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VANUATU

WRECK OF THE COOLIDGE
GHOSTS OF WAR IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC

         

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The Coolidge was a luxury liner converted into a troop transport for service in World War II. During her seventh military mission, on October 26, 1942, as she entered the harbour of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides Islands (now Vanuatu), the ship struck two U.S. mines and sank.

      Today, over half a century later, her hulk seems full of voices, shouted orders, curses, the clump of boots.

“She was a grand ship,” notes Allan Power, an Aussie diver who fell under the spell of the Coolidge 19 years ago and stayed on as a kind of keeper of the wreck.

The 22,000-ton luxury ship was built to sail from San Francisco to the Orient. Her interiors were panelled in rare woods, draped in silk, lit by skylights of cathedral glass. When she went to war, the finery was ripped out—“ all but the ‘lady’” notes Allan. “I’ll show her to you.”

Survivors of the Coolidge remember that bright October morning. With 5,440 men, mostly from the 43rd Infantry Division plus arms and equipment, the ship had crossed the Pacific in 14 days and was now entering Espiritu Santo, staging base for hard pressed Allied troops on Guadalcanal.

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First Lt. Web Thompson was near the bow, admiring the harbour. “I saw a blinder light flashing on shore,” he        says “but the code was too fast for me to read.” Others missed the same message a warning that the            Coolidge was headed straight for a minefield. The fog of war, some call it. Someone didn’t get the word.

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     “I heard an explosion – and then another,” says surgeon Henry M. Farmer. “The ship began listing at once.”     The time was 9.30, and the second mine killed fireman Robert Reid.

Engines stopped. Below deck, lights and communication went out. An oil slick began spreading on the water. “But the first word we got was that the ship wouldn’t sink,” remembers Bill Stebbins, then a major. “We were ordered to our duty stations.”

Web Thompson returned to his station below deck. “I had 200 men to take care of – in the dark with water coming in.”

The Captain of the Coolidge promptly ran the ship aground, but she lifted dangerously to port “It was about 20 minutes later when we got the word to abandon ship,” says Bill Stebbins.

“We passed the words below deck and he men got life jackets and started using the rope and metal ladders. Fortunately, we had two months training in amphibious operations. Discipline was excellent.” 

The list to port complicated things. Starboard ladders didn’t reach the water, and some life rafts already lowered, began drifting away.

On D deck, Capt. Warren K. Covill and mess officer Capt. Elwood Euart found a rope. “Eurart held one and and I held the other, so the men could pull themselves along it,” says Covill (far right, as he is today).

Below deck near the head, Web Thompson could hear “water rushing in through the toilets and guns sliding around – but no panic.”

 “The ship was tipping over more all the time,” says Joseph Parsons, then a staff sergeant “Finally I was able to walk down the starboard side and jump into water that was covered with oil.” He swam toward shore.

Stebbins recalls that “most of the men got off the ship in the last 20 minutes. I climbed into one of the last boats from a bow rope ladder.”

Dr. Farmer also crawled down a net and into a boat.  Web Thompson and two non-coms slid down a rope off the fantail – and into an empty raft. “When I got ashore, I still had a crease in my pants,” he recalls.

On D deck, having pulled all their men to safety, Captains Euart and Covill scrambled toward the exit. “I thought Euart was right behind me. Everyone else had jumped off. I was still on board when the ship slid off the reef and went down stern first. I was underwater. But in a minute I came up. They told me later I had been in an air bubble.

Captain Euart went down with the ship, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

At 10.55, just one hour and 25 minutes after hitting the mines, the Coolidge settled onto the channel floor, with empty lifeboat davits reaching upward as they do today – sprouting growths of black coral like strange tufts of hair below.  

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Jane Resture
 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 10th October 2008)