Espiritu Santo played an enormously significant role during WWII yet somehow it seems its role was very much swept under the rug and only now is the island becoming known for its contribution to the Allied Forces.
As mentioned in my post on Million Dollar Point, Santo was the USA’s largest army base during WWII. The USA needed troop carriers so passenger ships were commissioned to help with the war effort.
The SS President Coolidge was launched in 1931 and was a luxury liner operated by the American President Lines that provided trans-pacific passage.
On-board the ship the passengers enjoyed a luxurious experience with spacious staterooms and lounges, private telephones, two saltwater swimming pools, a barber’s shop, beauty salon, gymnasium and soda fountain.
In 1941 the US War Department began to use the President Coolidge for occasional voyages to Honolulu and Manila but it wasn’t until after the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 5, 1941 that the Coolidge was fully commissioned into the War.
The Coolidge was striped of her finery and painted gun-metal grey. A few of her more luxurious fixtures and fittings were removed for safe-keeping but the majority remained on the ship and were boarded up. By 1942 the Coolidge was a troop carrier transporting up to 5,000 troops.
In her first year of service she visited Melbourne, Wellington, Auckland, Bora Bora, and Suva. On October 6, 1942 she set sail from her port in San Francisco with 5000 troops on-board and headed for Espiritu Santo.
Santo had become a large military base and entry to the Island was heavily protected with mines. Information about safe entry into the harbour had been accidentally omitted for the Coolidge’s sailing orders and upon her approach into Santo on October 26, 1942, the Coolidge came into the harbour on the wrong side. The ship struck a friendly mine that created a hole near the engine room. Captain Henry Nelson then tried to turn the ship around but struck another friendly mine on the other side of the ship.
The Captain, in an effort to save the ship, then tried to beach the ship and ordered all 5000 troops to jump ship. Not believing the ship would sink, they were told to leave everything on-board and that over the next couple of days a salvage operation would begin.
4,998 Men made it to safety but tragically, there were two fatalities. The first was a man working in the engine room who was killed when the ship struck the first mine. The second was Captain Euart who made it to safety but once on land he heard there were men stuck in the infirmary and went back to help them. He heroically rescued all of these men however then became trapped inside the ship and went down with the ship.
As if the Coolidge hadn’t suffered enough misfortune, the Captain was unable to beach the ship due to its proximity to a coral reef and so that night it slid back into the ocean and listing heavily on its port side, sank. The sinking prevented any salvage operation of personal items, valuables and equipment.
The 200mtr long (656ft) Coolidge now rests on its port side, very close to shore, in just 20mtrs of water at its bow and 60mtrs of water at its stern.
In 1980 the New Hebrides became Vanuatu when the people of Vanuatu gained independence from France and Britain. In 1983 the government of the new republic declared no salvage or recovery of any artifact would be allowed from the Coolidge.
The Coolidge is relatively intact and she lies close to shore and is in warm water that is comparatively shallow with great visibility. For these reasons she is one of the most accessible shipwreck dive sites in the world and here divers have the opportunity to view not only a luxury liner as well as a military vessel. And a ship with everything remaining on board just as it was on that final fateful journey.
The SS President Coolidge has been voted one of the Top 10 shipwreck dive sites in the world and diving the Coolidge is the Number 1 tourism attraction in Santo.
When diving the Coolidge you can swim through many rooms and deck levels and see guns, cannons, jeeps, helmets, trucks, a beautiful statue of ‘The Lady’ in the centre part of the ship, chandeliers, a mosaic tile fountain and many personal items. There are even bottles of iodine you can view in what was the ship’s infirmary.
Coral grows around the ship and with the coral comes abundant sea life including reef fish, sea turtles and moray eels. It’s like the ultimate dive experience.
You cannot take in the Coolidge in just one dive. I met the manager of Moyyan and she dives the Coolidge at least once a week and always sees some part of the ship she hasn’t discovered before. There was a young couple staying at Barrier Beach House and they did three dives including a night dive and felt they still had plenty more to experience and see.
We are a family of amateur/novice/no-clue divers with just a few dives to our repertoire yet while in Santo we overwhelmingly wanted to dive the Coolidge. The little guy is just too young for that experience so I stayed back at Barrier with him while the others went down to the ship.
I can highly recommend the Allan Power Dive Tour as they took very good care of my family and gave these amateurs a fantastic dive experience. They were taken down and as they descended they saw the enormous ship looming in front of them and were stunned at its enormous size and how impressive it looked.
For this first dive to the ship they weren’t able to go inside the ship but they came back on such a high you could tell just viewing the ship from the outside and being on its decks was exhilarating in itself.
Allan Power Dive Tour: PO Box 233, Santo, Vanuatu