Diving the SS President Coolidge

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.

Feeling a little anxious

Feeling a little anxious

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.

Getting suited up

Getting suited up

The SS President Coolidge was launched in 1931 and was a luxury liner operated by the American President Lines that provided trans-pacific passage.

The luxury liner's dining room

The luxury liner’s dining room

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.

Getting ready to dive

Getting ready to dive

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.

Looking at treasures

Exploring the area

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.

So many fish

So many fish

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.

Great visibility

Great visibility

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.

You can enter the ship and explore every one of her   levels

You can enter the ship and explore every one of her levels

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.

A WWII gas mask

A WWII gas mask

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.

Troops abandoning the ship

Troops abandoning the ship

The Coolidge in trouble

The Coolidge in trouble

Put down that gun

Put down that rifle

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.

It's a completely undisturbed shipwreck

It’s a completely undisturbed shipwreck

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.

Getting her confidence up

Getting her confidence up

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 bow of the ship

The bow of the ship

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.

20 metres down

20 metres down

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.

Reaching the ship

Reaching the ship

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.

Going down, down, down

Going down, down, down

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.

Plenty of fish life

Plenty of fish life

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.

So much to see

So much to 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.

Looking at treasures

Looking at treasures

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.

Just a wee bit of rain

Heading home and there’s been a wee bit of rain

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.

Verdict:  Incredible.

Allan Power Dive Tour:  PO Box 233, Santo, Vanuatu

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Comments

  1. Looks amazing!!! unfortunately I find it difficult to dive as I suffer from claustrophobia, but it only happens in water when I have tried diving… weird I know 🙁 Ahh well, I will just have to live through the eyes of others! Thanks for sharing! Liz xx

  2. So much US history that I had no idea about!!

  3. This is quite interesting. I could not do this. But good for your family to dive and enjoy this part of American history.

  4. Looked like a great experience, plus look at all those fish! You all didn’t look scared at all! Family fun!!!

    Julie & Alesah
    Gourmet Getaways xx

  5. How cool is that? Love that it’s close enough to dive to. What a shame that the docking instructions were omitted for the ship, such a preventable tragedy.

  6. Wow Charlie – this sounds like it was such an awesome experience! Seeing a sunken ship up close with everything intact is truly unforgettable!

  7. All of your diving pictures and adventures always look so fun! I definitely need to do that some day.

  8. My goodness, you really were adventurous on this trip!! What a fantastic spot to dive.

  9. Wow what an experience. I never knew Vanuatu had such a history. I love how fancy things were back then. The photo of the ship in its glory days reminded me of Downton Abbey.

  10. What great photos of your undersea adventure Charlie! The clear water would definitely be such an advantage for tourists exploring the wreck. Thanks for sharing the story behind it- what a shame it had a tragic ending, but the heroics of Captain Euart are so uplifting and well worth commemorating indeed xo

  11. I haven’t dived since I was in my 20s but I loved every minute of it. What a great experience and I’m sad you didn’t get to join in.

  12. Thank you Charlie for all the great ‘homework’ – thought I knew a fair amount about the Hebrides, but have learned a lot more courtesy of you! Good historic photo choice also!!Actually I was there for a week or so just after the Independence: a really ‘dicky’ time as it somewhat resembled Syria of today [well, nowhere as bad!] and us ‘holidayers’ were taken around into the ‘dangerous’ areas of town by the locals barely daring to peek out of car windows!!

  13. What a sad tale of the Coolidge but what a magical experience being able to dive and see her today.
    Have a super day Charlie.
    🙂 Mandy xo

  14. What an opportunity! I think that would be a fantastic diving site. I really enjoyed the history and learning such interesting facts about The President Coolidge. The archival photos are wonderful. And you answered something I’ve been wondering. I wondered why I wasn’t familiar with Vanatu, and when you previously talked about it being such an important Naval Base it just didn’t ring a bell. New Hebrides! That’s the only name I’ve ever known, and like so many countries that have gained independence and had a name change, it takes me a while to place them on the map! I’ve been so impressed by Vanatu!

  15. I love this post, Charlie, interesting and the pictures are very cool. Isn’t it magical under the sea. (Little Mermaid song in my head now) I have done a couple of dives, but can’t go too deep, ears don’t equalise properly. I would so love to experience something like this, good I can enjoy via you. 🙂

  16. Waw! It all looks smashing! What a cool trip undersea to look for that famous ship & its treasures! Waw!

    A very cool experience too! 🙂 Great underwater pictures! xxx

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