Coolidge 80th commemoration a huge success
The preparations and lead up to the S.S. President Coolidge Commemoration and Exhibition was nothing short of extraordinary.
As the day got closer, the tension began to build with floods down at Bauerfield International Airport at Port Vila threatening the visit of so many people wishing to attend the event.
It felt like much of Luganville was behind the event in some way, with just so many people offering to help, or donate raffle prizes for the official dinner. In fact, there was quite a wait list for tickets for the event that would conclude the day. But that was the least of our worries.
It wasn’t until early on the morning of the 26th, just a couple of hours before the commemoration was scheduled to begin, did we get the word that the charter flight carrying our VIP guests, was given the green light to leave Vila – the relief from everyone gathered at the commemoration site as we saw that charter literally fly over our heads, was indescribable.
The commemoration was held at the Elwood J Euart Memorial, barely 100 metres from where the 4,500 soldiers came ashore prior to the Coolidge sinking on October 26, 1942.
It has always been held there as a mark of respect to Captain Euart and Fireman Robert Reid who lost their lives when the ship went down, that fateful morning. Captain Euart’s passing was a remarkable one, given the incredible bravery he showed going back down into the sinking ship to rescue soldiers trapped in the lower spaces of the enormous cruise liner. Too weak to save his own life, Euart went down with the ship and into the annals of Coolidge folklore.
By around 9.00, our VIPs had arrived. Mr Chiba Hirohisa, the Japanese Ambassador to Vanuatu, Ms Heidi Bootle, Australian High Commissioner to Vanuatu, Nicola Simmonds, New Zealand High Commissioner to Vanuatu, Ms Penny Alexander, United States Peace Corps Director for Vanuatu and Mr Arthur Faerua, Director General of Justice and Community Services had managed to find a way out of Port Vila to be with us. We cannot thank them enough for the trouble they went to, to be a part of this special day.
Following speeches and a wreath laying, everyone made their way to the beach where Santo legend and Coolidge caretaker Allan Power used to take divers out the meet ‘the Lady’ on board the sunken ship.
After a brief ceremony, the Coolidge’s bridge bell was unveiled. The bell had been loaned to the museum by Janet Frouin and the Discombe family for the event. It actually ‘lives’ in Port Vila and was brought up by island ferry in a specially constructed crate, just in time for the event.
At that point, Penny Alexander stepped forward to ring the Coolidge’s bell twice – once for Captain Ewart and once for Robert Reid.
After flowers and wreaths were laid on the water, the commemoration concluded. Everyone then headed back to Luganville.
The bell's story
The Bridge Bell belonging to the S.S. President Coolidge, was not recovered until Kiwi diver and Santo dive legend Reece Discombe dived the wreck in the 1950s.
It has remained in the Discombe family since then, never appearing in public until now.
Thanks to Janet Frouin, Reece’s daughter and the rest of the Discombe family, they have allowed the bell to travel back up to Santo and be a part of the 80th Commemoration and Exhibition at the museum.
The S.S. President Coolidge Exhibition was always going to be a very special event for the South Pacific WWII Museum. The first dedicated exhibition since the mini museum opened in 2017, it was going to take a lot of work to bring all the pieces together – and a considerable budget.
Thankfully for the Museum, things fell wonderfully into place with the generous sponsorship of the exhibition by the Vanuatu Tourism Office (VTO). Adela Issachar, VTOs CEO confirmed their support, designed to bring history and tourism closer together.
The vision behind the exhibit was not only to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the sinking, but demonstrate to the world that a little museum in the middle of the South Pacific could put on an event equal to an exhibition anywhere in the world. A big ask, but we feel it’s pretty close!
So at 10.30, with everyone gathered under the big Santo Hardware marquee, the opening began with speeches US Peace Corps’ Penny Alexander, Museum Chairman Bradley Wood and Project Manager Jimmy Carter.
A cutting of the ribbon by the five VIPs and Bradley Wood officially opened the exhibition – but there was one last thing left to do.
After months of cleaning, restoring, milling, shaping, cutting and a lot of testing, the Coolidge’s port whistle was ready to sing for the first time in 80 years – and sing she did.
With two large compressors combining with around 100 psi of air pressure each into a single four-inch pipe and a squirt of high-pressure water injected into the airflow, the whistle came to life, much to the delight of everyone gathered nearby.
The sound from Coolidge’s whistle was so loud it was heard almost 2km away and the locals thought a cruise ship was coming in. With the whistle sounded, the doors were opened, and our VIPs made their way inside to see the amazing Allan Power collection on display.
The exhibition would never have been possible without the generous donation made by Allan Power’s estate, his family and business partner Tony Lewis. Allan always said that following his passing, he’d like to see the collection passed onto the museum. Sure enough, Allan’s wishes were honoured, and we hope we’ve done them justice, through our exhibition.
Snorkelling at Million Dollar Point
With the main fomalities out of the way, VTO hosted free dive tours to Million Dollar Point for anyone interested in seeing Santo’s underwater history up close.
Hosted by Wrecks to Rainforests’, Mayumi Green – who is also an experienced Coolidge diver herself – minibuses took tourists and locals from Luganville up to Million Dollar Point, where they gained a whole new insight into what had been dumped there at the conclusion of World War II.
It was a great day out for everyone that attended.
The hottest ticket in town
To wrap up what was an exhausting day for everyone associated with the day’s events, Lisa Dinh and her mother Mary Jane Dinh, put on a big fundraising dinner for anyone who wanted to attend.
Held in the Hotel Santo’s new nakamal that was only completed less than 24 hours prior to the event, around 70 people were treated to a wonderful buffet themed around the favourite dishes of Allan Power – after all it was his home away from home, just across the road from the Allan Power Dive Tours’ headquarters.
It was a great night with speeches from Bradley Wood and Jimmy Carter and videos specially cut for the night to commemorate the Coolidge’s anniversary. With a raffle and some new members joining the museum, around 150,000 vt was raised for the Museum, plus we managed to secure a new Navara sponsor as well.
What a day it was. And we couldn’t have done it without the
assistance of the following people:
Mr Chiba Hirohisa,
Japanese Ambassador to Vanuatu
Ms Heidi Bootle
Australian High Commissioner to Vanuatu
Ms Nicola Simmonds
New Zealand High Commissioner to Vanuatu
Ms Penny Alexander
United States Peace Corps Director for Vanuatu
Mr Arthur Faerua
Director General of The Ministry of Justice and Community Services
Adela Issachar – CEO, Vanuatu Tourism Office
Lea Faccarello – Manager, Long Haul Markets, Vanuatu Tourism Office
Melissa Groundlin – Visitor Information Officer, Vanuatu Tourism Office
Paul Pio – Manager, Short Haul Markets, Vanuatu Tourism Office
Serah Ety – VTO Espiritu Santo Travel Centre, Vanuatu Tourism Office
Kersom Richard – Graphic & Creative Officer, Vanuatu Tourism Office
Greg Wilson – Chief Commercial Officer Air Vanuatu
Jennifer Watson – Marketing & Communications, Commercial
Department Air Vanuatu
Millie Ogden and the satellite techs at 3Link Communications
The Estate of the late Allan Power
Captain Jara Simon and the flag bearers from the VMF
Yelena Isaak – Niva Studios Photography
All the boys at Santo Hardware – you’re the best!
Rosemary and Richard Lo
Lisa and Mary-Jane Dinh and the staff at Hotel Santo
Tara Toone and the staff at The Espiritu
Rick Wood and the staff at Farmland
Mr and Mrs Lau and LCY Garage
Paul White and Lyndell Fourro from Aore Adventure Sports & Lodge
Lisa and Brad Gray from Aore Island Resort
Esline Turner from Santo Seaside Villas
Steve and Wendy Turner
And everyone else who worked so hard to make the day such a wonderful success.