On Thursday we sailed 50 miles from Ambae to Santo Island and its main town of Luganville. We anchored in a peaceful spot very near the Aore Resort, a lovely complex with a great restaurant serving delicious food in a covered lanai overlooking the harbor. We immediately went into full dive mode. I was finally allowed in the water so next morning I checked out my equipment and refreshed my diving skills along the shore of the resort. Satisfied that all body parts were functioning – my own as well as my equipment’s – Mike and I signed up for some commercially guided diving on nearby WWII relics, beginning with the renowned USS President Coolidge.
Our dive guide gave us the short version of the history of the Coolidge. The ship was built in 1931 as a luxury cruise liner, 654′ in length and 22,000 tons, accommodating 350 passengers. During WWII as the US built up its presence in the South Pacific, thousands of troops needed to be transported to Pacific stations. The government acquired the Coolidge, gutting it and ripping out the staterooms with their queen and king sized beds, replacing them with stacks of cots thus enabling the ship to carry 5,000 troops at a time!
The civilian captain of the Coolidge retained his role on the now military ship and made several successful runs with the ship in 1942. On October 26, 1942, the Coolidge arrived at the entrance to Luganville Harbor, which has more than one approach between small islands at its mouth. The ship radioed shore but received no reply over a stretch of several hours. Eventually contact was made with a Navy destroyer that advised it was all right to enter the harbor but they were on alert for patrolling Japanese subs.
With this information, the captain opted to enter via the secondary channel, reasoning that any submarines would be lurking at the primary channel. He did not know, and with lack of military expertise did not suspect, that this second entrance was mined. As the ship entered the passage, the captain received the confusing radio message from shore ‘Stop you are standing…’ which made no sense to him but he did stop as told. What ‘standing’ meant was that he was standing over a mine field. Right then a mine exploded in the vicinity of the engine room, blowing a massive hole in the hull. The captain went into reverse to back out of the mine field but hit a second mine which blew another massive hole in the hull. With the Coolidge rapidly taking on tons of seawater through the breaches, the captain then threw the ship into forward and ran it aground; the thousands of soldiers on board then waded to land. Only two men were killed, one who was in the engine room when the first mine exploded and an officer who rescued three sailors trapped behind a sea door. The three escaped but the heroic officer drowned. There is a memorial to him on shore near the wreck.
The intention was to salvage all the equipment off the ship later, but in less than an hour the Coolidge slid backwards from shore into deeper water into its final resting place – lying on her port side only meters from shore with the bow at 20m and the stern at 65m.
The landed troops camped out on the adjacent beach for months. The sand is littered with pebbles of old seaworn bits of glass, green from coca cola bottles, brown from beer bottles, and clear from water bottles. Our guide told us that with a metal detector it is possible to locate all kinds of odds and ends including dog tags and other paraphernalia.
The captain was court-martialed a few months later in San Francisco but eventually exonerated of wrong-doing.
We donned our dive gear on the beach and staggered through the breaking surf before swimming out to buoys marking the bow of the wreck, then descended with our guide to the deck of the ship some 20+ meters below the surface. This first dive was a surface reconnoiter of the layout. We saw cannon and unexplored artillery shells on the deck, swam along the promenade, and eventually descended into one of the cargo holds for an interior view. Shoes, cups, combs, rifles, medical supplies – all are on display. Very little was ever salvaged from the fully laden ship.
This was a relatively deep dive, pushing the decompression limits of our dive computers and requiring a couple of lengthy (and boring) safety stops along a shallower sandy bottom.
The following day we went diving again, this time with a different outfit which offered boat access to the wreck, a much easier way to go! Our excellent guide was Alfred who has been diving the Coolidge for 14 years. Apparently we passed inspection because he took Mike and me on a much more technical dive deep into the interior of the ship. At 40 meters he shined his torch in the gloom on ‘The Lady’, a famous wall carving of a lady and her steed from the Coolidge’s more cultured days. The majority of Coolidge dive tourists don’t have the opportunity to see The Lady due to the depth, so I was especially pleased to capture a decent photo of her. Nearby Alfred illuminated a chandelier, now laying on it’s side. Taking off his dive gear (30 meters underwater!), he swam to a row of porcelain toilets (hanging down from the transposed ceiling) and demoed their use!
Again, having pushing our deco limits, we lingered at our safety stops while Alfred entertained us by lying on his back in the sand and blowing impressive bubble rings that grew in size as they floated to the surface.