Remnants of the Second World War can be found scattered throughout the Pacific, from the jungles and lagoons of Micronesia and Papua New Guinea to Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. One of the most famous (and largest) wrecks however, is found somewhere in between, in Vanuatu: the SS President Coolidge.
The SS President Coolidge was a luxury liner and was only pressed into service as a troop carrier in 1942. On 6 October 1942, she left homeport of San Francisco with 5342 troops on board, a defence unit intended to protect the airfield at Luganville, Espiritu Santo that was providing bomber support for forces at Guadalcanal in the Solomons.
Espiritu Santo was heavily protected by mines, but information about safe entry into the harbour had somehow been left out of the Coolidge’s sailing orders, and on her approach to Santo on 26 October 1942, she tried to enter the harbour through the largest and most obvious channel. A mine struck the ship in the engine room, and moments later a second mine hit her near her stern.
As the Coolidge lilted, 5,340 men got safely ashore. There was no panic as they disembarked; many even walked ashore. The captain attempted to beach the ship but was thwarted by a coral reef, and the ship later slid deeper down the steep slope. She now sits between 21m and 73m
It’s a tragic own goal for the U.S. Navy that has left us with one of the most popular wrecks in the South Pacific.
To properly explore this enormous (and deep) wreck, you need several days, as experienced dive guides take you deeper and deeper on subsequent days on controlled deco dives.
On the first dive, you’ll get to explore the bow and promenade deck, and it probably won’t be until your second dive that you get to penetrate the wreck, as it’s shallowest entry point, Cargo Holds 1 and 2, at a depth of 33m. In Cargo Hold 1 you can see Jeeps that were never used, further along as you weave through D and E Decks, rows of old medical supplies and in Cargo Hold 2 there’s even an old barber’s chair.
The icon of the Coolidge is ‘The Lady’, an old bas-relief of an Elizabethan ‘lady’ with a prancing white horse situated in the first-class dining saloon. It’s traditional to give her a kiss for good luck as you make your way through the ship. There’s the old doctor’s office at 45m and in Cargo Hold 6 and 7, ambulances, piles of ammunition and redundant spare parts.
The swimming pool and the galley are at 57m and the Stern, where you’ll see the ship’s massive rudder and propeller shafts as well as the largest gun on the Coolidge. Once you’ve got this far, there’s an opportunity to ‘run the gauntlet’ – a 200m swim inside the ship from stern to bow.
You can see why divers like to spend a full week exploring this monolith, and it’s also a rare opportunity for non-technical divers to explore such a deep wreck.
All images: Heather Sutton. See more of Heather’s images on Flickr.