A former luxury liner, the SS President Coolidge transformed to support Allied Forces during WWII. It 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, shipbuilders in a Virginia shipyard got to work on the SS President Coolidge. It was one of two luxury liners capable of transporting guests across the Pacific to Asia. Construction finished on both ships in 1931. At the time, they were the largest merchant ships ever built 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, authorities stopped the Coolidge in San Francisco due to unpaid debt. The ship began service again a year later under the newly formed American President Lines, until the start of WWII.
World War II involvement
The first task of the SS President Coolidge was 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, the U.S. Navy used the vessel as a troopship, reinforcing the Pacific frontier. On Dec. 19, 1941, 12 days after the Japanese attacked 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. The ship transported 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. The Navy mounted guns and painted the ship a haze grey. It was only then that the War Shipping Administration officially assigned the Coolidge to the U.S. Navy .
The SS President Coolidge sinks
The Coolidge met its fate on Vanuatu in the South Pacific.U.S. forces established one of Vanuatu’s largest islands, Espiritu Santo as a stronghold. It held an airfield, military base and a heavily protected harbor. The U.S. laid mines in surrounding channels and ports of entry to Espiritu Santo 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. Fearing 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 decided to ground it. He ordered all 5,340 men to abandon ship and leave all belongings behind.
The ship lost only two men. Fireman Robert Reid died in the engine room after the Coolidge hit 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. The Navy placed a memorial 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. Divers who visit Coolidge will see guns, cannons, Jeeps, helmets, trucks and personal supplies. 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.