SS President Coolidge and Million Dollar Point Dive, Espiritu Santo – 9/7/2011

SS President Coolidge

Background Information

The President Coolidge was an American ocean liner whose construction was completed in 1931, at a cost of around $7 million.  A sister ship, the President Hoover was completed the year prior, in 1930.  At the time of their construction they were the largest ocean liners of that time. 

The Coolidge operated as a luxury vessel undertaking many round the world voyages.  The ship had two pools, one with its own sand beach, a theater, 2 dining rooms, shopping arcade and could accommodate 988 people plus a crew of close to 400.

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SS President Coolidge.  Photo courtesy of: www.facebook.com/pages/LINERS-DE-LUXE-The-Story-of-the-ss-Pres-Hoover-and-ss-Pres-Coolidge/160124657393776?fref=pb&hc_location=profile_browser

After WW2 broke out the Coolidge was used to firstly move US residents from Hong Kong and later from other parts of eastern Asia.  During WW2 the Coolidge was used to transfer the injured from Pearl harbour attack in December 1941 to San Francisco.  She was again used in 1942 as part of a convoy to carry troops, ammunition, supplies and planes and arrived in Australia on the 1st of February.  It was later that year that the ship was converted to a troopship, with many of the civilian fittings either removed or covered over for safe keeping.  The Coolidge was painted haze gray with mounted guns and had the capacity to hold 5000 troops. After her conversion, the Coolidge’s service incorporated Australia, New Zealand, Bora Bora and Fiji.  She was sent to Espiritu Santo with the intention of protecting the airfield.

Espiritu Santo had established a military base and harbour that was protected by land mines, however information on the safe entrance into the harbour was accidentally omitted from the Coolidge’s sailing orders.  The Coolidge was unaware of the mine fields and entered the harbour through the largest channel on the 26th of October 1942.  The ship hit two mines, one struck the engine room and moments later the stern.  Captain Henry Nelson knew he was going to lose the ship and so ran her aground and ordered the troops off and to leave their belongings behind, assuming a salvage operation would take place later.

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Photo of the SS President Coolidge as it is Sinking.  Photo: http://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5641/31068831881_c6b0fdcf64_o.jpg

Although the Captain’s efforts to beach the ship were thwarted by a coral reef, he did manage to get 5 340 men safely to shore in approximately 90 minutes.  There were two deaths, the first was Fireman Robert Reid who was killed in the engine room after the first mine blast.  The second was Captain Elwood Joseph Euart, who returned to the ship to help men escape that were in the infirmary.  While Euart managed to get the men to safety, he was unable to escape himself and went down with the ship. In February 2014, the remains of Captain Euart were discovered by a local dive guide and were later retrieved by an American recovery team.

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Photo of Captain Elwood Euart.  Photo by VIRIN: 160824-A-ZZ111-001.JPG

Interestingly, while the ship lost critical equipment, it also lost the US’s entire stock of quinine, approximately 268 kilos or 591 pounds. Quinine was used to treat malaria, which was prevalent in the Pacific and Papua New Guinea.

After Vanuatu gained independence it declared that there would be no salvage or recovery of artifacts from the Coolidge and it was designated a National Park site.  Over the years some parts of the ship like the sun deck, boat and promenade decks have collapsed due to natural deterioration and earthquakes. The ship is used for recreational diving and divers can swim through various holds and decks.  The size and depth the Coolidge makes it a relatively accessible site that attracts divers.  On the over 20 dives on the site you can see guns, cannons, jeeps, chandeliers and even a mosaic fountain.  It is considered one of the best dives in the world.

Our Dive

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Map of the SS President Coolidge.  Photo is the courtesy of: https://www.diveoclock.com/destinations/Oceania/Vanuatu/Coolidge/

Josh, Andrew and I booked a Coolidge/Million Dollar Point dive with the Aquamarine Dive Center (which has since closed down).  Our first dive was the Coolidge.  After trucking to the beach and assembling our gear, we walked into the water to begin our shore dive.  The wreck is on a gradual downward slope with the bow in about 20 meters and the stern at 70 meters.  The ship is massive, stretching nearly 200 meters long and 25 meters wide. Some of the deeper dives require nitrox and have fairly short bottom times.

While it took me a while to clear my ears, both Andrew and Josh had fairly quick descents. We opted for the shallow dive and reached a maximum of 90 feet or 27 meters during our dive.  Our dive took us down one side of the Coolidge and up and over the deck near the bow.  We ran out of time and didn’t go into the cargo hold.  Due to the depth of the water the dive only lasted 25 minutes.   It was an incredible experience to dive on the ship and I would go back and do it again.

Some of the positives of the dive site is that the water is warm, there is very little current and although the water generally has good visibility,y the day we divided it wasn’t great.  The disadvantage is the depth, most of the dives are deeper than what most recreational divers encounter and so your dive time is short, even when you are on the bow.

Million Dollar Point

Background Information

When America established a base on Espiritu Santo to enable them to launch attacks on the Japanese in the Pacific, they had to construct roads, airports and several runways at a minimal cost. They used coral that had washed up on the beach at Million Dollar Point, crushed it to the appropriate size and mixed with water and a hardening agent before it was graded and rolled to create a hard surface. In fact, the town of Luganville was created by the US Army who brought in machinery to clear the forests.  In creating the town, the Americans accumulated a lot of equipment including trucks, cranes, forklifts and earth moving equipment.  In addition to the town, they also built multiple hospitals that were later pulled down.

At the end of the war, as a gesture of goodwill to the people of Espiritu Santo, the US Army left the roads, buildings, power, water and other infrastructure in place.  However, they faced the dilemma of what to do with all the machinery, furniture, clothing, bottles and food when the troops left. As transport ships were in short supply it was decided to leave the equipment behind. The US Military offered the equipment to the joint British-French Government for a cheap price of 6 cents to a dollar.  The local government didn’t want to pay the money as they thought the Americans would leave it to them for free.

The equipment was moved to Million Dollar Point ready for the US departure.  The US again offered the equipment to the French/British Government, who again refused. Over a period of two days the US Military drove the machinery laden with food, clothing, drinks and other equipment along the concrete jetty and pushed it into the water.  The machinery that couldn’t be driven off was pushed by bulldozers into the water.  Then the bulldozers were put in gear and left to drive off the jetty.  But the final pièce de résistance was when the army engineers blew up the jetty. Obviously the English and French government were not very happy when the equipment was destroyed. The local Vanuatuan’s were left with water contaminated by fuel from the vehicles.

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The rusting remains at Million Dollar point.  Photo credit: www.airvanuatu.com

Salvage attempts were made in the years shortly after the scuttling of the equipment, most to no avail.  Apparently, a New Zealand man did manage to pull a bulldozer out and repair it and then use it to pull a few more from the water and do the same.  He later sold them to a mining company in Australia or so the rumor goes.

Today you can snorkel and dive on the site where millions of dollars’ worth of goods were destroyed over a period of two days and rendered useless.  The rusted remains of the equipment, ranging from construction equipment to military tanks, guns and jeeps, as well as two ship wrecks remain at the bottom of the ocean.

Our Dive

It should be noted that while it is a dive site it can also be snorkeled, particularly at low tide.  The water clarity was fantastic.  We saw boats, tanks, tires and other army supplies during the dive.  We also swam through schools of fish.  I would highly recommend the dive site, I enjoyed it more than the Coolidge.  There is a lot to see and you could easily do a few dives here.

During our dive we reached a maximum depth of 65 feet or 20 meters and spent about 40 minutes underwater.

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