The fate of the SS President Coolidge
By Kristine Holst
On October 6th, 1942, about 5100 men and [a few] women gathered around the port of San Francisco. They waved goodbye to their loved ones, their winter-wear-filled duffel bags swung over their shoulders. Most of them left thinking their destination would be Alaska, but in reality, they had no idea where they were headed.
The Right Man for the Job
Appointed as commander for the Coolidge’s wartime assignment was a legend amongst shipping circles, Captain Henry Nelson. By this time, he could have enjoyed the benefits of a well-deserved retirement on dry land, but he chose to go out to sea with his ship “for the love of his country.” Though not military trained, there was no better man for the job…he knew how to run this ship.
The SS President Coolidge steamed away one last time, unescorted and blacked out, strategically zigzagging over the Pacific Ocean. It was packed to capacity with:
- Military Equipment
- Construction Cargo
- Essential Medical Supplies
- A Predominantly Asian Crew
- And Currency
There were bunkbeds upon bunkbeds, toilets upon toilets. Only cold saltwater was available; the freshwater could only be used for drinking and cooking. The galley was supposedly operating on a 20-hour schedule. Each meal was served in 3 different sittings as there was just not enough space in the dining hall. It was extremely crowded, and soon enough it started getting really hot and humid. They were clearly not headed for Alaska. Despite all this, great weather conditions allowed for an uneventful voyage. Moving at a fast pace of around 20 knots, which was thought would be enough to outrun a submarine, Nelson kept everybody busy with drills and emergency procedures during the trans-Pacific crossing.
At the end of a 4-day layover in Nouméa, New Caledonia, as standard WWII procedure to ensure safe passage to ally vessels, Captain Nelson received a 9-page document labelled “Top Secret” with specific sailing instructions, directing the Coolidge to an exact location denominated “Point Hypo” off the coast of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. Very few had heard of this place, but an American military base had been established here to support and supply the South Pacific conflict against the Japanese, which was in full swing as nearby as the Solomon Islands.
Directions after Point Hypo seemed extremely vague. At 7:30 on the 26th of October, contact was established with the USS Sterett destroyer on anti-submarine patrol, which had no orders for the Coolidge. The decision was then made to enter the Segond Canal through the most logical, accessible route. Given the bearing they were on and the location of Point Hypo, it seemed reasonable to continue a few more miles on the current heading and pass to the north-east of Tutuba Island through the largest deepwater channel. With the ever-present threat of submarine attacks on everyone’s minds and the general lack of knowledge of the area, no one questioned this decision. While still on course to point Hypo at a high speed, patrol craft PC-479 was spotted and contact was initiated, though no escorting or relevant information was provided. It was, nevertheless, the USS Gamble which had patrol and escort duties in that area, but had gone back to shore to refuel that very morning. Soon Tutuba Island would cut visual communications short and even though PC-479 tried to catch up, it failed.
A Mine Field
From the Coolidge, everything looked promising; calmest of seas, sunniest of days, palm trees in abundance and Button [Luganville] in sight. At the bridge, the Communications Officer was scouting the shore for anchoring instructions when he spotted an urgent Morse code flashing the command “STOP”. Immediately he ordered the engine room to stop engines. At 9:35 before managing to scribble down the rest of the message “… you are standing into mines,” the first mine struck, followed shortly by a second one 30 seconds later. Considering the damage and all possibilities, Captain Henry Nelson quickly commanded all watertight doors to be shut, managed to beach the Coolidge just about three minutes after the first hit and immediately called “Abandon Ship”. He had made the troops practice fire and boat drills during the crossing, so when the time came to do it, everybody remained rather calm. There are even some accounts of people heading to the kitchen, grilling a steak for themselves, eating it and then heading out. It took about 90 minutes for the ship to sink, which gave all of the troops and crew enough time to safely abandon ship. All except two; fireman Robert Reid, who died in the explosions and Captain Elwood Joseph Euart, who after hearing some men were stuck, bravely got all of them out safely, but couldn’t manage to escape himself as the Coolidge quickly sunk to the bottom, taking him with her.
The SS President Coolidge came to rest laying down the slope on its port side, with the stern at around 70m below the surface and the bow at 20m, only 50m from the high watermark. This proximity to shore, the magnificence of the boat, and its unique story as both an opulent passenger cruise liner and wartime supply ship make it a true contender for the moniker; “the greatest shore dive in the world”!
Stone, P., 1997. The Lady and the President. s.l.:Oceans Enterprises.