Strange Geographies: Exploring a WWII Shipwreck

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I'd like to think I know a thing or two about the Second World War, but there's only so much you can learn from history books and Ken Burns documentaries. To really delve deep, you have to go back to the battle sites -- unfortunately, the places where many of the European Theater's famous battles were fought are now unrecognizably encrusted with development (or were cities and have long since been rebuilt). The Pacific Theater, however, is a different story: many battles were fought on water, making them more or less immune to development (until they invent floating shopping malls). Much of the wreckage is still there, and is as reasonably intact as anything can be after being shot down, crashing into the ocean and being squatted in by weird sea creatures for 60-odd years.

For the intrepid scuba diver, therefore, many parts of the South Pacific are like a living, underwater history museum. Imagine a major WWII battle in the European Theater after which no one had bothered to come in and pick up all the ruined tanks and jeeps, broken equipment, dropped trash. I was lucky enough to dive a few of these sites in Vanuatu recently (you can read about my land-based Vanuatu adventure here), and though they're not exactly battle sites, they're plenty interesting. During the war, Vanuatu was a major American base of operations, from which the Allies launched naval and air attacks against the Japanese in the nearby Solomon Islands. Vanuatu itself never saw any major wartime combat, but evidence of the war is still everywhere, from the Quonset huts and military-built roads that dot the landscape of Espiritu Santo island to the underwater wreckage sites of the SS Coolidge and Million Dollar Point, both of which I had the opportunity to see up close.

The S.S. President Coolidge

Built in 1931, the Coolidge was a trans-Pacific luxury liner which had the misfortune of being completed right as the Great Depression was setting in. It enjoyed just ten years of ferrying America's few remaining rich people around to vacation destinations in the South Pacific before the Second World War cast its shadow over the country, and the Navy decided that the Coolidge should probably start ferrying soldiers around rather than rich people, so they painted it gray, bolted massive guns onto it and sent it into non-combat action.

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Just one year later, this massive ship would lie at the bottom of the Segond Channel in Vanuatu. There are several ways to enter the Segond Channel, and the Coolidge's captain figured -- unwisely, as it turned out -- that he'd come in the back way, to avoid a squadron of Japanese submarines which turned out not to exist. Instead what happened is the Coolidge hit a cluster of American mines which, laid just days earlier, were meant to keep unwanted Japanese warships away. (Those never showed up either, incidentally.) But the captain hadn't gotten the memo, and the Coolidge hit two newly-laid American mines on its way into the Channel. As the ship began to list to one side and take on water, more than 5,000 troops were forced to abandon it, leaving massive amounts of supplies behind -- guns, helmet, jeeps, tanks, rations, medical supplies -- all of which sank with the ship in 70-to-240 feet of water about 100 yards from shore, all of which is still there today, inside this massive ship which lies gently crumbling on its side.

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Soldiers abandoning the sinking Coolidge

Naturally, the Coolidge is a haven for divers. Not only is it staggeringly large -- nearly 200 meters from bow to stern -- it also has the peculiar distinction of being both a luxury liner, home to two swimming pools, several stately dining rooms and promenades and a soda fountain, but a military ship as well, with huge guns welded to the hull and stacks of shells and equipment everywhere. It is, quite literally, like swimming in a military museum. (Albeit a military museum encrusted with 60 years of coral and fish poo. But still.) I dove the ship four times in two days and still only saw a tiny fraction of it. Here are a few of the things we found:

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Our dive guide wearing a helmet and holding a rifle

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Large shells

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The remains of a jeep in the ship's massive cargo hold

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A heavily-encrusted typewriter. I outlined the keyboard and the carriage return -- can you see it?

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Leaving the cargo hold

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An amazing shot of the Coolidge's stern by Dr. Richard Harris

The Coolidge at Night

Diving the Coolidge at night has to rank as one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Absolutely unphotographably amazing. Briefly: we descend, just my diver friend, the guide and myself, in the dull green afterglow of dusk. By the time we reach the ship itself, the light is gone. We navigate over the side of the ship with flashlights, past schools of sleeping fish to the massive, gaping black hole of a cargo hold, switch off our lights, and drift inside. In the hold, it's anything but dark: thousands upon thousands of blinking, bio-luminescent flashlight fish wink all around us, a surging constellation of flashing green lights. We hang there amidst them, transfixed, for what seems like hours; I lose all track of time and, with these infinite winking points as my only light reference, space.

bowmandsa2.jpgJust as I'm starting to feel like the Star Child at the end of 2001, suspended in this otherworldly Milky Way, and noticing how the bubbles from my exhalations make little bio-luminescent sparks that co-mingle with the fish (or are they stars?), it suddenly occurs to me that this sort of disconnection from reality, experienced at 120 feet below the surface of the ocean, inside a cavernous shipwreck, in darkness so profound I can't even read my air pressure gauge, could in fact be pretty dangerous. Whereupon, as if reading my thoughts, the dive guide switches his light on, the flashlight fish hightail it in one massive hive-mind cloud to a deeper and darker part of the ship, and we three aquanauts begin our slow ascent to the surface -- where we're greeted by the actual Milky Way, which in this part of the Southern hemisphere is a great bold stripe across the middle of the sky, unpolluted by the glow of city lights for a thousand miles.

Beach of Broken Things

No more than a mile from the Coolidge site is one of the world's quirkiest dive sites, and a WWII buff's playground. It's called Million Dollar Point, a great gift to divers everywhere that's the result of an act of supreme bitchiness on the part of the American government. After the war, the US had tons and tons of equipment on Vanuatu that it would've been far too expensive to ship back home, so they decided, as governments sometimes do after such conflicts, to auction it off. The British and the French controlled Vanuatu in a strange governmental arrangement called the Condominium, in which the country had two entirely separate courts, parliaments, even two sets of road rules, in which British citizens drove on the left and French citizens drove on the right. (How everyone in the country wasn't killed in head-on collisions is beyond me.)

In any case, the British and the French were the main bidders in this massive auction of American equipment, but by all accounts the bids they made were pathetically low (though to be fair, both of their homelands had recently been devastated in the war against Germany, and they certainly had other financial priorities). Insulted, the Americans decided that instead of taking one of the low-ball offers that had come their way, they would just dump all the equipment into the sea. Which is exactly what they did -- thousands of tons, and millions of dollars' worth, in 70-120 feet of water just fifty yards from shore. The dive site is now called Million Dollar point (though in today's money it might actually be Billion Dollar Point), and it's an amazing junkyard of military equipment, most of which was in perfect working condition until it was tossed unceremoniously into the ocean. Truck parts and Coke bottles from the 40s are still washing up on the beach to this day.

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Your humble blogger, "driving" a bulldozer that clearly hasn't been functional in some time.

Finally, for you scuba enthusiasts out there, I thought I'd include this little YouTube video I made of all the wreck and reef dives I did in Vanuatu. The Coolidge was just one of 5 wrecks we dove; it just happened to the most historically interesting (and the largest, and best, and ... you run out superlatives pretty quickly when discussing the Coolidge).

You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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April 8, 2009 - 11:24am
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