During the war, detailed records were kept that later were transcribed for review by historians. Today’s story comes from that report. Imagine how different Christmas of 1942 would have been for the families of over five thousand soldiers if the Captain of this ship had not taken the actions he did.
S. S. PRESIDENT COOLIDGE LOST ON WAR MISSION; VERY FEW CASUALTIES
The former liner S. S. President Coolidge, owned by the American President Lines, San Francisco, Calif., chartered and operated by the War Shipping Administration for the U. S. Army, was lost in recent weeks in the South Pacific.
The vessel, operating as a transport, was fully loaded with troops and equipment when it struck a mine and sank.
Through prompt and efficient rescue efforts casualties were limited to four men.
Henry Nelson, 3714 Irving Street, San Francisco, Calif., who is a survivor, was master of the S. S. President Coolidge.
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.
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 aggression increased. 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 haze 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 5,000 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 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 Field Artillery, 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.
It would be interesting to talk with one of the soldiers that escaped to see what it was like in the days and weeks afterwards. The wreck is now a world class diving destination.