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History of Vanuatu's President Coolidge Shipwreck

By Robby Myers | Authored On November 20, 2017
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History of Vanuatu's President Coolidge Shipwreck

The SS President Coolidge was a luxury liner that became a gigantic scuba divers’ playground after it struck a mine and sank off Vanuatu during World War II.

Porcelain Lady and Unicorn panel President Coolidge Shipwreck scuba diving site Vanuatu

The Lady and the Unicorn is a porcelain relief panel that once adorned the Coolidge's first-class smoking lounge.

Media Drum World /Alamy Stock Photo

History of the President Coolidge

The SS President Coolidge was a luxury passenger steamship built by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Newport, Virginia, in 1931 for the Dollar Steamship Line.

According to historical ship registries found on online database Wrecksite, Coolidge was 615 feet long and had a beam of 81 feet. It had two steam turbines and was capable of reaching speeds up to 20 knots.

Coolidge and its sister ship, the SS President Hoover, were nearly identical. The Takao Club, a website focused on the history and culture of Taiwan (where Hoover ran aground in 1937), says that the ships were capable of carrying 990 passengers and 324 crew. The stately steamer was furnished in an Art Deco style. Allan Power Diver Tours, an operator on Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu, lists two saltwater swimming pools, a gymnasium, barber shop, beauty salon, stock exchange and a soda fountain among the ship’s luxurious amenities.

Coolidge took passengers from its home port in San Francisco to Hawaii and the Far East. It broke several speed records while traveling the trans-Pacific route.

In June 1938, Coolidge was seized in San Francisco for an unpaid debt of $35,000. A bond was put up so the ship could make one final trip, after which the Dollar Steamship Line was suspended from operation. On August 15, 1938, ownership of the Dollar Steamship Line was given to the government in exchange for clearing the company’s debt. The company’s name was changed to American President Lines on November 1, 1938.

The President Coolidge Goes to War

The ship continued its trans-Pacific route under the American President Lines. But when Japanese-British relations began to deteriorate in 1940, Coolidge was also used to evacuate Americans from Hong Kong and other areas in Asia.

On May 27, 1941, President Roosevelt declared a state of emergency; the ship was taken over by the Maritime Commission and was used to reinforce garrisons in the Pacific as the threat of war loomed.

By January 1942, after delivering wounded from the attack on Pearl Harbor to San Francisco, the Coolidge was fully converted into a troop ship. The ship was painted gray and its fine furnishings were either removed or boarded up. The luxury steamer, originally equipped to handle just under 1,000 passengers, was modified to transport 5,000 troops.

The ship was also outfitted with several guns during its conversion. The official report from the ship’s sinking states that it was outfitted with a single five-inch gun mounted at the stern, four three-inch guns and 12 20mm anti-aircraft guns.

Coolidge’s final destination would be the island of Espirito Santo, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu).

According to the official report, Coolidge was carrying approximately 5,000 army and navy troops and 12,000 tons of government cargo — including trucks, jeeps, artillery guns, ammunition and 519 pounds of quinine — when it arrived within sight Espirito Santo on the morning of October 26, 1942.

This ship would be sitting on the ocean floor a few hours later.

Sinking of the President Coolidge

Coolidge’s rendezvous point was within the Segond Channel, which had recently been mined — a vital piece of information that had not been shared with the ship’s captain, Henry Nelson. Worried about a different kind of submerged threat — enemy submarines — Nelson wasted no time setting a course for the channel’s largest and most obvious entrance.

A number of ships tried to warn Coolidge but were not immediately successful. The official report mentions that the SS Santa Ana continuously flashed a warning to the doomed ship, but its signal light was inadequate for daylight communication.

By the time communications officer Ensign Doren S. Weinstein received the Morse code message to “STOP,” it was too late. He relayed the initial warning to the captain and then decoded the rest of the message while the ship attempted to halt. The full message read, “stop you are standing into mines.”

The first explosion rocked the ship at 9:30 a.m. The second explosion occurred 30 seconds later, and the ship immediately began to list to port.

Knowing the ship was lost, Capt. Nelson swung to starboard in an attempt to run the ship aground but struck a coral reef about 100 yards from the northern shore of the channel. A calm, orderly evacuation was soon in motion and lifeboats were lowered into the oil-slicked water. The ship was close to shore and there was little cause to panic; many people even believed they would be able to return later to collect their belongings.

That notion was soon dismissed, as the ship’s list continued to worsen. It became so bad that some of the last evacuees were even able to walk down the starboard side of the ship. Coolidge finally fell on to its port side and began to rapidly slide off the reef into deeper water. Almost an hour and a half after hitting the mines, Coolidge finally disappeared beneath the surface at 10:53 a.m., according to the official report.

Of the 5,000 plus men onboard, there were only two casualties. The first was 30-year-old fireman Robert Reid, who was killed outright during the first explosion. The second was Army Capt. Elwood Euart. It is unclear exactly what happened, but it is believed that Euart safely escaped the sinking ship but went back inside to help crew members trapped inside and was unable to get out a second time. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.

There were a number of salvage operations in the following years for the ship’s propellers, oil, and other materials. According to Allan Power Dive Tours, on November 18, 1983, the Vanuatu government declared an end to salvaging Coolidge. The ship has been a popular scuba diving spot ever since.

Scuba Diving the President Coolidge

The Coolidge is a large wreck and is mostly intact, although it has suffered some damage from earthquakes throughout the years. The wreck is easily accessible from shore or by boat. It should be noted that most of the wreck is beyond recreational limits. The ship lies on its port side with the highest point, the bow, at around 68 feet. The other end of the 615-foot ship reaches just shy of 240 feet. Almost all dives are done as decompression dives.

However, it is possible to visit the bow and starboard side of the ship — which is covered in corals and is home to trigger fish, lionfish, nudibranchs and moray eels — on a no-deco dive. The bow and foredeck hold one of Coolidge’s three-inch guns. You can also reach the ship’s two forward cargo holds and see its collection of rifles, trucks, jeeps and 155mm Howitzers.

Those with advanced training can delve deeper into the wreck and explore the lower decks and aft cargo holds, engine room, galley and doctor’s office. You can also take a swim in the ship’s swimming pool at 180 feet. One of Coolidge’s most-iconic sights is “The Lady,” a porcelain relief panel of a lady riding a unicorn that adorned the ship’s first-class smoking room.

Coolidge is massive and filled with places to explore — you could spend a week diving this wreck and still not have seen it all.

Depth The wreck of the President Coolidge sits between 68 and 240 feet.

Visibility Viz is anywhere from 33 to 100 feet.

Temperature Water temps vary between 79 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Need to Know With such a large wreck, the best way to get the most from your limited bottom time is to have a plan and stick to it. You’ll also want to watch your depth — it can be easy to wander deeper than you intend.

Operators Allan Power Dive Tours | Aore Adventure Sports & Lodge