Vanuatu: Sunken history

By Roderick Eime

Vanuatu's waters hid the remnants of war, discovers Roderick Eime.

An aerial view of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu. Photo / US Air Force
An aerial view of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu. Photo / US Air Force

She stares serenely out from her dark alcove, blissfully unperturbed by her plight. Her perfect porcelain features show no emotion as she surveys the small gathering before her with neither comfort nor contempt.

She has no name, referred to only as "The Lady". This figure dwells here, 45m beneath the surface, and has done so for the last 70 years. During her glory years, those wonderful times before the war, she presided over the well-to-do and who's-who of American society as they cruised the Pacific aboard the grand SS President Coolidge.

Built in 1931 for a life of luxurious Pacific cruising, the 200m SS President Coolidge roamed the oceanic playgrounds of Hawaii, Hong Kong and Japan, to where she sped in record time from San Francisco.

Her guests reclined around two swimming pools, preened themselves in salons, worked out in gyms or just hung out at the soda fountain. Her fate, however, was anything but salubrious.

As war in the Pacific intensified, the US War Department sent her on voyages around the expanding theatre. She evacuated US civilians and government personnel from Hong Kong and other ports as the tensions escalated and in 1941 she was converted to troopship operations and put to work bolstering Allied garrisons.

On October 26, 1942 the fully loaded Coolidge approached the US base of Luganville on the island of Espiritu Santo and, ever concerned about enemy submarines, Captain Henry Nelson made a beeline for the entrance channel.

What somebody had omitted to tell Nelson, however, was that the channel was mined and no sooner had the Coolidge poked its bow into the opening ... ka-boom! And then another ka-boom!

Nelson knew he had no hope of saving his ship so he steamed for shore in an attempt to beach the 22,000 tonne liner, but he struck a reef instead. For 90 minutes the Coolidge teetered on the edge while 5340 men calmly scaled rope ladders and waded ashore. Then, the huge ship listed and slipped backward into deep water. Only two men lost their lives.

Today the wreck is one of the world's most famous dives, satisfying both experienced and novice divers alike. She lies ingloriously on her port side in 21-73m of water and local dive operators have concocted dozens of adventures above and within the ship.

Inside the hull are all manner of war materiel, including vehicles, ammunition, artillery and heavy equipment as well as personal items like small arms, helmets, boots and medical supplies.

The preservation of the wreck and its development as a tourist site is due largely to one man, Allan Power, who began exploring the sunken vessel back in the 1970s when salvagers came to recover the propellers and other valuable items.

Disturbed by the damage being wrought by indiscriminate plundering, Power successfully lobbied the Vanuatu Government to protect the site, which was achieved in 1983.

Pushing 80 and dubbed "Mr President" by his adoring fans, Power has made about 25,000 dives on the Coolidge, a feat that earned him inclusion in the Scuba Diving Hall of Fame at a glittering ceremony in the Cayman Islands last year.

"I started diving in 1949 with equipment I made myself," says Power, recalling a time long before scuba diving was a recreational pursuit.

"Now diving is just one of many adventure sports almost anyone can do."

While Power laments that scuba diving has lost some of its edge, the quality and reliability of modern scuba gear means more people can safely dive sites like Santo, where there are at least four other busy dive shops in operation.

But the Coolidge is no pushover. With dark caverns and some tight swim-throughs, nitrogen narcosis is also an issue below 30m.

Beyond the Coolidge and out into the Segond Channel, there are many easy dives with colourful marine life and coral at depths less than 20m.

Vanuatu and Santo make an ideal location to enjoy a rewarding holiday and get your PADI Open Water endorsement for diving anywhere in the world.

The township of Luganville, built from scratch by the Americans as a forward supply base in World War II, is a relaxed and unhurried place with many remnants of its formative years like Quonset (Nissen) huts, harbour walls and piers as well as artefacts to remind us.

Apart from the vivid writings of James Michener, who set his best-selling novel Tales of the South Pacific on Santo, perhaps the greatest souvenir is the bewildering jumble of equipment dumped into the sea at what is now called Million Dollar Point. Here, snorkellers can drift over trucks, cranes, earthmovers and sundry debris that serve as a reminder to the futility and waste of war.

The Lady, however, cares little for the excesses of mankind. Her world will always be sheltered from the unkind and filled only with admirers.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Luganville, on the island of Espiritu Santo, is served by Air Vanuatu, which also flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Auckland, Noumea, Nadi and Honiara to Port Vila.

Staying there: Beachfront Resort offers excellent mid-range accommodation overlooking the sheltered waters of Segond Channel and Aore Island.

Playing there: Allan Power Dive Tours offers diving for all levels and abilities. The 70th Anniversary of the sinking of SS President Coolidge is on October 26, 2012.

Further information: See vanuatu.travel.

The writer was a guest of Vanuatu Tourism.

- AAP

- NZ Herald

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