A Brief History of the SS President Coolidge

By: Tom Robinson

Espirtu Santo is famous the world over as a diving destination. One of the reasons for this is the wreck of The SS President Coolidge. It is said that this is the largest, most accessible wreck in the world and has been coined as “the world’s greatest shore dive”.

The SS President Coolidge was commissioned by the Dollar Steamship Company in October 1929 along with her sister ship, the SS President Hoover, at a cost of just over US $7 million per ship. The President Coolidge was launched on the 21st of February 1931 by the former President’s wife, Grace Coolidge. It was christened with a bottle of river water from the Black River that flowed through the ex-President’s farmland instead of the customary champagne, as at the time prohibition was in full swing in the United States.

A Luxury Ship 

The SS President Coolidge was truly a luxury ship worthy of the Presidential name. At the time, the liner (along with its sister ship) was the largest merchant ship built in the US. Coming in at 654 feet 3 inches long, 81 feet in beam, with a depth of 34 feet and weighing in at 21,936 tons gross, she was a beast. It was designed to accommodate 988 passengers plus a crew of 385. No expense was spared in furnishing the interior which was on par with the best hotels of the time. The onboard entertainment “was state of the art” including two saltwater pools, a gym, cinema, stock exchange, beauty parlour and “air conditioning” throughout. All the rooms had telephones with the first-class cabins and many of the special class having en-suite bathroom facilities.  

Cruising Routes and Shipping Lanes

The ship was completed on September 10th, 1932 and enjoyed success as a first-class passenger cruise liner. The President Coolidge, operating out of San Francisco, visited ports including Honolulu, Yokohama, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Manila, setting records for trans-Pacific crossings both east and westbound, some by as many as 14 hours. Despite the economic depression, both the President Coolidge & the Hoover were profitable ships. This was in part because of a mail subsidy from the US government. They were the most profitable ships on the line. In 1937, the Dollar Liners were forced to alter their routes due to the escalating conflict between Japan and China, which rendered the port of Shanghai inoperable. From Kobe, the President Hoover was told to skip Shanghai and sail straight to Manila. While trying to navigate around the North Eastern coast of Taiwan on the 11th of December 1937 she ran aground off Hoishoto Island, partially due to bad weather, and was later declared a complete loss. This, in conjunction with severe mismanagement, led to the Dollar Steamship Line Inc. becoming insolvent, and in turn, being taken over by the US government which changed the company name to American President Lines Ltd. on the 1st of November 1938.

Not quite a year later, war broke out in Europe; normal shipping services were disrupted as the routes became dangerous. America first stockpiled material and then ran supplies for the Allied forces. The President Coolidge along with other passenger liners were kept busy during the early war years, evacuating American citizens from across Asia and later serving as transport for the American army, reinforcing the Pacific garrisons. It was on one of her last voyages as a cruise liner that she set an all-time record for merchant vessels on the total number of passengers carried under normal service. 

A New Life for the SS President Coolidge 

When America entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese in late 1941, all shipping was taken under control by the War Shipping Administration pool. The President Coolidge was refitted and painted navy grey, to start its second life as a troop transport and carry soldiers and vital supplies throughout the Pacific theatre. Interestingly, the US Navy had “suggested” some elements in the design of the President Coolidge (and the Hoover) that made the conversion easier, including the ability to mount defensive armament on the decks of the ships. When the conversion was complete, most of the luxurious items and furniture had been removed, boarded up or replaced by more utilitarian equipment. Refitted, she could carry over 5000 troops plus crew and extra toilets were added to cater for the increased human capacity. 

The President Coolidge made a number of runs to the South-Pacific carrying troops and supplies before she made her final voyage from San Francisco on the 6th of Oct 1942 bound for what was then known as the New Hebrides and the island of Espiritu Santo. 

Bibliography

Stone, P., 1997. The Lady and the President. s.l.:Oceans Enterprises.

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