SS President Coolidge

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Name: SS President Coolidge
Namesake: Calvin Coolidge
Operator: Dollar Steamship Lines
American President Lines
Route: San FranciscoJapan
Builder: Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., Newport News, Virginia
Cost: US$8,017,690
Launched: February 1931
Fate: Sunk by mines, 26 October 1942
General characteristics
Type: Ocean liner / Troopship
Tonnage: Gross tonnage (GT) of 21,936 tons
Length: 654 ft (199 m)
Speed: 20.5 knots (38.0 km/h; 23.6 mph)
Range: 14,400 mi (23,200 km)
Capacity: Passengers:
• First Class: 305
• Tourist Class: 133
• Steerage: 402
Troops: Over 5,000

The SS President Coolidge was a luxury ocean liner that was originally built, along with her sister ship the SS President Hoover, for Dollar Steamship Lines. They were the largest merchant ships the US had built up to that time. In 1938, when the Dollar Steamship Lines collapsed, she was transferred to American President Lines. In 1941 she was converted to carrying troops in the South Pacific.

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.

Second World War

In March 1939, President Coolidge became the last ship to sight the custom-built Chinese junk Sea Dragon, built and sailed by American explorer Richard Halliburton, before she disappeared in a typhoon some 1,900 km west of the Midway Islands.[1]

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 aggression increased. 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 haze 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 5,000 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, 5,340 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: [2] 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 Field Artillery, 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.

Administrative inquiries

There were three official inquiries surrounding the cause of the sinking. The first preliminary Court of Inquiry convened November 12, 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 December 8, 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 February 6, 1943. This Investigation Board took no further action.

After the war

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 November 18, 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.

Diving the Coolidge

Divers see a largely intact luxury cruise liner and a military ship at once. They can swim through numerous holds and decks (earthquakes have collapsed sections). There are guns, cannons, Jeeps, helmets, trucks and personal supplies, a beautiful statue of "The Lady" (a porcelain relief of a lady riding a unicorn) chandeliers, and a mosaic tile fountain. Coral grows around, with many creatures such as reef fish, barracuda, lionfish, sea turtles and moray eels.

Lying on her side in 21-73m (70 – 240 ft) of water, the Coolidge is perhaps the most accessible shipwreck of this size and type. The wreck is one of the most desirable dives due to relatively shallow site, easy beach access, visibility. The depths involved mean that, with care and decompression stops, recreational divers can explore large parts of the wreck without specialized equipment.

The Times named the President Coolidge as one of the top ten wreck diving sites in the world.[3]


  1. The Passing Parade, John Doremus / Evening with Ian Holland - 2045 AEST, September 10, 2007, Radio 2CH
  2. APL - Vessel History
  3. Ecott, Tim (2007-03-03). "World's best wreck diving". London: The Times. Retrieved 2009-11-09. 

Further reading

  • Stone, Peter, The Lady and the President: The Life and Loss of the SS President Coolidge

External links

pl:SS President Coolidge