards, who now lives in Independence, Missouri. Up till I saw the letter from the mint, I just figured there was silver bullion. Richards might also have asked himself why the silver, whether bullion or coins, was headed for Dhahran. The small town on Saudi Arabia's east coast was the regional headquarters of what was then the Arabian American Oil Company, known as Aramco, now the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco).It was also the site of a new US consulate. Oil had been discovered there just six years before (See Aramco World, May/June 1988), and Dhahran's population was only a few hundred men. But it was becoming clear that there were considerable oil deposits under Saudi Arabia's soil, certainly in commercially interesting quantities, and oil was the lifeblood of the war effort. Though Germany was reeling under Allied attacks, the war in Europe was not over; in Asia and the Pacific, Japan looked far from finished. In Washington, there was mounting worry about the adequacy of American oil reserves.
Securing additional supplies was crucial to winning the war. Late in 1943, the US government-which controlled such commodities in wartime-allocated steel and other materials for sale to Aramco for the construction of a new refinery, tank farm and marine terminal at Ras Tanura, 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Dhahran. The only consignment lost was on the John Barry. But Parker Hart, then the United States consul-general in Dhahran, was furious that Britain, which was supposed to guard the sea lanes off the Arabian Peninsula, hadn't provided adequate protection for the John Barry. When the Barry went down, the riyal was worth 30 US cents.
Hart's cables about the sinking, secret when they were sent, don't mention any uncoined silver, but with time the rumor of sunken bullion became accepted as colorful fact. Somewhere in the Arabian Sea one of the richest treasures of all time waits, well protected by a mile of seawater, for the future technique that may enable a salvage crew to bring it up. It reported that the Barry had been carrying a cargo of assorted vehicles and an unspecified amount of silver bullion. That caught the attention of Brian Shoemaker and Jay Fiondella, who were undaunted by the fact that no commercial salvage had ever been attempted at 2600-meter depths. But they weren't after the riyal coins: By themselves, the coins probably wouldn't pay for a recovery effort.
They were interested in the bullion. That much treasure, they calculated, might attract the kind of investors who could finance a pioneering deep-sea salvage mission. So Shoemaker, then a Navy captain, turned all his spare time to finding evidence that the John Barry had been carrying silver ingots.
Though he couldn't prove that the bullion had been aboard, he did turn up tantalizing tidbits of information that pointed that way. He discovered official wartime papers showing that the United States had signed an agreement in June 1944 to send some 100 million ounces of Lend-Lease silver to India-just a month before the John Barry docked in Philadelphia. Later, he found proof that 90 million ounces of silver destined for India had been delivered to the port of New York at the same time the John Barry was docked there, just before she sailed-supposedly in ballast-to Philadelphia to collect the riyals. But before the newly named John Barry Group could launch its project, it had to deal with an immovable provision of international law.The wreck lay off the coast of Oman, not in Omani territorial waters but certainly in the sultanate's declared economic zone. The project couldn't proceed without Omani participation.
Fortunately, Omani participants were ready. The mission to raise the Barry's cargo had captured the imagination of British salvage expert Robert Hudson and of Shaykh Ahmed Farid al-Aulaqi, a wealthy Yemeni-born businessman who lives in Oman. Hudson, now managing director of Blue Water Recoveries of Surrey, England, was a member of Ocean Group, an organization set up by al-Aulaqi.
But there was a sugar coating, in the form of a provision that, if Ocean Group recovered the bullion, it would make me a millionaire. A side-scan sonar survey at the coordinates shown in American and German war records promptly located a hulk in March 1990, says Hudson, whose Blue Water Recoveries was offshore project manager. In early 1991, a video-equipped remote-operated vehicle (ROV) sent back images of a wreck in two pieces.
Still, those first images made it almost certain the mission was on target. Together with gun turrets and stacked drill pipes. Early in 1992 a more detailed video survey showed the John Barry's nameplate and ended any doubt. It also showed that the No.
2 hold was intact, though its hatch was blocked by debris. Salvage contractors from Houston, Texas handled the first two stages of the operation. In 1992, the French government marine-research organization, the Toulon-based Institut Français de Recherche pour l'Exploitation de la Mer (IFREMER), joined the search. IFREMER had located the wreck of the Titanic in 1985; their task here was to send down a minisub with a crew to examine the wreck and pick the right spot to place explosives that would tear it open. The experts chose the more accessible No.
2 hold, with its documented cargo of coins, as their target. The underwater charges went off, but they proved so weak at that depth that they did little damage. IFREMER got the green light to develop riskier "smash-and-grab" technology that would allow the team to break into the John Barry by main force. Taking such chances wasn't unusual for Ahmed Farid al-Aulaqi. "The element of chance, the element of risk, is part of Shaykh Ahmed Farid's character, " says Beasant.In early November, after the grab had stripped away the deck over the No. 2 hold and cleared away obstructing cargo, Hudson spotted the first glimmer of silver on the video screen.
One mighty lift alone brought up 60,000 coins. Even after the grab had harvested all the coins it could-the rest were abandoned as irrecoverable-the salvors continued to ransack the No.
"We were still trying to prove the silver-bullion theory, " Hudson says, but we failed. Today, Hudson is convinced that there never were silver ingots aboard the John Barry.
"It was all hearsay, " he says. The crew of the Barry sat around and talked every night after watch... And eventually put a value on the [imaginary] silver.Beasant, on the other hand, argues that there could have been bullion aboard that was bound for the Soviet Union. He theorizes that the Barry had a secret itinerary, and was scheduled to sail on from Ras Tanura to an Iranian port from which the USSR, an American ally in World War II, was being supplied with materiel.
In fact, the Allies had developed the ports of Khorramshahr and Bandar Shahpur, at the head of the Arabian Gulf, for just this purpose, and completed both a highway and a rail line from there to the Caspian Sea in January of 1943. Al-Aulaqi is a believer in the silver bullion too, says Beasant, and in fact still hopes to find it. There is a "distinct possibility" that he might return to the site in the future, he says. Hudson says that building the recovery equipment and raising the coins from such unprecedented depths was a victory in itself.It was a great relief that we found the riyals. It gave us all a buzz, he says. It was rewarding to see such an effort prove itself. Financial rewards were harder to come by, however. Success in that phase of the operation would, in effect, bring the riyals-perhaps the John Barry's only real sunken treasure-back full circle to America, where the coins were minted to assist an important new ally more than 50 years ago.
Is a staff writer for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, and has written more than 40 articles for. This article appeared on pages 20-27 of the March/April 1997 print edition of. Also, a quick internet search will give you our contact information. Sometimes it can take a month for a package to be delivered.Or Canada (depending on the item at the time of listing). About Photographs and Item Size. Please note that the item in the photographs may be larger or smaller in actuality.
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