The SS President Coolidge
The SS President Coolidge was a luxury ocean liner that measured 654 ft (198 metres) in length and was originally built, along with her sister ship the SS President Hoover, for Dollar Steamship Lines. They were the largest merchant ships the US had built up to that time. In 1938, when the Dollar Steamship Lines collapsed, she was transferred to American President Lines. In 1941 she was converted to carrying troops in the South Pacific.
Launched in February 1931, The SS President Coolidge was built by Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. in Newport News, Virginia USA. Prior to World War II, she was operated by the American President Lines as a luxury liner providing trans-Pacific passage and commercial service. The Coolidge was aimed at holiday makers seeking sun in the Pacific and Far East. During her time as a luxury liner, she broke several speed records on her frequent trips to Japan from San Francisco. Passengers had a luxurious experience on the ship with spacious staterooms and lounges, private telephones, two saltwater swimming pools, a barber shop, beauty salon, gymnasium and soda fountain.
Facts and Figures
Second World War
In 1941, as war time activities increased, the US War Department began to use the President Coolidge for occasional voyages to Honolulu and Manila. She also helped evacuate Americans from Hong Kong when Japanese-British relations became strained in 1940. She was later called upon to assist in the evacuations of many people from Asia as the Japanese increased aggression. In June 1941, the Coolidge went into service with the American Army as a transport ship for reinforcing garrisons in the Pacific. A few months later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After this, the Coolidge was stripped of her finery, painted gun-metal gray, mounted with guns and turned into a troop ship. Many of the fixtures and fittings were removed or boarded up for protection. After full conversion in 1942, she could carry over 5000 troops. As a troop carrier, she was never intended to see any action. In her first few months of service, her ports of call included Melbourne, Wellington, Auckland, Bora Bora, and Suva. On October 6, she set sail from her home port of San Francisco, California for New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu
A large military base and harbor had been established on Espiritu Santo and the harbor was heavily protected by mines. Information about safe entry into the harbor had been accidentally omitted from the Coolidge's sailing orders, and upon her approach to Santo on October 26, 1942, the SS Coolidge, fearing Japanese submarines and unaware of the mine fields, attempted to enter the harbor through the largest and most obvious channel. A friendly mine struck the ship at the engine room and moments later, a second mine hit her near the stern.
Captain Henry Nelson, knowing that he was going to lose the ship, ran her aground and ordered troops to abandon ship. Not believing the ship would sink, troops were told to leave all of their belongings behind under the impression that they would conduct salvage operations over the next few days.
Over the course of the next 90 minutes, 5,340 men got safely off of the wreck and to shore. There was no panic as the troops disembarked - many even walked to shore. However, the captain's attempts to beach the ship were unsuccessful due to the coral reef. The Coolidge listed heavily on her side, sank, and slid down the slope into the channel. She now rests on her port side with her bow at a depth of 20 metres (70 ft) and her stern at 70 metres (240 ft).
There were 2 casualties in the sinking of the Coolidge: The first was Fireman Robert Reid, who was working in the engine room and was killed by the initial mine blast. The second, Captain Elwood J. Euart, US Army Artillery Corps, had safely gotten off the Coolidge when he learned that there were still men in the infirmary who could not get out. He went back in to one of the sea doors, successfully rescued the men but was then unable to escape himself and he went down with the ship. A memorial to Captain Euart is located on the shore near the access points for the Coolidge.
A video about diving in the SS President Coolidge and about one of the companies of soldiers on the ship, Company E, was made in 1984. It is called The Grave of a President.
After the war
Diving the Coolidge
Lying on her side in 21-73m (70 - 240 ft) of water, the Coolidge is perhaps the most accessible shipwreck of this size and type. The wreck is one of the most desirable dives due to relatively shallow site, easy beach access, visibility. The depths involved mean that, with care and decompression stops, recreational divers can explore the wreck without specialized equipment.
As indicated in the page on the building of the SS President Coolidge, the new ship was delivered to the Dollar Steamship Line on 1 October 1931 (almost four months ahead of the contracted delivery date of 26 February 1932). Her maiden voyage was advertised at least in August 1931 (see the advertisement below that I purchased on Ebay) so it was well and truly accurate as the maiden voyage did take place on 15 October 1931. Therefore it took less than 18 months from laying the keel to the delivery voyage, quite an achievement (fat chance of a ship of this size being built as quickly now).
The maiden voyage was from New York to San Francisco (her home port) under the command of Captain Karl A. Ahlin. Ports visited were Havana in Cuba and the Panama Canal (not sure if this was an actual stop where passengers could leave the ship). As she entered San Francisco Bay she was greeted by hundreds of small vessels and there was a public reception for Captain Ahlin and his senior officers at Pier 42.
An advertisement from Time magazine dated 10 August 1931 advertising the maiden voyage of the
The first normal trip (remember she was built for the Trans Pacific route) was from San Francisco to the Far East on 6 November 1931. The ship arrived in Honolulu on 12 November 1931. The envelope below was mailed from the ship as she arrived in Honolulu. I purchased this on Ebay in November 2008.
Mr E. Mowbray Tate in his book Transpacific Liners tells how in 1932 he went on the fourth voyage of the Coolidge under the command of Captain Karl A. Ahlin and found the ship very comfortable indeed. He tells that it took five days for the San Francisco to Honolulu and a further nine days on to Yokohama. In early 1932 the Coolidge set a new record for a crossing of the Pacific (from east to west) when she steamed from Yokohama in Japan to San Francisco in just over 12 days, taking four hours and four minutes off the record set by the Asama Maru. The average speed was 19.5 knots. However, the fastest crossing was actually 10 days 15 hours by the Pacific Mail Line steamship SS Korea in 1902. The previous trip from San Francisco to Yokohama had been even quicker at a speed of 20.78 knots (not 30.78 as stated in one recent book) and an elapsed time of 11 days, 4 hours and 22 minutes.
In January 1933 the Coolidge set a new Honolulu to San Francisco record of 4 days, 2 hours and 58 minutes taking 14 hours off the previous record set by her sistership, SS President Hoover.
For all its life till the years just before the Pacific War started in late 1941, the President Coolidge operated on the Trans Pacific Route. Many famous and wealthy people travelled on the ship during this period. These included the famous Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, who travelled from Honolulu on 30 January 1935 and arrived in Yokohama on 9 February 1935 (he was to die a few months later when murdered by Chinese bandits) and Baron Henri de Rothchild, the famous physician, who arrived in San Francisco on 11 May 1935.
In 1935 General Douglas Macarthur was travelling from San Francisco to Manila in the Philippines to take up a job as special US Military Adviser (really command of the Philippine Armed Forces), a special role arranged between President Quezon and President Roosevelt when he met his second wife Jean Marie Faircloth (he later called her 'my finest soldier'). Macarthur was travelling with his aide (he called him his best clerk), Major Dwight D. Eisenhower (later General and President of the USA). After their marriage in New York in 1937, the Macarthurs travelled on the 10 May voyage from San Francisco to Manila on the Coolidge.
On 6 March 1937 the SS President Coolidge left San Francisco on its regular west bound trip to Honolulu and Yokohama (its 31st voyage). This was her first voyage since November 1936 when the 96 day maritime strike started (see previous page on Coolidge). On board were 678 passengers and 350 crew. As she approached the Golden Gate Bridge, a thick fog rolled in over the bay. At the same time, the SS Frank H. Buck, an Associated Oil tanker, entered San Francisco Bay. It is reported that the skipper of the Coolidge, Captain Ahlin, did not slow down when he entered the fog bank (this was disputed by the crew of the Coolidge. A witness, Julius Larsen, who worked for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce as a marine lookout, heard the foghorns of both ships as they approached his point. He reported that the two fog horns got closer to each other and he then heard a very loud crash as the two ships collided.
The United States Consul-General to Tientsin, a town in the autonomous municipality of Tientsin, northern China, (now called Tianjin), was on the Coolidge's upper deck when he heard the Buck's blast and then almost immediately saw the tanker's masts. He reported that he heard Captain Ahlin order the engines to be reversed but it was too late. Lifeboats were dropped into the water and most of the tanker's crew of 40 were safely collected by them. Eight crew and the ship's dog were rescued by a boat from the Point Bonita Coast Guard Station. The ships had collided head on and the Frank H. Buck was very badly damaged. Her bow was cut open by the Coolidge's bow and the tanker was losing oil and it was stated as being 'bow down and stern up' and thought to be about to sink. However, she floated over to Lands End and went aground on rocks.
A concerted salvage removed most of the 67,000 barrels of oil left on board and the ship was refloated some time later. However, I have seen a photograph of a plaque from near the Golden Gate Bridge which states 'The Frank H. Buck was rammed and sunk in 1937 by the passenger liner President Coolidge'. It also says that the wreckage of the Buck and another ship can be seen at low tide.
The damage to the President Coolidge was also quite severe. The bow had been bashed in from the waterline to halfway to the top of the bow, there was a hole halfway up and the starboard side had a hole 20 feet wide. Meanwhile, the Coolidge had been taken first to the pier to remove passengers and cargo and then to the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation Dry Dock at Hunters Point, for repairs. It was estimated that it would take 10 days to fix the ship and the cost was expected to be about $250,000 (this included lost fares).
After repairs, the Coolidge left San Francisco on 25 March 1937, by-passing Honolulu. Her next voyage to the Far East started on 10 May 1937 and by June had made up the lost time and was back on her normal schedule.
On voyage number 33 which departed San Francisco on 26 June 1937, the President Coolidge had onboard Mrs Spencer Tracy and her son and daughter. Spencer Tracey was busy in Hollywood making the film 'Boystown' (released in 1938) for which he won his 1st Oscar. Also on this same voyage was the legendary silent film era actress Mary Pickford (known as 'America's Sweetheart').
Later in 1937, the repaired vessel lowered the Trans Pacific record to 9 days, 9 hours 51 minutes on a trip from Yokohama to San Francisco. As indicated earlier, this record had stood for 35 years. This trip was a full two and a half days quicker than the official record she set in 1932.
Model of Coolidge: Model of Coolidge
Although the Dollar Line had lasted right through the Great Depression, the effect on it was there. On 3 June 1938 the SS President Coolidge was arrested in San Francisco for an unpaid debt of $35,000. A bond of $70,000 was put up so the ship could be released for its trip to Asia. After this date, the Dollar Steamship Line Inc (as well as American Mail) were suspended from operation.
In 1938 Gaynor Edwin Field was appointed as the ship's photographer. He served on the ship till war broke out. He later ran Field's Studio of Photography and reportedly had a lot of photos of the ship. He died in Idyllwild, (near Palm Springs, California) on 1 October 1 1998. I was unable to make contact with his family to see if they have some stories or photos that I might be able to obtain for this page.
In October 1938, the Coolidge was refused permission to leave Shanghai (then under Japanese control) as she had on board more than $4,000,000 of silver. After the silver was removed, the ship was permitted to leave.
By now, the Dollar Shipping Line existed in name only as detailed in the page on the History of the Dollar Steamship Line. On 1 November 1938, the ownership of the SS President Coolidge (as well as all the other Dollar vessels) passed officially to a new Government owned line, the American President Lines Ltd. There were a couple of changes to the ship then, including removing the $ sign on the funnels and replacing them with an eagle and four white stars and the hull was repainted grey. Despite the change in ownership, the Coolidge continued on its Trans Pacific run.
On 3 March 1939, Richard Halliburton, an American traveller, adventurer and author, set sail with at least four others, set sail on a purpose-built traditional Chinese junk called Sea Dragon from Hong Kong. The aim was to get to San Francisco for the Golden Gate International Exposition.
On 24 March 1939 the junk was halfway across the Pacific Ocean when a typhoon struck. The SS President Coolidge sighted the junk in mountainous seas 1,900 kilometres west of Midway Island. A radio message was received by the Coolidge from the junk: 'Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here instead of me.' The next message was different: 'Southerly gale. Heavy Rain Squalls. High sea. Barometer 29.46. True course 100. Speed 5.5 knots. Position 1200 GCT 31.10 north 155.00 east. All well. When closer may we avail ourselves of your direction finder. Regards Welch'. Welch was the skipper of the junk.
That message was the final time the junk was heard and it is thought that it sank soon after. Despite a huge US Navy search with several ships and planes, no wreckage was found. In 1945, some wreckage identified as a rudder and believed to belong to the Sea Dragon washed ashore in California.
Captain William O. Kolhmeister was appointed as the new permanent skipper of the SS President Coolidge on May 4, 1939 after the Karl A. Ahlin retired. Captain Ahlin had been the ship's only captain since the vessel was launced at Newport News in April 1931.
On 12 July 1939 while on her way to Asia, the President Coolidge sighted another Chinese junk mid-Pacific which signalled it was short of food and water. The 29 ton craft had left Kobe, Japan on 14 June 1939 crewed by two Norwegians under a Russian captain. She was also bound for San Francisco Bay where they intended visiting the World's Fair (probably the same event mentioned about) at Treasure Island. Captain Kohlmeister brought the Coolidge alondside the junk and provided it with provisions. On this same voyage (number 46) that the Coolidge collided with the Japanese freighter Nissan Maru on the Whangpoo River in China. A very event eventful trip! This was just over two years after the Buck incident. The Coolidge suffered minor damage and the side plates were a bit bent.
Another strange event occurred in January 1940 when the Coolidge was on the way from the US to Yokohama. When 700 miles from Yokohama, the ship came across five men and a women (all white) in a small boat. They were without food and after being given some supplies (food, water and medicine), the group continued on its way (wherever this was meant to be).
In October 1940 the Coolidge encountered a typhoon (cyclone) on a trip to Japan. There was only minor damage but five passengers were hurt. October 1940 and early 1941 saw the ship evacuate Americans from Hong Kong. On 16 January 1941, the Coolidge arrived in San Francisco with 832 passengers (mostly refugees/evacuees) under the command of Captain Henry Nelson. This was a new record for passengers carried on a merchant ship on a regular run. This figure was bettered on 30 May 1941 when she arrived in San Francisco with more than 1000 passengers.
On 28 February 1941, Edward S. Crocker, First Secretary of the US Embassy in Tokyo, boarded the Coolidge in Kobe and travelled back to the United States, arriving in San Francisco on 13 March 1941. It is presumed that he reported to the Government on the situation in Japan, even though he was on leave.
On a trip in June 1941, the Coolidge encountered more than 100 Japanese war and supply ships in the Formosa Strait.
Things were definitely getting worse and on 28 May 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a state of national emergency and just four days later, on 2 June 1941, the ship was taken over by the Maritime Commission as a troop transport for the Army. On 15 July 1941 she left San Francisco on a voyage to Honolulu and the Philippines carrying, it is resumed, troops. On 4 August 1941, a Japanese intelligence report sent from Manila to Tokyo reported 'About six-hundred American soldiers have arrived in Manila on the Coolidge. (This was learned from the crew of the Coolidge.)'.
She returned from Manila with 250 Americans, originally intending to travel via Yokohama where she was to collect another 100 Americans but she was refused permission to enter Japan (this may not have been technically correct as a report states that she was able to enter and take home some officials, but not private citizens). The evacuees from Manila and Shanghai arrived in San Francisco on 28 August 1941.
The Coolidge left San Francisco on 8 September 1941 for the Orient, returning on 23 October 1941. During this trip the ship was reportedly 'escorted' for part of the Honolulu to Manila section (presumably the last bit) by a cruiser and several patrol boats. The ship again left San Francisco on 1 November 1941 for Honolulu and Manila.
Rosalie Sue Hutchison was 13 years old and living in the Philippines with her parents and 8 month old brother in late 1941. Her father was working at a mine as a mining engineer. In November 1941, her father was told by a good friend that there was going to be a lot of trouble so he decided to send his family back home to the US. He was lucky to obtain tickets for his family on the SS President Coolidge for the trip departing Manila on 27 November 1941.
At the end of the voyage, Rosalie was presented with a fancy certificate about crossing the Equator and 180th Meriden. It is signed 'Davey Jones, Keeper of the Locker Keys' and 'Father Neptune, Ruler of the Raging Main' and also lists in cryptical terms many things that occurred on the voyage. These will be mentioned below in inverted commas.
The Coolidge left Manila on 27 November 1941 (although it may have been 28 November as I have seen this in some places and in a note written in 1942 by Mr Royal H. Fisher) under the command of Henry Nelson, USNR. From a letter that Rosalie Hutchison (now Rosalie Smith) sent me in April 2002, it is apparent that the ship took a very circuitous trip to Hawaii. More about this in a minute. On board the Coolidge were some pandas ('Chiang Kai-shek's Pandas...') and someone described as 'Heaven-Born Daughter of China'. Rosalie says that there was another ship with the Coolidge. She thinks that it was called the Scott. This was in fact the US Attack Transport USAT Scott. It was a much slower vessel and could, she thinks, only make 6 or 7 knots so the Coolidge had to go that slow as well. The Scott probably travelled faster than this, perhaps 12 to 13 knots, but well below the Coolidge's normal cruising speed of about 20 knots. There was a rumour going around the ship that the Scott was carrying gold bullion from the gold mines in the Philippines.
Rosalie has told me that the morning after leaving Manila, she woke up and went on deck. She found that the ship, which yesterday was white, was now mostly grey, with the crew all busy painting the hull and superstructure with brushes on the end of long poles ('The Sky is Bright but our color Gray...'). In addition, the portholes were locked and the glass painted black. No-one was permitted out on deck after dark. The second day out there was lifeboat drill and all passengers were given lifejackets and told to wear them when sleeping. Rosalie said it was impossible to sleep with it on so she just put one arm though the sleeve. Life boat drills were held all the time and the showers were switched to use salt water almost as soon as they ship left Manilla. Rosalie told me that she also learnt to swim on the voyage. From her description, the pool was not the main pool on Boat Deck (behind the superstructure) as this was for First Class only but the removable canvas structure that fitted as the hatch cover on Hold 6. This was for everyone else. A Catholic Priest taught her to swim in 15 minutes. She found this amazing as she had previously had lessions over a period of years without learning to swim. The Priest took her up to First Class one day and they looked at the pandas which she said were very interesting.
On 30 November 1941 the Coolidge crossed the Equator. On either 29 or 30 November 1941, they sighted some land, a rocky point as Rosalie described it. A ship came out to the Coolidge and Rosalie believes that they may have taken on fuel. Considering the dates and the fact that they crossed the Equator on 30 November 1941, the ship must have been somewhere near Indonesia.
I have also been sent copies of a letter from Josephine W. Fisher (wife of Royal) to her daughter, E. F. Fisher dated 1 December 1941. In this letter, she says that they passed Ambon in Indonesia the previous day. This is maybe where the fuel came from.
The abovementioned Equator Crossing certificate says that after the first crossing, the ship's Captain 'piloted her thru Dire Straits, the Sea of Pearl...'. This could be the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea and the Coral Sea as there was a pearl diving industry here at that time.
After leaving what I presume is Ambon, the two ships travelled on a zig-zag course, changing direction every three minutes. Soon after a ship was sighted off in the distance, running parallel to the Coolidge. Once it came close enough for Rosalie to see sailors on the deck. This ship was the heavy cruiser USS Louisville and was to escort them all the way to Hawaii.
Another part of Josephine's letter reads in part that on 1 December 1941 they were 'four days out of Manila, and actually coasting along the northern shore of Australia' and 'on one side of us is the General Scott (once the President Pierce) and on the other the cruiser Louisville'. She also says that they will pass Thursday Island, off the northern tip of Australia, the next afternoon.
The convoy appears to have headed due east and passed between the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). On 8 December 1941 the ship was at sea when 'The God Mars and his Nippon vassals invaded my Realm Monday, December 8 1941.' This was of course when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 but since the ship was west of the International Date Line, the date on board was 8 December 1941. The ship must still have been south of the Equator and it had not yet crossed the International Date Line. It was perhaps north of Fiji at this time. Rosalie says that the passengers were not told of this event, only learning about it when they arrived in Honolulu but Royal H. Fisher says the passengers heard of it when near the Solomon Islands.
The next day, Tuesday 9 December 1941, the ships did cross the 180th Meriden 'thereby gaining another Day in our being'. It was now 8 December 1941 again.
The small convoy kept on travelling east below the Equator, probably passing north of Somoa. On 9 December 1941 (according to Mrs Fisher) they were off Pago Pago in American Samoa but as the port's lights were extinguished, the Coolidge did not enter. On Sunday 13 December 1941 (probably very early in the morning) the ship crossed the Equator again and 'Bid Farewell to my Royal Kingdom'. This could be taken to mean that they were leaving the Royal Kingdom of Tonga or perhaps just a reference to King Neptune.
Apparently many of the men took to heavy drinking on the trip and on 9 December 1941 a lot of them partied to daybreak (according to Mrs Fisher).
On about 17 December 1941, the SS President Coolidge, USS Louisville and USAT Scott arrived in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu. The Coolidge had taken about 21 days to travel from Manilla to Hawaii, a voyage that normally took about 12 or 13 days.
The ships in Pearl Harbor were still smoldering and all the passengers, even those continuing onto San Francisco, had to leave the ship for a couple of days while alterations were make a small hospital on board. Rosalie and her family were to stay in a hotel but they ended up staying with some friends who were living in the armed forces barracks with their families. They returned to the ship on 19 December 1941.
On the evening of 17 December, Lieutenant Ruth Erickson, NC (Nurse Corps), US Navy, a nurse stationed at the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital, was ordered to pack a bag and be ready to leave. With two other nurses, she was transported from the hospital to one of the piers at Honolulu where she boarded the SS President Coolidge. Their job, together with a number of corpsmen, was to accompany injured sailors on the trip back to San Francisco on mainland America. During the day of 18 December supplies were taken on board and the next day 125 patients were taken on board the Coolidge. Also taken on board were a football team from Willamette University, Oregon, who have been on an exhibition trip to Hawaii. Together with the USAT Scott (with 55 patients), the two ships set off late that afternoon in a convoy of 8 or 10 ships.
The Coolidge travelled without exterior lights and the doors and portholes were closed at night to prevent light showing. No-one was allowed on deck, even during the day. Lt Erickson reported that the 20th of December was quite chilly and they understood that the ship had travelled a fair bit to the north so as to not take a direct route to San Francisco. Rumours of submarine periscopes were rife but nothing untoward happened. All passengers wore lifejackets the whole time. The Coolidge passed under the Golden Gate Bridge at 7 am on Christmas Day 1941 and arrived in San Francisco at 8 am, with 124 patients, one man having died Christmas Eve from bad burns. Two ferries met the ship and, with ambulances (perhaps some were boat ambulances), transferred the patients to the naval hospital at Mare Island as well as civilian hospitals. They arrived at Mare Island at 4.30 pm.
Lt Erickson stated that she believed that only the USAT Scott and the Coolidge entered San Francisco harbor and the other ships travelled elsewhere.
In April 2002 Rosalie (Hutchinson) Smith lives in Cedar City, Utah. She still has menus, passenger lists and other memorabilia from the voyage. After the outbreak of the War, her father subsequently enlisted in the US Army and was captured at the fall of Corregidor, sent to a Japanese Military Prison Camp and spent the war in various camps in the Philippines. He was released when the US recaptured Manila.
Royal H. Fisher even wrote a song about the SS President Coolidge which I have but there is no music to go with it.
By the time the Coolidge returned to San Francisco on Christmas Day, 25 December 1941, the United States was at war with Japan, Germany and the Axis Powers.
Within six weeks of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the US's entry into the war, the Coolidge was converted to a troopship in January 1942 even though the War Shipping Administration was not proclaimed by President Roosevelt until 21 February 1942. This brought all US shipping under Government control.
During the conversion, the President Coolidge was modified by adding guns on the bow (two) and stern (three) and 12 anti-aircraft guns. The ship was painted in normal navy standard grey and much of the fine furnishings were removed (probably all of them) and fixed features were covered up (including the Lady and the Unicorn). In addition, one single cabin on the Promenade Deck adjacent to the First Class Smoking Room was removed and a set of three rows of toilets (41 - 13, 13 and 15 I think) was installed. It was reported by Staff Sergeant Stephen Parisi that there were wooden partitions four feet high between the toilets (rows or each toilet). There is no trace of these today. In addition, the showers were converted to use salt water instead of fresh water as it was obviously not possible to carry enough fresh water for six times the normal number of passengers.
The ship was then able to carry over 5,000 soldiers.
For the next nine months the Coolidge was used to ferry troops and equipment across the Pacific to the war front. A report that I found on the Web claims that the 4th Air Depot Group of the US Army 5th American Air Force (USAAF) departed San Francisco on 14 December 1941 (but in reality it was 12 January 1942 - perhaps they left somewhere else on that date) on the SS President Coolidge and arrived in Melbourne at 1700 hours on 1 February 1942. It was claimed that she travelled in convoy with SS President Polk as part of the USS Pensacola convoy. It is further claimed that the Coolidge (and Polk?) were carrying 125 P40 Tomahawks and five DC-3 aircraft as well as the pilots, crew and support staff. The 4th Air Depot group alone numbered 550 men. Also, the 16th Squadron of the 27th Bomber Group was also said to be on the Coolidge for this trip. Another report says that the Coolidge was carrying 32 P-40s, the Polk 19 and USAT Monroe 67.
Another report on Peter Dunn's Australia at War Web Site says that the 49th Fighter Group of the 5th Air Force travelled on the voyage (most were on the USAT Mariposa). This site claims that the ships were escorted by the USS Phoenix but there is no mention of the Pensacola or the Polk as being in the convoy. As well, it is said that the 808th Engineer Aviation Battalion was also on the Coolidge while their equipment was on the freighter SS Luckenbach. This may be the SS Nira Luckenbach which was escorted by the USS Tucker in August 1942, just before the Tucker sank at the opposite end of the same channel where the Coolidge was going to sink just a few weeks later. There were also other ships called SS xxxx Luckenbach. It is said that the USAT Monroe was also in the convoy.
Another page of Peter Dunn's Australia at War Web Site states that the convoy was also escorted by two other (unnamed) destroyers. It says that the convoy was bound for Java in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) but they were then ordered to Brisbane but because of the fear of Japanese submarines, they diverted again to Melbourne.
Yet another page on the web, To China and Back says that the 16th Pursuit Squadron of the 51st Pursuit Group was also on this voyage and that they were also accompanied by the freighter SS Sea Witch.
As mentioned above, the first voyage of the Coolidge was on 12 January 1942 when she travelled to Melbourne (1 February 1942) in Australia, then Wellington in New Zealand and back to San Francisco. The ship arrived in San Francisco on 7 March 1942 and left on 19 March 1942, this time bound for Melbourne again, arriving on 7 April 1942 (see comments in next paragraph). The ship was carrying, amongst others, the 8th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron of the 5th Air Force.
It is reported at http://www.flash.net/~hfwright/dl29mr42.htm that on 1 April 1942 HMNZS Achilles put to sea from Fiji after lunch and after being used as a training target for American P-39 fighters, she head south to the Kermadec Islands to meet the heavy cruiser USS Chester, which was escorting two small ocean liners (this is relative when you see the other linre involved), SS Mariposa (18,000 tons) and SS President Coolidge (22,000) and one large (huge) liner, RMS Queen Elizabeth, 84,000 tons, carrying an American infantry division to Australia. Reported next stop for all ships was Sydney.
In some reports it is stated that the Coolidge arrived in Melbourne on 17 April 1942. However, I have been contacted by Robert Dodd of Eagan, Minnesota, whose father was on this trip. He was a member of the US Army's 164th Infantry Regiment, which would later be the first army unit to fight on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. He confirms that the Coolidge arrived in Melbourne on 7 April 1942. Therefore, it appears that the Coolidge passed by the Kermadec Islands (north of New Zealand) on about 3 or 4 April 1942 and went direct to Melbourne (perhaps the rest of the convoy went to Sydney), arriving on 7 April 1942. Robert says that his father remembers staying in Melbourne for a few days on leave before departing for Noumea in New Caledonia. They did not travel on the Coolidge but transferred to smaller freighters for the journey, arriving in Noumea on 19 April 1942.
It is not clear what the Coolidge did between 7 and 20 April (see later), but it is possible that she travelled to Sydney and back, perhaps arriving back in Melbourne again on 17 April 1942 hence matching up with the reports that state that she arrived in Melbourne on that date.
It is certain that she left Melbourne again on 20 or 21 April (probably 20th) for Bora Bora in French Polynesia and arrived back in San Francisco on 5 or 8 May 1942 (probably 8th). On this trip, Manuel Quezon, President of the Philippines, and General Douglas Macarthur and his staff were aboard. The Coolidge was met by the cruiser USS St Louis off Bora Bora, Tahiti, and escorted all the way back to San Francisco. The Coolidge was not often escorted during the war as far as I can see so this time it was presumably because of her important passengers.
The whereabouts of the Coolidge for the next three weeks is not clear. On 26 May 1942 she departed San Francisco for Suva in Fiji in a convoy of six ships. On board was Sanford S. Silverman who was a member of the 37th Infantry Division. On board there were also other units. In this convoy the whole of the 37th (15,000 troops) were being carried. The cruiser USS San Francisco and two destroyers accompanied the convoy. The convoy was also provided with some air cover. The next morning only the San Francisco remained and for the next few weeks it escorted the six ships in the convoy.
It appears that the Coolidge arrived in Suva on 9 June 1942 (the other ships may have went straight to Auckland) and seems to have stayed here till 16 June 1942 (why a week here). Most or all of the 37th were unloaded here and then the Coolidge went to Auckland in New Zealand taking with them New Zealand troops. They arrived in Auckland on 19 June 1942 with more of the 37th's troops who were on other ships and left 24 June 1942 arriving back in Suva again on 27 June 1942.
She left Suva on 2 July 1942 and travelled back to Auckland (6 July to 11 July) taking more of the 37th back to Suva (14 July to 20 July) and again back to Auckland (23 July 1942). There was apparently another trip to Suva (presumably with more 37th Division troops) and she left there on 10 August 1942 and went back to Auckland arriving 12 August 1942. From here, she returned to San Francisco arriving there on 29 August 1942. The Coolidge had been away from her home port for over three months. The ship's location for the next five weeks is not clear. The 37th Infantry Division apparently replaced New Zealand troops who were sent onto North Africa to fight the Germans under Rommel.
The 37th Infantry Division ended up on Espiritu Santo and many had to share their clothes with the survivors from the Coolidge when she sank in October 1942.
On 6 October 1942, the Coolidge sailed from San Francisco for New Caledonia (20 to 24 October) and Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu. This was the ship's very last voyage.
As mentioned in the previous part of this article, on Friday 23 October 1942, the US Navy's Noumea Port Director, Lieutenant Commander John D. Andrews, prepared the sailing instructions for the next section of the SS President Coolidge's journey. At 1530 hours on Saturday 24 October 1942, a pilot came aboard the ship and she weighed anchor. At 1545 hours the ship passed throught the submarine net and at 1739 hours the ship again passed Amadee Island and the pilot left the ship. This indicates to me that the ship sailed via the open sea rather than travelled through the Havannah-Boulari Passage.
There were now 5,050 Army troops, 50 US Navy Guard (perhaps 51) and Communications personnel (carried on all merchant ships) and 340 (perhaps 339) crew giving a total of 5,440 persons.
The SS President Coolidge was on her way to Espirito Santo ('Button'). The final location was to be the small town of Luganville, located on the northern shore of Segond Channel on the island of Espirito Santo, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu).
Captain Henry Nelson
At 0039 hours on Sunday 25 October 1942, Lieutenant C. Craig Hosmer, US Navy Reserve, in charge of the Armed Guard Unit assigned to the ship (Armed Guards were responsible for manning the ship's guns as well as providing security for the ship when in port) reported in his Log Book entitled 'Armed Guard Unit Log Book - S.S.President Coolidge' that a ship was sighted ahead of the Coolidge (there is a complete word by word account of Lt Hosmer's log entry for the 26 October 1942 on separate page). After some time this was determined to be a cargo ship travelling in the same direction and at 0128 she was passed by the Coolidge. That morning several islands were passed by the ship. At 1033 hours the same day, an aircraft was sighted and once again battle alarm was sounded. At 1037 it was identified as being friendly. At 1120 hours yet another plane was sighted and battle alarms sounded. Eight minutes later it too was declared friendly.
Note: all times in this article are based on Lt Hosmer's log which was written up on the morning of 27 October 1942. He states that while they are guesses, they are fairly accurate, although his watch may have been one minute fast. The times underlined are said to be accurate to a minute.
At 0500 hours on Monday 26 October 1942 the SS President Coolidge passed between two islands and at 0720 hours Espiritu Santo was sighted. At 0739 hours a ship was sighted bearing 345° and all guns were aimed at it. At 0750 hours it was determined that the ship was on an approaching course. At 0759 the vessel was challenged. Three minutes later the ship was ascertained to the friendly. This was the destroyer USS Sterett on anti-submarine patrol. It is reported that the Sterett had flashed a signal light at the Coolidge and that she had nothing to pass onto the Coolidge, even when asked.
The Coolidge was entering Segond Channel from the south-east and was obviously aiming for the eastern end of the channel. What Captain Nelson and the crew did not know was that all but one access into Segond Channel were mined.
Just after midnight on 3 August 1942, USS Gamble, USS Breese and USS Tracy left Luganville in Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, to lay a series of minefields to protect Segond Channel. This channel was the main 'harbour' of Espiritu Santo. The three ships laid mines at three locations. These three fields were at the south-western entrance to Segond Channel, between Malo Island and the mainland (Field One) and nearby between the south-western corner of Aore Island and the mainland (Field Two) further blocking Segond Channel. The third field was at the eastern end of Segond Channel. This field was laid in two, north-south parallel sections. The first was between Bogacio Island (now called Bokissa Island) and the north-eastern corner of Aore Island (basically on the eastern side of Aore Island) and another section running south from the south-east corner of the mainland towards the south-western corner of Tutuba Island (Field Three). This created an entrance, really a small gap, from the south-west between Tutuba and Bogacio Islands. The obvious idea was that ships would enter this gap and once in the main Segond Channel, turn left and proceed towards Luganville.
Later on, two other fields were laid, one further east of this point and another along the eastern coast. In total, 171 Mark VI mines were laid on the morning of 3 August 1942. For more information about the USS Gamble, USS Breese and USS Tracy and to see some photos of the Gamble and Breese, see the USS Tucker page.
These actions basically made Segond Channel accessible through only one point, the eastern channel via the southern channel between Tutuba Island and Aore Island, on the eastern side of Bokissa Island. This was not the channel chosen by Captain Nelson. Of interest is the fact that a US warship, the USS Tucker, had been sunk at the other end of Segond Channel by a minefield on 3 August 1942, less than three months earlier.
At 0844 a small vessel was sighted in the cover of an island at a range of 10 miles. This boat was a patrol boat, PC479. The Coolidge was said to be six miles from 'Hypo' (the rendeavous point). The patrol boat was at the entrance to the safe channel. At 0858 hours they signalled to the larger vessel using a signal lamp but they lost sight of each other as Tutuba Island came between them. The message was not able to be deciphered by the Signal Officer. When asked the meaning of the message, the patrol boat clarified its message as being a merchant ship challenge and indentification was made. It is said that the patrol craft gave chase but never had any chance of catching the much larger ship which was far ahead. This is not mentioned in Lt Hosmer's log.
At 0906 the Coolidge entered the main entrance to Segond Channel (Scorff Passage). Lt Hosmer reported seeing several ships in port, including a cruiser (USS Chester). At 0928 hours the USS Chester challenged the incoming vessel but (it is reported) after the Coolidge responded, it ceased the communication.
Private Joseph P. Ignatz from Wisconsin (later of Chicago, Illinois) and Privates Peter Jarocz and Mike Cirar from Chicago were members of the 172nd Infantry Regiment of the 43rd Division. They thought that they were on their way to Guadalcanal (they probably were but via Santo - later on, Joe was shot in the right wrist and left arm, Peter was slightly paralyzed in his right leg from shrapnel in his spine and Mike lsot a kidney. All caught malaria and after the war remained close friends - Pete was even Godfather of Joe's daughter, Diana). Joe reported to me via Diane the following about the entry into Segond Channel:
I remember that I was standing on deck. There were flashing signals on shore and a Naval destroyer was blinking at us, too.
It is also reported that immediately a shore-based station signalled the bridge of the Coolidge a morse code lamp warning,
The list of the ship is very apparent
At 0930 hours on Monday 26 October 1942, an explosion rocked the ship. Within 30 seconds (0930 1/2 hours) there was another explosion as the ship hit a second mine. The ship was shaken badly. According to Lt Hosmer, a list to port commenced immediately.
Joe Ignatz told me that:
At this time I felt the first concussion, then a second - shortly after. Someone yelled 'Hard right rudder! The ship turned towards shore. It started going down by the stern and tilted to the left. At first no on got off. The ship's crew was preparing for evacuation.
This corresponds with the above paragraphs.
Captain Nelson decided that the President Coolidge was mortally wounded and he ordered the helm to be swung to starboard (right) and at 0938 hours (0935 according to Lt Hosmer) the bow of the ship hit the coral reef along the northern shore of Segond Channel, only 50 to 100 metres from the shore. Already nets had been lowered and the lifeboats were in the process of being lowered. Abandoning of the ship started right away. One minute later the list was 8° to port. There is a lot of oil on the water, obviously from a holed tank. People are abandoning ship on the starboard side
A fireman, 30 year old Robert Reid, had been killed by one of the explosions or the resultant flooding. The crew of the engine room was in dire straits and their story alone could fill a page. Needless to say, it was a dramatic and heroic escape by three of the crew. A brief description is that another fireman was severely burned and crippled by the explosions and Howard Quinn, Chief Engineer and John L. Paton, First Engineer, went through a ventilator to the fireroom, found the fireman and carried him to safety.
CE Quinn and FE Paton were awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal for their parts in this rescue. See Coolidge Heroes Page for more information on this rescue.
On the day of the sinking I was in my bunk. When the ship hit the mine I fell from the top bunk onto the floor. An alert was given and we were told that the ship was not going to sink. We were instructed to stay in our quarters. Then the ship hit another mine. This time an alert went out that the ship was going to sink and we were instructed to leave. I was on the port side. I made my way to the lobby and remember sitting in a chair. (I also remember seeing a painting of the lady in the photo on your web site (comment - this is, of course, the Lady. Whether Mr Schneider saw the actual figurine or a painting of it I do not know)). The ship pitched and my chair slid to the other side of the lobby. I made my way to the deck and jumped from the deck to a life boat with three men already on board. We started towards shore and watched the ship go down.
Max Evans Senior (see original mention above) also told me about the final moments of the ship and the following is a word for word recording as well as my comments in square brackets. For a more detailed memory of Mr Evans, see Memories Page:
On that fateful day of the sinking, I was on deck and heard people yelling, 'Torpedo .... torpedo .... torpedo!' The next thing I knew was that there was an ear splitting explosion that lifted the front of the ship up. Then when it settled back down into the water, there was yet another explosion. (this tallies with the two mines but presumably the torpedo shout was either faulty memory - someone singing mines, mines - or a mistake by whoever was shouting out. Note that in Craig Hosmer's Log Book he says that some of his men thought the ship had been hit by a torpedo) You mentioned in your writings (Michael McFadyen's Web Page on Coolidge) about the ship's captain running aground. This could be true but I have no knowledge of that ... 'it was real hectic about that time.' We were led to believe that the ship's captain had panicked and accidentally hit the mines. Like I said before, troops began stripping there (sic) combat gear preparing to abandon ship. Once I was on shore, some US Navy troops gave me two sets of clothing and shoes. One to wear while washing the other. A full issue of clothing came about one month later.
Roy H. Dobbins, was the Coolidge's carpenter. His daughter, Julie Dobbins, told me the following story as told to her by her father (he died 22 February 1999). For a more detailed memory of Mr Dobbins, see Memories Page.
Dad's copy of The Lady and the President by Peter Stone has excellent pictures and from a diagram included in the book he told me and showed me that he was in his quarters (a room with 9 bunks) on 'C' deck, starboard side, bow end when it hit the mine. Dad was the ship's carpenter on this trip. He had been in the U.S. Merchant Marines since 1939, and had sailed on it (the Coolidge) prior to it being modified for carrying troops, in all he sailed on the Coolidge for at least 13 months. He found the Coolidge to be a beautiful ship. He commented that this ship burned a barrel of oil per minute for fuel. She sailed quite powerfully. At the time of the explosion he had just retired from his shift (he couldn't remember the exact time of the day). When the Captain blasted the siren he gathered up only the clothes on his back AND his Seamen's wallet. He recalls the escape from the ship a close one. The crew had had lifeboat drills, so he went to his assigned one. He also recalls that whoever the s-o-b was who was ringing the alarm bells was 'ringing the hell out of the bells'.
Dad stated that he was helmsman in the lifeboat of more than 25 Merchant Marines and U.S. Army soldiers. His lifeboat had reached land when the Coolidge sank. He remembers being very sad - as though he had lost a good friend. His admiration for the Captain was maintained as he continued to sail with him on later voyages. Dad continues to defend the innocence of Captain Henry Nelson regarding his situation with the loss of the Coolidge.
At 0940 hours Lt Hosmer reports that the abandon ship is proceeding with no problems or panic. There are rescue boats approaching the ship while the lifeboats are taking people from the ship to close to the shore where they wade ashore. By 0945 hours the list is 10° and Lt Hosmer notes that it is apparent that the ship will heel over and slip off the coral reef. The stern gun crew reports that the 'stern is going down fairly fast'. Ten minutes later he goes to his cabin to retrieve papers and other items. At 1000 hours the list is 14° and Lt Hosmer orders the anti-aircraft gun crews to move to the starboard side of the bridge and for the crews of the three stern guns to abandon ship. At 1010 he orders the crews of the remaining large guns to abandon ship. The list is 16°.
At 1012 Lt Hosmer records that the nets are full of men waiting for the lifeboats and there are more men waiting on the now increasingly angled decks. 'She can't stay up much longer' he writes. He orders men at the bottom of nets to jump into the water and swim ashore (they all have life jackets on). Four minutes later he reports that the list is 18.5° and men still will not jump in. He tells men above to 'kick men in face to get them off'.
There is now a long gap in Lt Hosmer's account, the next report is 1045 hours.
As Lt Hosmer indicates, the evacuation was quite orderly, although the men were reluctant to jump into the water. As I indicated in the previous page, there had been many lifeboat drills earlier in the trip as the Coolidge crossed the Pacific. Despite this, leaking oil and the increasing angle of list made it impossible to launch some lifeboats and the cargo nets slung over the sides (see the photos) made it difficult to climb down, especially for those who tried to take rifles and equipment with them. As can been seen from the photos, all the soldiers and crew had lifejackets on so it was unlikely that anyone was going to drown. Anyway, as the ship was so close to shore, there was no panic and people even thought that they would be able to come back later and collect their equipment.
I received an e-mail from Michael A. Jones, Sr who advised me that he had been told by his father (not sure of his name) that:
Dad says an eerie calmness came over the ship after the second mine was struck, that there was great order and calmness throughout the crew and troops aboard. He said there was a lot of oil on the water surface and that he had walked down the side of the Coolidge and swam away to avoid being sucked down with her.
Many boats were dispatched from shore to pick up survivors, others swam the few yards to shore. It was organized chaos, but most of the soldiers stayed calm throughout the evacuation.
Steve was at the 60th Anniversary of the sinking of the SS President Coolidge in Espiritu Santo in October 2002. He has also e-mailed me and at the Anniversary I spoke to him a number of times. In 1993 he had returned to Santo for the (delayed) 50th Anniversary. While there, he heard divers speak about the wreck of the ship. he decided there and then that he would learn to dive. He returned again the next year, heard more stories and at some time (either on this trip or when he returned to the USA) spoke to Allan Power of Allan Power Diving Services about diving the wreck. Allan declined to take Steve diving.
When Steve returned to the USA, he learnt to dive, at the age of about 80 years old. In 1998 he returned yet again to Santo and on 24 June 1998 he dived with Allan Power to the bow. On that trip he did at least two more dives, one to the Promenade Deck and one to Hold Two. On 26 October 2002 he dived to the bow, aged almost 86 years old. As far as can be known, he is only the second survivor to dive on the ship (see Michael Jones comments to me), and almost certainly the oldest. I spoke to Steve a number of times on his 2002 trip to Santo.
Joe Ignatz (see previous) told me via his daughter, Diane, that he remembers climbing down a rope ladder but the last rung was about 5 feet above the water. He jumped. Diane remembers her father and his mates Pete and Mike telling her that they felt as if their boots were going to go through the bottom of the boat. The boat motored them to shore and they had to jump into 4 feet of water and wade ashore. Joe says that at this time he remembered that he had left all his personal things on the boat. He checked his pockets and found he had the grand total of one comb. Mr Ignatz also told me of officers abandoning ship early but this is incorrect if he meant the ship's officers. It is possible that he saw some of Lt Hosmer's men, including one who took his unit's papers and valuables off early in the piece (see Lt Hosmer's diary). As they were members of the Navy and were dressed similar to the ship's crew, this may have been what he saw.
Bertram Miles was 24 years old when the Coolidge sank. I am not sure if he jumped into the water or climbed into a lifeboat, but when he left the ship he took some matches wrapped in foil with him. He kept these matches for the rest of his life and before he died, the matches were used to light a fire at an American Legion event. The fire was used to cook fish. His family still has the matches in the original foil.
The cruiser USS Chester was in Santo harbour for emergency repairs prior to travelling to Sydney for even more repairs. The Captain sent out his lifeboats and rescued 440 of the Coolidge's crew and passengers.
At 1045 hours Lt Hosmer reported that he was finally having success in getting the men to jump into the water. He is now at the aft end of the Boat Deck (if this is correct, it is near the pool) and the last of the men are now on the ropes. It is a difficult task to walk due to the extreme list. Two minutes later he is near the Bridge when Ensign Weinstein tells him that Jack Rhodes (BM Second Class), has gone in the water to save a drowning merchant marine man. The Coolidge's Chief Officer tells the remaining men to get off while they can so they all move towards a motor boat. At 1049 hours they board the boat which is already occupied by Captain Nelson. While doing this, a Philippino crewman is seen hanging onto a metal ladder. He has a broken arm so Ensign Weinstein jumps to the ship and carries the man down to the boat. One minute later everyone from the Bridge is in this boat. The Coolidge gives a big lurch to port and is now completely on her side.
Among the passengers being carried was Captain Elwood J. Euart, from the 103rd Field Artillery. He was born on 28 January 1914 at Pawtucket, Rhode Island, USA. It is not really clear exactly what happened but the myth is that after safely exiting the ship, he became of the view that some of his crew were still inside and he went back in to find them and was lost when the ship suddenly sank. However, I have been contacted by a couple of people and their advice, although not the same, contradicts this myth.
I was emailed by Walter J. Wall Jr, who was in the 103rd Field Artillery. He is 79 years old (in 2000) and lives near Newport, Rhode Island. He told me the following:
Elwood Euart was my battery commander, and we loved him dearly. Untill (sic) recently coming on your website, we were always told that he was master at arms for the day, and was heading for the brig to release four prisoners, when when the ship went down? Still don't know?
Sue Stephenson of Chicago, Illinois, e-mailed me that her father, Charles J. Stephenson, then a First Lieutenant with the 43rd Division, 172nd Regiment was on the President Coolidge. Her father told her that:
Captain Euart, two other officers and he were told to stay in their cabin after the first explosion (Stephenson and Euart were cabin mates). They had their bags all packed and their rifles propped up alongside their bunks while they waited for further orders. When one of their rifles slid down to the floor and they began to see the waterline rise up into view out of the porthole, they decided they couldn't wait any longer and had better head up on deck. As they turned to go up the stairs, Captain Euart, who I believe was a Mess Officer, turned the opposite way and said he was worried about 'his boys' in the kitchen and wanted to go down and make sure none of them had gotten stuck in the refrigerators/freezers which could have swung shut and trapped them. That was the last time my Dad said he saw Captain Euart. He then told me what he knew about his death, which was as you reported on your website. the desperate attempt to help him climb out through the door of the overturned ship. Dad was very grateful to have had the chance to visit Captain Euart's grave upon his return to San (sic) Espirito Santo (in the late 1970s or early 1980s).
However, a first hand version given by Warrant Officer Robert H. Moshimer (included in The Lady and the President - The Life and Loss of the S.S. President Coolidge by Peter Stone) is a bit different. WO Moshimer (who incidentally claims to have seen the first mine from the bow) went back to where a Service Battery crew were located. This was on C Deck, somewhere near the middle of the ship. He went there as soon as the ship ran aground and he states that when he arrived, his friends had just been told to leave the ship by another route. He then returned to the C Deck Lobby outside the First Class Dining Saloon (this area can be entered nowadays from the lobby in the Continental Lounge or a door in the hull - the same door to feature later in this story).
While in the lobby, the list increased dramatically and WO Moshimer went to the inside door (there are a series of two doors like an airlock giving access to the outside) where he found a rope. He threw the rope to men trying to climb the slippery floor towards the door. Also assisting in this were Captain Warren K. Covill and Lt Ward D. MacDonald. They used this to help the men get up to the door. It is said that one of the men was the Chief Mate of the Coolidge, Patrick Carl Olsen. All the men escaped this way and it appears that Captain Euart was the last one left down the bottom of the foyer. He tied the rope to himself. Captain Covill and WO Moshimer went out the outer door and stood on the side of the hull. Suddenly the ship listed further and was now totally on her side. Capt Covill and WO Moshimer attempted to haul Capt Euart up the considerable distance to the doors.
At 1052 hours, Lt Hosmer reports that he saw Mr Olsen appear on the side of the ship from somewhere (it is unclear if he did in fact come from inside or some other place). He also saw two other men (Capt Covill and WO Moshimer - it is not clear where Lt MacDonald was now). The two men are trying to pull someone up out of the passenger doors 2/3 of the way aft. Mr Olsen runs to the door and starts helping the other two men. The Coolidge starts to slide backwards off the reef into deeper water.
At 1052 1/2 hours there is another great lurch and the ship begins to slide rapidly. Capt Covill and WO Moshimer as well as Mr Olsen were sucked under by the ship. At 1053 hours the SS President Coolidge disappeared beneath the oil and water. There was a great rush of air and dust forced from the ship as water entered the lower parts of the ship and this made the rescue more difficult with waves and huge bubbles disturbing the water. WO Moshimer had to remove his helmet and gear around his waist. A large self-propelled barge that was attempting to rescue the men went out of control, spinning around and around.
The three eventually bobbed to the surface but Capt Euart was never seen again. Patrick Olsen was awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal for his part in the rescue attempt. See Coolidge Heroes Page for more information on CO Olsen's part and the citation he received. This story is somewhat confirmed by Richard Schneider's account of the sinking below.
The SS President Coolidge disappears beneath Segond Channel
Richard Schneider who was on board (see original mention above) told me:
I could see the men on the starboard side trying to get off of the ship. I saw one man attempting to be pulled out of a porthole, but he couldn't make it (perhaps this was Captain Euart - see later in article - but he was trying to get out of a door, not a port hole - it could be an error of memory or perhaps the distance from the ship. It tends to confirm other stories related above about Captain Euart). The water looked oily and I think there were some flames (I do not think this is correct as there is no other record of a fire and the photos do not show it). The ship righted itself up and went down rear end first. It was an amazing sight, I wasn't far from the sinking ship. I could see the water whirling in a big circle as it went down. I lost all of my equipment and personal belongings, escaping with only the clothes on my back. This is about all I can remember.
Frank Cameron was on one of about 15 ships anchored in Segond Channel. He reports in an article published in Last Minutes of the President Coolidge by Frank Cameron, MAST magazine, May 1946, pages 18-20 that the Coolidge hit the beach at 0945. Between 1015 and 1030 the list increased alarmingly and by 1030 it was obvious to him that the ship was doomed. The following is a word for word description of the final moments of the sinking:
A huge geyser appeared by her stern bubbling furiously and she seemed to surround herself with a thin film of smoke as if to curtain the final shame of her death throes. More geysers appeared along her side. Her stacks at last touched the water and then with a tragic gracefulness, her bow rose as her stern settled more deeply and she slid off the coral ledge and disappeared from sight. It was 1045.
This account roughly tallies with others, although the timing is a little out, understandable considering the hectic situation and the period of time that may have passed between the event and the recording of their memories.
The Captain orders that the motor boat he is in (and Lt Hosmer and many others) set out for Navy Headquarters. There are many men in the motor boat and they put most onto a raft to be taken ashore. There are 11 men left in the motor boat, including the Captain, Chief and First Officers, Chief, First and Second Assistant Engineers, Lt Hosmer, Ensign Weinstein, Rhodes, SM Arthur Tumbur (? - one of the communications officers) and the injured man. This boat is rapidly taking water so at 1058 hours they put four men on a Navy motor launch and at 1105 hours all but the First Officer and First Engineer now get onto an invasion boat as the motor boat is rapidly sinking. The boat is towed by the invasion boat.
At 1113 hours, the invasion boat comes along side the cruiser USS Chester and discharges the injured man and at 1125 hours they reach the shore in the vicinity of Luganville township.
As a result of their actions, Captain Elwood Euart was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Captain Warren Covill, Lt Ward MacDonald and Warrant Officer Robert Moshimer were awarded the Soldier's Medal.
Amazingly, only two lives (not five lives as reported in some sources) had been lost out of the 5340 (not 5355 as some other sources report) persons on board. Details of the accident were not released in the United States until 12 December 1942, almost seven weeks after the Coolidge sank. An official US defence media release on that date is as follows:
December 12, 1942
The S. S. President Coolidge, Of 21,936 gross tons, was completed in 1931 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., Newport News, Va. It was 615 feet 6 inches in length, had a beam of 81 feet 3 inches, and a draft of 28 feet 2 inches.
As you can see, this report stated that there were four deaths but did not mention that the accident was caused by a US mine. It was not until a report appeared in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin on 15 December 1942 that the US public knew that the ship had been sunk by a US mine. The actual location of where the ship sank was not reported until April 1944, 17 months later. Until then, it was reported that the accident occurred in the Solomons area.
Captain Nelson was charged before a military commission of “...through negligence suffering a vessel of the United States to be lost”. I have attached some information about the three inquiries into the sinking in a separate page.
After the sinking, a number of people received awards for bravery. See the Coolidge Heros Page for more info. As well, some of the Army units on board were awarded a 'Certificate' attesting to what happened and basically congratulating them on their behaviour during the sinking. For example, one presented to men from the 172nd Infantry and Combat Team by their commander, Colonel James A. Lewis stated:
Lieutenant C. Craig Hosmer, US Navy Reserve, was in charge of the Armed Guard Unit assigned to the SS President Coolidge. Armed Guards were responsible for manning the ship's guns as well as providing security for the ship when in port. Each day on the voyage from when he boarded the ship in San Francisco on 28 September 1942 until 24 November 1942 when he was back in Noumea, New Caledonia after the sinking, he kept a diary. This diary is entitled 'Armed Guard Unit Log Book - S.S.President Coolidge'.
The following is a word for word transcript of Lt Hosmer's log entries for Monday 26 October 1942, the day the Coolidge sank. This day's report was written up on the morning of 27 October 1942. Lt Hosmer states that while the times are guesses, they are fairly accurate, although his watch may have been one minute fast. The times underlined are said to be accurate to a minute. Note that I have expanded Lt Hosmer's abbreviations and corrected spelling errors. Where I could not decipher his handwriting or did not understand what was written or thought further clarification was needed, I have commented on this.
Monday 26 October 1942
This has been quite a day. The men are all cheerful and morale is good despite the losses they have all suffered. Little more than the clothes we wear and partial pay cards were saved in most cases. They were marvelously calm when the mines exploded. Stuck right to their posts. Some thought it was a torpedoing and broke out ammunition, cocked guns etc
This island is Espirito Santo of the New Hebrides Group. It is medium sized and French owned. All the area that we have seen has been planted with coconuts. Trees evenly planted about 25 feet apart, grass in between. Coconuts now ripe and falling. You have to stay away from the trunks else you will be hit. Weather quite warm. Roads very dusty. All water bad except that distilled for drinking purposes.
SS President Coolidge References:
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