A Brief History of the SS President Coolidge

Posted by Website Admin on July 15, 2019

We recently had a blog published on the TDI website! you can read it here! 

Here it is without the pictures below;

Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu, Wreck Diving: a brief history of the SS President Coolidge

Espiritu Santo is famous the world over as a diving destination. One of the reasons for this is the wreck of The SS President Coolidge. It is said that this is the largest, most accessible wreck in the world and has been coined as “the world’s greatest shore dive”.

The SS President Coolidge was commissioned by the Dollar Steamship Company in October 1929, along with her sister ship the SS President Hoover at a cost of just over US $7 million per ship. The President Coolidge was launched on the 21st of February 1931 by the former president’s wife, Grace Coolidge. It was christened with a bottle of river water from the Black river that flowed through the ex-presidents farmland instead of the customary champagne, as at the time prohibition was in full swing in the United States.

 The SS President Coolidge was truly a luxury ship worthy of the presidential name. At the time the liner (along with its sister ship) was the largest merchant ship built in the US. Coming in at 654 feet 3 inches long, 81 feet in beam, with a depth of 34 feet and weighing in at 21,936 tons gross she was a beast. It was designed to accommodate 988 passengers plus a crew of 385. No expense was spared in furnishing the interior which was on par with the best hotels of the time. The on board entertainment “was state of the art” including two saltwater pools, a gym, cinema, stock exchange, beauty parlour and “air conditioning” throughout. All the rooms had telephones with the first class cabins and many of the special class having en-suite bathroom facilities.  

The ship was completed on September 10th 1932 and enjoyed success as a first class passenger cruise liner. The President Coolidge, operating out of San Francisco, visited ports including Honolulu, Yokohama, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Manila, breaking records for trans-Pacific crossings both east and westbound, some by as many as 14 hours. Despite economic depression both the President Coolidge & Hoover were profitable ships, due in part to a mail subsidy from the US government and were the most profitable ships on the line. In 1937 the Dollar Liners were forced to alter their routes due to escalating conflict between Japan and China, which rendered the port of Shanghai inoperable. From Kobe the President Hoover was told to skip Shanghai and sail straight to Manila. Trying to navigate around the north eastern coast of Taiwan on the 11th December 1937 in bad weather she ran aground off Hoishoto Island and was later declared a complete loss. This in conjunction with severe mismanagement led to the Dollar Steamship Line Inc. becoming insolvent, and in turn being taken over by the US government which changed the company name to American President Lines ltd. on the 1st November 1938.

Not quite a year later war broke out in Europe; the normal shipping services were disrupted as the routes became dangerous. America first stockpiled material and then ran supplies for the Allied forces. The President Coolidge along with other passenger liners were kept busy during the early war years, evacuating American citizens from across the Asia and the Orient, later as transport for the American army reinforcing the Pacific garrisons. It was on one of her last voyages as a cruise liner that she set an all time record for merchant vessels on the total number of passengers carried under normal service.

When America entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese in late 1941, all shipping was taken under control by the War Shipping Administration pool. The President Coolidge was refitted and painted navy grey, to start its second life as a troop transport to carry soldiers and vital supplies throughout the Pacific theatre. Interestingly the US navy had “suggested” some elements in the design of the President Coolidge (and the Hoover) that made the conversion easier, including the ability to mount defensive armament on the decks of the ships. When the conversion was complete, most of the luxurious items and furniture had been removed, boarded up or replaced by more utilitarian equipment. Refitted she could carry over 5000 troops plus crew and extra toilets were added to cater for the increased human capacity.

The President Coolidge made a number runs to the South-Pacific carrying troops and supplies before she made her final voyage from San Francisco on the 6th of Oct 1942 bound for what was then known as the New Hebrides and the island of Espiritu Santo.