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New Hebrides (Vanuatu then) in World War 2

In late 1930s to early 1942, the Japanese and the Americans arrived on Efate, totally unannounced, filling Mele Bay with warships, where the Underwater post office currently is. This caused a large number of the Vila population fleeing into the hills believing the Japanese had arrived but the Americans simply took over and built an entire infrastructure to support their introduced military population.

They brought in tens of thousands of tons of machinery, built barracks and hospitals, a road around the entire island so in Vanuatu you will see that people drive on the right-hand side of the road as the Americans. They built airstrips and wharves in a desperate attempt to push back the Japanese. In Espiritu Santo, 100,000 troops arrived in short order and throughout the islands, an interesting social phenomenon took place creating new friendships between the local Hebridean and American soldiers. This was the era when the local string-brand was born taught to the locals by the Americans.

End of the War

Three years later the Americans left as swiftly as they arrived and soon after a decision was made by the Condominium government to bulldoze every movable object from the war into the ocean where now lies Million Dollar point on Espiritu Santo. But the most well-known remnants of war and one of the most famous dive spots in the world is that of the SS Coolidge.

SS President Coolidge - 26th October 1942

On the morning of 26th October 1942, the Coolidge approached Espiritu Santo by the Eastern side of the Segond Channel. Due to security, the navy were unable to radio the Captain special instructions on how to enter the channel. As the ship began to enter the channel, an explosion from a mine struck the aft fire room. Thirty seconds later a second explosion hit the engine room and captain Nelson had to summon all 5300 crew and soldiers to leave the ship. 

Today located only a few kilometres from Luganville, divers can reach it by boat or by foot, through one of several dive operations based in Santo. With visibility normally around 15-25 meters, such a wreck dive offers exceptional underwater clarity. The outer parts of the ship can be safely seen by novice divers. Considered by many divers to be the best wreck dive in the world, the SS President Coolidge is still very much intact with reminders of her glorious days as a cruise liner and the remnants of her days as a troop ship.

In her interior are guns, cannons, jeeps, helmets, trucks and personal supplies left by some of the soldiers, as well as the beautiful porcelain statue of “The Lady,” chandeliers and a mosaic tile fountain. The wreck is covered in coral and is the home to a plethora of sea life such including barracuda, lionfish, and a host of reef fish. To see the whole wreck, you’ll need at least 10 to 15 dives as she's 200 metres in length and rests in 20 to 72 metres of water but you will still feel for her magnitude and majesty on even a few dives.