Focus of Film
Story by Mike Gerken
Images by David Doubilet, Richard Harris, Mike Gerken, David Kirkland
(As published in Diver Magazine; Vol 37; 2012)
Page 1 of story; photo by D. Doubilet
Page 2-3 of story
In 2008, while living and working on a luxury liveaboard in the wreck diving 'Mecca' of Truk Lagoon, Micronesia, a guest on board had asked me one evening while sitting around the dinner table, "Mike, where does a dive pro like yourself go on vacation?" With a broad smile on my face I proceeded to tell him about my indelible trip to Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu to dive the SS President Coolidge.
In May of 2006, after working for long stretches in 'Truk', I decided that I was long overdo for an extended leave of absence. For a year previous, I received emails from my friend Jennifer who managed a dive shop on Espiritu Santo, enticing me to her Pacific Island paradise with bold accounts of this epic WWII shipwreck. "You just have to dive this wreck. She is 650' long and is right off the beach", she would declare boldly in writing. After about a dozen such emails I decided a personal trip to Vanuatu was warranted to see this legendary shipwreck firsthand. I figured this wreck couldn't hold a candle to the world class diving of Truk Lagoon but it would be a kick diving something new for a change. I could shoot a little video, take some photos and spend my free time relaxing on the beach drinking a few beers. This erroneous perception of mine would soon be dispelled.
I had heard vague stories about the Coolidge, through the grapevine, but never actually spoke to anyone who had dived on her other then Jennifer, nor had I read any articles or done any research up to that point. My trip would be conducted, on blind faith, based solely on Jennifer's accounts but that would be enough for me since she was a friend that was not known to embellish stories.
The SS President Coolidge after the captain ran her aground on the shores of the Segond Channel, Vanuatu.
Since Espiritu Santo and Truk Lagoon are geographically separated by only 1000 miles in the same ocean, I assumed getting there would be a cinch. Boy, was I wrong. I quickly found out that getting there would be like driving from New York to Miami, via Los Angeles. There was nothing that even resembled a direct flight to Espiritu Santo. After making four connections and flying a 5000 mile loop around the Pacific Ocean, via Guam and Australia, I would finally arrive in the town of Luganville on the island of 'Santo', as the locals casually call her. After working in 'Truk' for more than three years, I was no stranger to island life so the rustic charms of 'Santo' came as no surprise to me; I fell in love with the island straight away. I found the local people polite, charming and hospitable with a strong sense of traditional values. While the ex-pat community, who themselves were escaping the entrapments of the outside world, welcomed me to their secluded island. I quickly settled in to an apartment that was located just a block away from the dive shop where Jennifer worked and prepared for what would be a four month extended stay. It was agreed that, while in Vanuatu, the dive shop would sponsor all of my diving needs in exchange for my professional photo and video services. I would shoot video and still images while diving with the 'Punters', as they are known in Vanuatu, and present it to them at the end of their stay. This was a beneficial arrangement for both of us since I couldn't afford to pay for diving and the dive shop could not afford to hire a photo pro.
I would only have one night to get settled and assembling my video gear, because the very next morning, I would be introduced to the SS President Coolidge for the first time. After studying numerous photographs of the sinking of the Coolidge, I stood on the beach gazing out at the dive site that was only a few hundred feet away. I tried to imagine the striking scene of a behemoth 650' long vessel grounded, hapless on the reef, with 5000 troops and crew scrambling over the sides of the crippled ship. A scene that would have been tragic beyond measure if not for the ability of these well trained soldiers to not panic in an emergency, but safely abandon ship. As it would be, amazingly, only two men, out of the nearly 5000 on board, perished in the accident.
After recreating the events in my mind, I was anxious to get down to the wreck for the first time and 'hear' the Coolidge's story in person. With my modest, yet trusty, housed Sony VX-2000 video camera in hand, I followed Jennifer out in to knee-deep water towards the descent point. Within about 100 yards, the water level rose up over our shoulders; at which that time we inserted our regulators, pointed our thumbs down, dipped our heads below the 78F degree water and started the short swim down towards the wreck. A heavy gauge rope was conveniently tied from a coral head and strung out on a downward angle towards the bow of the Coolidge. Navigating your way to the wreck was as easy as pulling yourself hand over hand along this line. Pretty soon the outline of the Coolidge began to come in to focus in the dark blue but hazy water of the Segond Channel. There she was, lying on her port side, with only the nose of her bow section visible to us, in a depth of around 80 feet of water. Even when the visibility is superb a diver can only view small sections of this enormous wreck at one time. Jennifer, knowing the ship like the back of her hand, gave me a grand tour of the forward section of the wreck. She pointed out to me numerous artifacts such as helmets, rifles, ammunition, medical supplies and many other items that were left behind as the men abandoned ship. We swam up and down through, what seemed like, endless corridors within the massive superstructure. I found the wreck more captivating with each passing minute of the dive and thought that the Coolidge is certainly not just another shipwreck but more of an underwater museum. I discovered very quickly that there was a story I wanted to tell here. Upon surfacing from the dive Jennifer looked at me immediately and gave a subtle, but smug, look that said without words, "See, I told you so", where I then replied silently with raised eyebrows, "You weren't kidding".
For the next four months, I had the extreme fortune of getting to dive the SS President Coolidge nearly every day, and sometimes twice a day, while I collected hour after hour of video footage of nearly every main section of this seemingly endless shipwreck. I explored the engine room; the galley; the stern where the ships name is still visible at a depth of 200 feet; and the highlight of the wreck, The Lady and Her Unicorn.
"The Lady" is a beautiful, three-dimensional, wall fresco that was once displayed in the first-class smoking lounge and was later moved to a safer area when that section collapsed some years ago. This artifact, without a doubt, is the gem of the 'Coolidge' and a must see for every visiting diver. Over the years, it has become a tradition for divers to kiss 'The Lady' as a token offering and sign of respect for this beloved artifact and her ship.
The more dives I made on this enchanting wreck, the more I was lured in by her fascinating history, such as how all of the military supplies and men on board the Coolidge were bound for Guadalcanal to reinforce US Marines engaged in fierce fighting against overwhelming Japanese forces in 1942. The Marines in the end would prevail and The Battle of Guadalcanal, as it came to be known, would go down in the annals of history as one of the hardest battles fought for the US and a major turning point in WWII. Would the battle have been so hard fought if the Coolidge had successfully completed her task? This was one aspect, of many, that impelled me to want to learn more and share this history. It was concluded, between Jennifer and I, that I should produce a video documentary telling the complete story of the SS President Coolidge in a way that had not been done before. Prior to this project, I had the experience of shooting video shorts for dive tourists on the boats in Truk and here, in Vanuatu. My work on this level was well received, but never had I taken on a project of this scale. I would need a script, someone to narrate it, research, archival images and of course hours of underwater footage. All would all be required to tell the story on screen. The task seemed over whelming to me, but with a mild obsession as a driving force I would set out to complete it, no matter what.
To alleviate the angst of taking on this project, with little experience and even less funds to produce it, Jennifer assisted me by writing the script for the film and prodding me along each step when I became bogged down. I studied up on the history of the wreck from a book titled, The Lady and the President written by Peter Stone. This book is the definitive written work telling the history of the Coolidge, from her beginnings, to her final days and, lastly, to the wreck dive that she is today. It became an invaluable resource in the making of the film. For weeks on end, I worked in the confines of my tiny island apartment with a ceiling fan as my main luxury to keep me cool and a modest laptop computer with unreliable electricity to edit on. As the days went by, the video simply titled, The Wreck of the SS President Coolidge slowly formed on my screen. With each passing dive, new ideas were developed and new segments added to the documentary. With the use of archival images and narration, her story was depicted on film, while the present day underwater footage made a comparison of the Coolidge as she is today. Countless hours of filming and editing had left little time for beers on the beach but, towards the end of my four-month stay, I finally had a rough draft complete and ready for viewing.
Before I was scheduled to leave Vanuatu, Jennifer arranged for the movie to be shown at a local watering hole, to all the discerning fans of the Coolidge who live and work on Espiritu
Santo and who cherish their shipwreck more than anyone. To my surprise, more than one hundred people showed up at t
he viewing. I could only hope that the film was not rejected by the Coolidge's 'fan club'. When the lights came up at the end, it was evident, by the generous applause, that the documentary had the approval of the majority. It was a sign I was on th
e right path. A few days later, I found myself bound for the United States; I would remain, for another six months, working on this project, before returning to Truk Lagoon the following year. It was a sad day leaving Vanuatu and the Coolidge behind for it was one of the few times in my life where I found a place that felt like home in more ways than one.
During my remaining time in the US, I would visit various archives and discover rare and never before seen film footage and still images of the sinking of the Coolidge, as well as additional photos of her days as a luxury liner. I would also have the honor of meeting and interviewing a survivor of the Coolidge sinking, retired Army officer Steven Parisi. On film, Mr. Parisi spoke to me in great detail about his experiences in WWII and his time on board ship. With excerpts from the interview and valuable archival materials edited in to the film, the project was finally completed only a month or so before my departure for 'Truk'.
Since it's release in early 2007 the film, The Wreck of the SS President Coolidge, in DVD format, has fast become a desired collectable for divers that travel from near and far to dive this enigmatic wreck. The opportunity to see this film on television may or may not become a reality, but having the satisfaction of knowing it is a winner to the fans of the Coolidge is good enough for me. My experience with this shipwreck was a profound one that came with great personal satisfaction and led me on to future projects with increased confidence. It had taught me that nearly anyone in this digital age is capable of producing a documentary film on a small budget without the backing of broadcasting companies. All one needs is a story that has meaning to you, some basic computer equipment, editing software, a proper camera and, most importantly, the passion and drive to tell the story well. My time with the SS President Coolidge, within her idyllic South Pacific setting, is a profound memory for me that will be ingrained in my psyche for the rest of my life.
The Documentary Film,
"The Wreck of the SS President Coolidge"
Contact [email protected] to order your copy.