November 08, 2022

The Wreck of the USS President Coolidge in Vanuatu

Built in 1931 for a life of luxurious Pacific cruising, the 200m SS President Coolidge began her life carrying the well-to-do and who's who of American society. Her playgrounds included Hawaii, Hong Kong and, ironically, Japan, where she sped to from San Francisco in record time. Her guests reclined around two swimming pools, preened themselves in salons, worked out in gyms or just hung out at the ornate soda fountain. Her fate, however, was anything but salubrious.

As war in the Pacific intensified, the US War Department sent her on voyages around the expanding theatre. She evacuated US civilians and government personnel from Hong Kong and other ports as the tensions escalated and in 1941 she was converted to troopship operations and immediately put to work bolstering Allied garrisons. After Pearl Harbour, she was stripped of fancy kit, painted drab and fitted with 20mm anti-aircraft cannon.

On October 26, 1942, the fully-loaded USS President Coolidge approached Luganville, the US forward supply base on Espirito Santo and, ever concerned about enemy submarines, Capt Henry Nelson made a beeline for the entrance channel. What somebody had omitted to tell Nelson however was that the channel was mined and no sooner had the former luxury ocean liner poked its bow into the opening ... KA-BOOM! And then another ka-boom.

Nelson knew he had no hope of saving his ship so he steamed for shore in an attempt to beach the 22,000-ton liner, but he struck a reef instead. For 90 minutes the Coolidge teetered on the edge while 5340 men calmly scaled rope ladders and waded ashore. But then it all went wrong and the huge ship listed and slipped backwards into deep water.

Army Captain Elwood J. Euart knew he had men in the infirmary who could not escape. He raced back inside the doomed ship and took them all to safety and when he went back for a last look, the Coolidge went under, trapping the brave officer. He and one crewman killed in the first explosion were the only two casualties.

Partial salvage of the enormous amounts of material continued until 1983 when the Vanuatu government banned it forever. Today the wreck is one of the world's most famous dives satisfying both experienced and novice divers alike.

She lies ingloriously on her port side in 21-73m and local dive operators have concocted dozens of adventures above and within the ship. Inside the hull is all manner of war materiel including vehicles, ammunition, artillery and heavy equipment as well as poignant personal items like small arms, helmets, boots and medical supplies.

Cruise lines visiting Vanuatu frequently offer dives on the famous vessel as part of their shore excursion programs, but the most adventurous dives can only be done by experienced PADI-endorsed divers. Thanks to the clear waters, it is possible for snorkellers to glimpse the mighty ship with shallow duck dives and novice divers can swim along at 15m for a good view of the superstructure of what is claimed to be the largest, most intact and accessible wreck of WWII.

For further information about diving the SS President Coolidge, see >> Explore Vanuatu >> History

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