Launched in February 1931, The SS President Coolidge was built by Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. in Newport News, Virginia USA. Prior to World War II, she was operated by the American President Lines as a luxury liner providing trans-Pacific passage and commercial service. The Coolidge was aimed at holiday makers seeking sun in the Pacific and Far East. During her time as a luxury liner, she broke several speed records on her frequent trips to Japan from San Francisco. Passengers had a luxurious experience on the ship with spacious staterooms and lounges, private telephones, two saltwater swimming pools, a barber shop, beauty salon, gymnasium and soda fountain.
In 1941, as war time activities increased, the US War Department began to use the President Coolidge for occasional voyages to Honolulu and Manila. She also helped evacuate Americans from Hong Kong when Japanese-British relations became strained in 1940. She was later called upon to assist in the evacuations of many people from Asia as the Japanese increased aggression. In June 1941, the Coolidge went into service with the American Army as a transport ship for reinforcing garrisons in the Pacific. A few months later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After this, the Coolidge was stripped of her finery, painted gun-metal gray, mounted with guns and turned into a troop ship. Many of the fixtures and fittings were removed or boarded up for protection. After full conversion in 1942, she could carry over 5000 troops. As a troop carrier, she was never intended to see any action. In her first few months of service, her ports of call included Melbourne, Wellington, Auckland, Bora Bora, and Suva. On October 6, she set sail from her home port of San Francisco, California for New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu
A large military base and harbor had been established on Espiritu Santo and the harbor was heavily protected by mines. Information about safe entry into the harbor had been accidentally omitted from the Coolidge’s sailing orders, and upon her approach to Santo on October 26, 1942, the SS Coolidge, fearing Japanese submarines and unaware of the mine fields, attempted to enter the harbor through the largest and most obvious channel. A friendly mine struck the ship at the engine room and moments later, a second mine hit her near the stern.
Captain Henry Nelson, knowing that he was going to lose the ship, ran her aground and ordered troops to abandon ship. Not believing the ship would sink, troops were told to leave all of their belongings behind under the impression that they would conduct salvage operations over the next few days.
Over the course of the next 90 minutes, 5340 men got safely off of the wreck and to shore. There was no panic as the troops disembarked - many even walked to shore. However, the captain's attempts to beach the ship were unsuccessful due to the coral reef. The Coolidge listed heavily on her side, sank, and slid down the slope into the channel. She now rests on her port side with her bow at a depth of 20 metres (70 ft) and her stern at 70 metres (240 ft).
There were 2 casualties in the sinking of the Coolidge: The first was Fireman Robert Reid, who was working in the engine room and was killed by the initial mine blast. The second, Captain Elwood J. Euart, US Army Artillery Corps, had safely gotten off the Coolidge when he learned that there were still men in the infirmary who could not get out. He went back in to one of the sea doors, successfully rescued the men but was then unable to escape himself and he went down with the ship. A memorial to Captain Euart is located on the shore near the access points for the Coolidge.
A video about diving in the SS President Coolidge and about one of the companies of soldiers on the ship, Company E, was made in 1984. It is called The Grave of a President.
There were three official inquiries surrounding the cause of the sinking. The first preliminary Court of Inquiry convened 12 November 1942 aboard the USS Whitney at the behest of Admiral Halsey. The Court of Inquiry recommended additional charges be laid against Captain Nelson. The matter was referred to a Military Commission which convened in Noumea, New Caledonia on 08 December 1942. This commission acquitted Captain Nelson of guilt. From the Commission of Inquiry it came out that Merchant Marine vessels were not given all available tactical information, most notably regarding the placement of mines. This simple precaution would have prevented the sinking. This outcome did not please the Navy Department, and he was referred to a Coast Guard Investigation Board upon his return to the United States on 06 February 1943. This Investigation Board took no further action.
After the war came salvage operations which recovered items such as the propeller blades, bunker oil, brass casings of shells, electric motors, junction boxes and copper tubing. However, from 18 November 1983 the Vanuatu government declared that no salvage or recovery of any artifact would be allowed from the Coolidge. Since then the ship has been used for recreational diving.
Today, the Coolidge is protected by Vanuatu law and provides endless enjoyment for divers. Her dual identity means that divers see a luxury cruise liner and a military ship on a single dive. Coral grows all around the wreck and many sea creatures such as sea turtles and moray eels call the wreck home. Resting in warm, tropical waters, the SS President Coolidge is a marvelous underwater playground for any diver.
Lying on her side in 70 - 240 ft of water, she is perhaps the most accessible shipwreck of this size and type for divers. The wreck is renowned as one of the most desirable dives in the world due to the (relatively) shallow site, easy access off the beach, the often superb visibility, the warm waters and the relatively intact ship itself. The depths involved mean that, with care and decompression stops, recreational divers can explore the wreck without the need to use specialized equipment.
Almost completely intact, you can swim through the numerous holds and decks viewing the reminders of her days as a cruise liner and the remnants of her days as a troop ship. There are guns, cannons, jeeps, helmets, trucks and personal supplies left by some of the soldiers, as well as a beautiful statue of “The Lady” (a porcelain relief of a lady riding a unicorn) chandeliers and a mosaic tile fountain. The wreck is covered in coral and is the home to a plethora of sea life such including sea turtles, barracuda, lionfish, and a host of reef fish.
Unfortunately however the spectacular dive that is the Coolidge will not be around forever. Time is taking its toll and with recent earthquakes collapsing sections of the wreck, access enjoyed by divers in the past will not remain.