By Rob Lahood
Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu’s biggest island in the north of the Pacific republic’s group, remarkably is best known for an unfortunate incident in World VVar II and now its direct legacy, wreck diving.
On the morning of 26 October 1942, the fabulous luxury American liner, the SS President Coolidge, sank in perfect calm creating an embarrassing episode for the US Navy. The giant ship (of some 22,000 tonnes and 201 metres (640 ft in length), with more than 5000 marines aboard, fully laden with arms, supplies, medicine and machinery, struck a ‘friendly’ mine at the entrance to Luganville and sank within an hour.Santo, at the height of the American campaign to halt the Japanese advance south, was a massive staging post for the Solomon Islands campaign further north and at the time was the biggest US military base in the Pacific outside Pearl Harbour.The demise of the sinking of the giant SS President Coolidge and a few months earlier the destroyer the SS Tucker in a similar incident, off Malo Island at the other end of Lugaaville Channel, however, nearly 65 years later remains the singularly biggest and most important event for the remote and beautiful isle first discovered by the
Today Santo, along with Truk Lagoon, is famous in the scuba world for diving ‘the President’ – touted diving’s biggest accessible World War II wreck the Tucker and another unusual site, Million Dollar Point, just a few kilometres along the coast from the stricken luxury liner that had been hurriedly converted to troop ship to transport marines from Noumea to the American base.
Million Dollar Point, like the Coolidge, is a shore dive of enormous proportions.
The ‘Poiri’ was created during a squabble between three of the allied powers at conclusion of the war; the Americans offered, basically, the enormous supplies of their base in Santo to the governing condominium, France and Britain, for a shilling in the pound.
The quantity of the supplies for the base of more than 120,000 Americans was very considerable even by today’s standards with everything imaginable literally bulldozed over the side of a deep reef outside town.
So Million Dollar Point, created in the days before recreational scuba diving, today is a vast, very accesable marine sanctuary containing a cascading staircase of goods, machinery, vehicles and weapons from 1945.
Army jeeps, bulldozers, trucks, cranes and machinery of all shapes and sizes tumbled to the bottom of Second Channel while thousands of tonnes of catering equipment, batteries, vehicle tyres, stores, building equipment arid parts form a 62 year old reef that houses a rare timewarp.
One whole area I swam over was stacks of thousands of stainless steel mess trays, another was an endless ladder of encrusted batteries, still another a dump of tyres with enough rubber for any grand prix. But the Coolidge is the big attraction in Santo where half a dozen operators clamour for part of the recreational action to one of the world’s easiest and most dramatic wreck dives.
Scuba diving has played a major part in Espiritu Santo’s modern day tourism with diving and now eco tourism driving the economy for the last 30 years. The island’s new international airport has assisted the major increase in visitors. Divers only have to walk a few metres from a picturesque picnic spot at Ban Ban, off a sheltered coral beach and drop on to the bow of the wreck at 18m.Some operators drop onto the wreck from boats from permanent moorings fixed further along the ship.
For me, there was a certain amount of trepidation about meeting an old girl friend after 25 years. In divers’ talk the ‘lady’ is a grand and unusual porcelain figurine that survived the sinking (apart from losing her right hand which has never been found) and remains one of the chief attractions for dive tourists to see. I had last gently stroked my girl friend’s cheek in 1982 on the last of a series of dive tours to Luganville. Today the lady remains in
great shape, having been moved to a shallower place on the wreck because her position deeper was becoming tenuous with time.
No one knows the origins of the beautiful figurine that once graced one of the stairwells to a big stateroom but at the time of the sinking she had been boarded up to protect her from the butts of the marines’ rifles when the President was hastily requisitioned as troop ship.
Today, divers still see a great wreck in all its glory, lying perhaps at five degrees over on her port side, the seabed around her littered with items and equipment that tumbled from her open holds when she sank. There are guns, cannons, jeeps, helmets and trucks to see and personal supplies left by the soldiers.
Underwater torches illuminate the coral, macro sea life and curious reef fish and on most dives you will see a turtle or two, barracuda and lion fish.
The President Coolidge had steamed from Noumea on 28 October 1945, on the fateful day. Fully laden, the ship’s captain nervously waited in open water for communications to enter the heavily mined Second Channel to Luganville. There had been reports of a Japanese submarine in the area the day before, so the civilian captain was on edge and after a series of miscommunications from the Navy, the ship entered the channel.
As her last morse code signal began S(TOP)… the ship’s engines were halted at the very moment an explosion ripped open her plates to the engine room.
Still in deep water the captain ran the big ship aground.
All but two personnel survived the tragedy.
No sooner had the last marine clambered over the side to safety than the Coolidge slid to its watery grave, her stern and giant propeller settling in 73m.
Sixty four years on, off the beach, a line guides divers to the bow and open holds spilling the equipment of war. Scattered everywhere soldiers’ gear lies as it tumbled when the ship made her final lurch. Trucks and guns, encrusted with half a century of soft corals, provide a colourful base for reef fish.
Down through the fragile starboard side promenade deck and super structure, gaps have appeared since my last visit. Doors and companionways have fallen open and the wreck provides more access that before. Inside yawning cracks and holes provide streaks of light for the first time and the ‘lady’ stands shallower and more accessible for the next half century of divers to visit.