The wreck of the Coolidge

Scale model of the SS President Coolidge

The aptly named Robert Dollar had established the Dollar Steamship Company in 1901 at the age 57, following an earlier fortune-making career as a lumber baron in the Pacific Northwest. He was a pioneer of US-China trade who became known as the Grand Old Man of the Pacific. Having made his second fortune in the cargo shipping trade, he expanded into combined passenger and mail service by the 1920s. The two largest merchant ships built up to that time, the sister ships SS President Hoover (1930) and SS President Coolidge (1931) were financed by the US Maritime Commission in an effort to increase shipping construction. Built at Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. In Newport News, VA, the Coolidge measured an impressive 654 ft in length. It was aimed at affluent holiday makers seeking sun and adventure in the Pacific and Far East. The up to 840 passengers enjoyed a luxurious experience with opulent staterooms, lounges with marble fireplaces, private telephones, two saltwater swimming pools (one with an artificial beach), a barber shop, beauty salon, gymnasium and soda fountain.

Charlie Chaplin relaxing with politician (later Supreme Court justice)  Frank Murphy aboard the SS President Coolidge

Unfortunately, neither the Dollar Steamship company nor the SS President Coolidge came to a good end.

Robert Dollar died in 1933 at the age of 88 and was spared having to witness the demise of his steamship line. This came about in 1937, when the SS President Coolidge was seized in San Francisco for an unpaid debt of $ 35,000. Released on bond for a final trans-Pacific trip under the Dollar flag, ownership of the company and all its swimming stock was taken over by the U.S. government in exchange for cancellation of its debts, and the name was changed to American President Lines. The Coolidge’s sister ship, SS President Hoover, had already been shipwrecked in 1937 near Formosa (Taiwan). In late 1942, the SS President Coolidge was commissioned to assist in the task of quickly bolstering the U.S. naval base on Espiritu Santo (now Vanuatu) in the New Hebrides, in preparation for the assault on Guadalcanal. Its staterooms and loungs converted to create dormitories for 5,000 men, the Coolidge sailed from San Francisco to Espiritu Santo by way of New Caledonia. However, since it was still a Merchant Marine vessel, it was captained by a civilian, Henry Nelson. In a somewhat bizarre and certainly fateful bit of governmental or military ineptitude, Captain Nelson was not given information about the placement of American mines in the channel leading into Santo’s harbor – because this was deemed Top Secret information not suitable for civilian eyes.

Thus, the ship was blasted by several mines as she entered the supposedly safe harbor, before running onto a hidden coral reef. The more than 5,000 troops and crew abandoned ship as the once-proud luxury liner slid onto her port side, never to be salvaged. Sadly, two men died during the evacuation.

SS President Coolidge being evacuated, Oct. 1942

An irate Admiral Halsey had Captain Nelson tried for negligence, but he was cleared of all charges.

The wreck of the SS President Coolidge is today renowned as one of the world’s greatest wreck dives, affording divers easy access to vast areas still littered with every imaginable object from cannons, jeeps and trucks to hastily-abandoned personal items and the remainders of the erstwhile luxurious furnishings of private and public rooms. The wreck has also become home to a myriad of sea life, including reef fish, sea turtles, moray eels and of course corals.

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