Historical Wrecks: The SS President Coolidge

By Kieran Brown

 

A former luxury liner, the SS President Coolidge transformed to support Allied Forces during WWII and eventually came to rest in Vanuatu, creating one of the world’s best wreck dives. Accessible to both recreational and technical divers, the wreck offers the opportunity to travel back in time and experience the hidden secrets of the ship, preserved beneath the waters of the South Pacific.

Before the war

Following an order from Dollar Steamship Line, the Coolidge was constructed in a Virginia shipyard as one of two luxury liners capable of transporting guests across the Pacific to Asia. Construction on both ships was complete in 1931, and at the time, they were the largest merchant ships ever to be constructed in the United States. The Coolidge’s sister ship, the SS President Hoover, ran aground in 1937 and was declared a loss. A year later the Coolidge was arrested in San Francisco due to unpaid debt, and began service again a year later under the newly formed American President Lines, until the start of WWII.

World War II involvement

The Coolidge was first employed to help evacuate U.S. citizens from Hong Kong to the U.S. Following this mission, the ship participated in several more evacuations throughout Asia as tensions increased in the region. Throughout 1941, it was used as a troopship for the U.S. Navy, reinforcing the Pacific frontier. On Dec. 19, 1941, 12 days after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the Coolidge arrived to evacuate 125 critically injured naval patients to San Francisco. The following month the Coolidge returned to the Pacific, transporting troops, ammunition, weapons and P-10 fighters. The Coolidge performed all of these duties in its pre-war condition; it was only after this operation that modifications converted the luxury cabins and lounges and increased the carrying capacity from 988 guests to over 5,000 soldiers. Guns were mounted, the ship was painted a haze grey, and it was officially assigned to the U.S. Navy by the War Shipping Administration.

Loss of the SS President Coolidge

The Coolidge met its fate on Vanuatu in the South Pacific. One of Vanuatu’s largest islands, Espiritu Santo had been established as a stronghold for U.S. forces, containing an airfield, military base and a heavily protected harbor. The surrounding channels and ports of entry to Espiritu Santo had been laid with mines to protect against a water-based assault or Japanese submarines. For reasons unknown, the Coolidge hadn’t received coordinates on safe passage into the harbor and for fear of attack from Japanese subs, Captain Henry Nelson chose to enter the harbor through the largest channel, where the ship hit two mines on its approach. Nelson feared losing his ship and so decided to ground it, ordering all 5,340 men to abandon ship and leave all belongings behind.

Only two men were lost; Fireman Robert Reid was killed in the engine room after the Coolidge made contact with the first mine. Captain Elwood Joseph Euart had safely disembarked the ship only to hear that there were men still trapped in the infirmary. Euart returned and successfully helped all of the trapped men escape only to become trapped himself. A memorial was placed for Captain Euart on a nearby shore following his heroic actions.

The Coolidge, still heavy from its cargo, listed on its side and sank more quickly than expected. It slid down the slope into the channel, where it now rests on its port side with the bow at a depth of 70 feet (21m) and the stern at a depth of 240 feet (73m).

Declaration of a protected wreck and dive site

When Vanuatu gained independence from France and Great Britain in 1980, the local government declared that the Coolidge would become a protected wreck and dive site, and that no further artifacts would be removed. Since that designation, the wreck has been an ever-growing hit with both recreational and technical divers. The wreck is almost completely intact, and divers who visit Coolidge will see guns, cannons, Jeeps, helmets, trucks and personal supplies, although for most the main attraction is “The Lady,” a porcelain relief of a woman riding a unicorn, which is still in good condition inside the first class smokers’ lounge. The Coolidge also provides a home for marine life, with divers often seeing moray eels, sea turtles, lionfish, barracuda and the occasional reef shark.

With depths starting at around 70 feet (21m) and going all the way to 240 feet (73m), divers without technical experience can explore the wreck’s upper reaches, while those with tec training can explore the ships deeper reaches.

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