Friday, April 04, 2008

Review: Diving the SS President Coolidge

We here at the Neutral Dive Gear Scuba Diving Blog love wreck diving. Really, who doesn't!?

So when we came across travel writer Adam Majendie's recent review of diving the SS President Coolidge, we had to post.

Titanic of the East: Divers Explore Wreck of U.S. Luxury Liner

It isn't every day that someone hands you an unexploded World War II shell 100 feet (30 meters) underwater from one of the world's great luxury liners. Then again, the wreck of the SS President Coolidge is no ordinary dive.

The former luxury liner-turned-troop carrier sank in shallow, tropical waters during the war after hitting an American mine, thereby embarrassing the U.S. government and providing recreational divers with one of the most spectacular and accessible wrecks in the world off the coast of Vanuatu.

The Coolidge was launched on Feb. 21, 1931, by the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. in Virginia, the largest passenger ship built in the U.S. at the time. At 654 feet long, she was capable of carrying 3,486 passengers and entered service with Dollar Steamship Lines on its Pacific route, breaking the speed record for a crossing from San Francisco to Tokyo.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, she was stripped of her luxury fitments, painted gray and refitted as a troop carrier, including the addition of a 5-inch caliber gun on the stern and four 3-inch guns on the decks.

It was a round from one of these 3-inch guns that the dive master slid from a stack of ammunition and handed to me to hold. These shells weigh a good deal, so I immediately began to sink under the extra weight and accidentally dropped it, producing a satisfying clunk as it landed back on the stack of munitions.

With a look of mild alarm, the dive leader slid the cylinder gently back into place and we headed for the promenade deck. Around us were schools of fish, one of the added attractions of the tropical wreck, including barracuda and the vessel's resident moray eel, Nessie, who glared at me from his crevice.

USS Tucker

The ship's checkered history means that you're entering both a luxury liner and a military vessel, but not, unlike many wartime wrecks, a mass grave.

On Oct. 26, 1942, Captain Henry Nelson, fearing attack by Japanese submarines, steered the Coolidge into harbor at Santo. The civilian captain wasn't given classified information that the approach had been mined. Within 30 seconds, two mines exploded, dooming the vessel, and Nelson ran her on to the reef.

Ninety minutes later, after all but two of the more than 5,000 men onboard had clambered to shore, the Coolidge rolled off the edge of the reef and sank.

"It was a beautiful sunny day," said Milt Stanley, 88, who was on the vessel when the explosions struck.

"We thought we were hit by a sub. We didn't know it was our own mines. It was right below where I was standing at the bow," said Stanley by phone from Santo, during his first return to the island in 66 years.

The loss of the vessel was doubly embarrassing considering that the USS Tucker, a destroyer that had survived the Pearl Harbor attack, had been sunk by another American mine in the same channel two months earlier.

Undisturbed Storeroom

Among the cargo of equipment and supplies left behind on the Coolidge was the entire U.S. supply of quinine to fight malaria for the Pacific theater. In the bloody Guadalcanal campaign that followed in the Solomon Islands, five soldiers died of malaria for every one killed in combat.

Those medical supplies, gas masks, old typewriters and other military paraphernalia are scattered around in the wreck as you dive through the rusting hull. At one point, one of the divers put on a coral-encrusted GI's helmet, picked up a rifle and mimicked shooting me.

With nine decks and thousands of rooms, places remain that have never been explored since the vessel went under.

"Getting access to little rooms that have been sealed for 60 years is like breaking into an Egyptian tomb," said Allan Power, who began the first dive tours to the Coolidge after local residents showed him the location of the wreck in 1969.

On a recent expedition, he found an undisturbed storeroom full of rubber gas masks and boots.


The interior is a labyrinth of dark, corroded passages, made doubly confusing by the fact that the vessel is lying on its side. Inside the cargo holds, a jumble of jeeps and trucks loomed out of the darkness, coated in a film of mud. Tiny luminous flashlight fish flickered in the darkness.

The maze of chambers, hatches and corridors is mesmeric and the 25 minutes allocated for each of my dives were all too short (though long enough for me to run out of air on one occasion and have to sup from the spare tank during a decompression stop.)

Power said he's dived the Coolidge more than 20,000 times in his four decades on the island. It's certainly worth spending a few days exploring the ship.

Come soon. The wreck is protected by the government, but its corroded hull lies in a major earthquake zone. It won't stay intact forever.

No comments: