Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - SS President Coolidge
The story of the SS President Coolidge really begins in the 19th Century. Robert Dollar was born in 1844 in Falkirk, Scotland (not Dalkirk as one source states). He moved to Canada in 1857. It is also reported that by the time he was 11 he was a shore boy in a lumber camp where he endured many hardships. Perhaps this was back in Scotland. Dollar's difficult childhood likely shaped his stringent attitude toward life and work. In the years to come, Dollar developed a set of rules to which he adhered all his life:
|Robert Dollar at Xmas 1928|
1. Do not cheat.
2. Do not be lazy.
3. Do not abuse.
4. Do not drink.
In 1893 Dollar purchased a sawmill on the Pacific coast of the United States, and his lumber business grew. He had a son, Stanley Dollar who left school at 13 and worked in his father's lumber office. In 1893 or 1895 he acquired his first vessel, a single steam schooner called Newsboy from the recently bankrupt Navarro Mill, to move his lumber from the Pacific northwest to markets down the coast and in the process they established the Dollar Steamship Company. The new company had a fleet of schooners, presumably moving lumber from the owners' interests to the markets. In 1902, Dollar Steamship Company moved into international shipping running a chartered voyage to Yokohama and the Philippines.
In 1906-7 , Dollar purchased a property at San Rafael, California which he renamed Falkirk. He lived here for the rest of his life and today the house is the Falkirk Muesum. In 1916 he purchased 100 acres in Canada at Roche Point and built a timber mill as well as a town. The town still exists today, Dollarton. In 1923 he purchased seven ex World War 1 "502 President type" liners from the US Shipping Board. In March 1925 Dollar took over an additional five "535 President type" liners from the Shipping Board (apparently they were owned by the Shipping Board but managed by Pacific Mail Steamship Company in Trans Pacific work). The cost was $5,625,000. Even though this bid was a million dollars lower than Pacific Mail's bid, it was 100% cash whereas the latter's was cash and stock. It was decided that the Pacific Mail bid did not meet the terms of the tender and thus, Dollar Steamship Company gained itself $30 million worth of ships and was now able to start a westbound around the world service. The ships continued to be used on the Trans Pacific service.
|It is 1928 and Robert Dollar (on his 85th birthday) greets Henry L. Stimson at San Francisco. Mr Stimson had just came off a Dollar ship from Manila on his way to Washington to take up the post of Secretary of State. Mr Stimson was Secretary of War during WWII and responsible for the development of atomic weapons|
As would be expected, this hit the Pacific Mail Steamship Co bad and soon it was taken over by Dollar. In addition, the Admiral Oriental Line went bust and it was also now part of the Dollar Steamship Company.
The Dollar Steamship Co was now one of the most profitable shipping companies in the world but the approaching depression was to be affected. The name of the company changed in 1929 to Dollar Steamship Line Inc. Ltd.
In 1929 two more ships were purchased as round the world liners and in a huge expansion, a decision was taken to build two identical passenger liners. They were not to be used to go around the world, but they were to be the Trans Pacific sector ships. The Dollar Line was loaned more than $5,000,000 by the US Government for this construction (the boats were to be used to carry mail and the US Government had a long history of subsidising ships that were used for this purpose). On 6 December 1930, the first of the two new ships, the SS President Hoover was launched by Mrs Herbert Hoover and on 21 February 1931 the SS President Coolidge was launched, christened by the late President Coolidge's wife, Mrs Grace Coolidge. On 1 October 1931 when the Coolidge was delivered to the Dollar Line, she was the largest passenger ship constructed in America (with her twin sister) at that time. Built by Newport News Shipbuilding Drydock Company in Newport News, the Coolidge was 654 feet 3 inches long (a waterline of 615 feet) and had a gross (displacement) of 21,936 tons.
The Newport News Shipbuilding Drydock Company (NNS) was founded in 1886 by railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington. Its first ship was a tugboat, Dorothy, which was delivered in 1891 and now sits on company grounds. Famous ships built by the company include seven battleships in President Theodore Roosevelt's Great White Fleet in the early 1900s and the battleships USS Texas and Pennsylvania, which survived both World Wars.
|Robert Dollar and Chaing Kai Shek, President of China (he was later expelled to Taiwan by Mao Tse Tung)|
The company built and operated a shipyard in Wilmington, North Carolina, during WWII, producing 243 cargo ships. USS Ranger, the first US ship designed and built from-the-keel-up as an aircraft carrier (most were converted from battleships or other vessels) was built by NNS. Many of the famous and successful World War II aircraft carriers, including USS Yorktown, USS Essex, USS Intrepid, USS Hornet and USS Franklin were built in the Newport News yard.
Some famous passenger ships built at NNS include the passenger liner SS America (launched 31/8/39, 723 feet long and 35,440 tons) and the SS United States (23/6/51, 990 feet long and 45,360 tons - for a long time the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic). After the war, NNS built the USS Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Los Angeles, lead ship in a class of 28 identical nuclear-powered attack submarines (NNS has built 52 nuclear submarines since 1960), the USS Nimitz, lead ship in a class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and the UST Atlantic and UST Pacific, the largest ships built in the Western Hemisphere.
As can be seen from the above couple of paragraphs, NNS has always been at the forefront of shipbuilding using the newest technologies available. In a similar vein, the Coolidge was quite an enervative vessel, with some very advanced features. Powered by two steam turbines connected to two electric motors made by Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, the Coolidge was capable of 20 knots with a range of 14,000 miles.
The President Hoover and President Coolidge were built as Trans Pacific ships and the Dollar Steamship Line now had the largest fleet of passenger and cargo liners operating under US flag. An increased mail subsidy meant that the line was still operating with a good profit even though the world was in a depression. There appears to have been some shady financial deals going on around this time as the line then went to the red although Stanley Dollar and his brother Harold Dollar made quite handsome incomes (in excess of $200,000 for Stanley Dollar one year) and the Robert Dollar Company (which was the managing agent) made a good profit.
|The Coolidge being launched on 21 February 1931|
The new boats were made to serve between Asia and the West Coast of America. The Coolidge entered service on the San Francisco to Far East route on 6 November 1931. Despite being launched right as the Great Depression started, the Dollar Line somehow managed to survive the early 1930s. Mr E. Mowbray Tate in his book Transpacific Liners tells how in 1932 he went on the fourth voyage of the Coolidge under the command of Captain K.A. Ahlin and found the ship very comfortable indeed. He tells that it took five days for the San Francisco to Honolulu and a further nine days on to Yokohama.
On 16 May 1932 at the age of 88, Robert Dollar died. Over 3,000 people attended his funeral as well as the Governor of California and the Mayor of San Francisco. Perhaps the best testament to his life can be repeated in his own words, written in a letter to a friend.
|Rear: (Robert) Stanley and Mrs Dollar, Robert Stanley Dollar Jr, J. Harold and Mrs Dollar
Front: Robert and Mrs Dollar, Diana Dollar
In this world all we leave behind us that is worth anything is that we can be well regarded and spoken of after we are gone and that we can say that we left the world just a little better than we found it. If we can't accomplish these two things then life, according to my view, has been a failure. Many people erroneously speak of a man when he is gone as having left so much money. That, according to my view, amounts to very little.
Over the years the Coolidge carried many weathly passengers, including Baron Henri de Rothchild, famous physician, who arrived in San Francisco on 11 May 1935. More details are contained in the President Coolidge ship page.
However, the end was near and despite the insurance money from the loss of the SS President Madison ($1m when she capsized at the Seattle wharf while being repaired), the Dollar Line got more and more into debt. In 1934 and 1936 there were maritime strikes. The 1936 strike affected Dollar badly when its ships were out of action for more than three months. I think this started in November 1936. The result of the strike was that it now cost more to operate the ships and Dollar was forced to pay other (mostly Japanese lines) to carry their passengers. On 18 November 1936, one of the Dollar companies filed for bankruptcy and in 1937 the Tacoma Oriental was sold up to meet debts.
The year 1937 proved to be the beginning of the end, with some very bad incidents affecting to company and only one or two items of good news.
|The Coolidge on a shakedown cruise|
On 6 March 1937 while outbound from San Francisco, the Coolidge hit and sank the Frank H. Buck, an oil tanker, near the Golden Gate Bridge (for a photo of this see Coolidge History Page). The Coolidge's bow was severely damaged but it was soon repaired and put back into service. I was told that this voyage was the Coolidge's first trip after the strike mentioned in the paragraph above.
Later in 1937, the repaired vessel lowered the Trans Pacific record to 9 days, 9 hours 51 minutes on a trip from Yokohama to San Francisco. This good fortune for the Dollar Line was shortlived as on 11 December 1937, near Hoishoto Island off southern tip of Taiwan, the SS President Hoover ran aground. After many attempts to salvage the vessel, she was declared a total loss.
Although the Dollar Line had lasted right through the Great Depression, the effect on it was there. On 3 June 1938 the SS President Coolidge was arrested in San Francisco for an unpaid debt of $35,000. A bond of $70,000 was put up so the ship could be released for its trip to Asia. After this date, the Dollar Steamship Line Inc (as well as American Mail) were suspended from operation.
Earlier, Joseph P. Kennedy, (father of President John F. Kennedy) was appointed as the first chairman of the new Federal Maritime Commission in 1937 during which he laid the groundwork for the US merchant marine (Kennedy did not stay as Chairman for long as he became the United State's Ambassador to Great Britain in 1938). One of the first acts of the commission was to investigate the Dollar line and associated companies. The troubles in China at this time (the Sino-Japanese war was on) had caused passenger numbers and cargo quantities to drop markedly. Accordingly, income had dropped and at the same time insurance costs had gone sky high.
Eventually, the Dollar family passed ownership of the line to the Government in a swap for cancelling the debts of the line. On 15 August 1938, the commission took ownership of the Dollar line. As part of the deal, the name "Dollar" was not to be used and the jobs of all employees below the top level were kept.
However, before this occurred, on 20 July 1938 the ownership of the SS President Coolidge was passed onto the United States Department of Commerce. There were immediate changes. The commission appointed William Gibbs McAdoo as Chairman of the board of the new entity and Joseph Sheehan, Executive Director of the commission, became President.
On 1 November 1938, the new entity met for the first time. At that meeting, the name of the company was changed to American President Lines Ltd. Instead of the $ sign that had graced the funnels of the Dollar ships, the new symbol was a white eagle. The President Coolidge stayed in service on the Trans Pacific run. Before Dollar Lines, however, American President Lines traces its ancestry to the venerable Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which operated on the west coast of North America during the California Gold Rush and pioneered trans-Pacific service to the Orient.
For the next three years the Coolidge continued to sail the Pacific and in mid-1940 was used to evacuate the families of US Servicemen from China and Japan as World War 2 raged in Europe and when the threat from Japan started to rise. On 16 January 1941 the Coolidge arrived in San Francisco with 832 passengers and in March she arrived with well over 1,000 passengers.
|The Coolidge at the peak of her short career|
After World War Two started in Europe, the American President Lines ships became more involved in moving cargo and passnegers to and from Europe. This led to the company increasing profits. On 27 May 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed a state of national emergency and the defence forces started chartering the American President Lines ships. Soon the line had called a halt to its regular Trans Pacific routes and most of its ships were being used to move soldiers to expected theatres of war.
The Coolidge was occasionally used by the War Department on a part-voyage basis. Her first voyage on a full-time basis for the army began at San Francisco on 15 July 1941 and took her to Honolulu and Manila. After returning in late August the ship again left San Francisco in early September for Honolulu and Manila. On 1 November 1941 the SS President Coolidge once more sailed from the Golden Gate for the same destinations, and was en route home, midway between Manila and Honolulu, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occured. She reached San Francisco on Christmas Day 1941.
On 7 December 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and as a consequence, the US declared war on Japan and Germany.
Within a month of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the US's entry into the war, the Coolidge was converted to a troopship in January 1942 even though the War Shipping Administration was not proclaimed by President Roosevelt until 21 February 1942. This brought all US shipping under Government control.
Over the next four years, the American President Lines ships were decimated by the war. At the start of the war they had 20 ships. Of these, five were lost (or nine if the same source is believed) and only three were left at the end of the war. It is not clear from books I have consulted what happened to the rest. The following is a table of what happened to some of the ships.
|SS President Coolidge||26 October 1942||Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides (Vanuatu)||US minefield|
|SS President Taylor||13 February 1942||Off Canton Island||Ran aground on a reef|
Personal comment to author by Robert Turner, Engineer on Taylor
|SS President Grant II|
formerly SS President Adams I
|26 February 1944|
written off 17 June 1944
|Uluma Reef, Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea||Hit reef|
Is apparently diveable in shallow water
|SS Ruth Alexander||about 10 December 1941||Celebes Sea near Balikpapan||Bombed by Japanese bombers|
|SS President Harrison||8 or 9 December 1941||East China Sea||Captured by Japanese and renamed Kakka Maru then Kachidoki Maru|
After the war, the American President Lines was owned by the US Government. The Dollar family attempted through legal means to recover the company but was unsuccessful. A deal meant that the line was sold and the money split between the Dollar family and the US Government. The company was purchased by a group called APL Associates. The company lives on today and now is one of the biggest container shipping companies in the world. For more information, see their Web Site.
For the next part of the SS President Coolidge story, click here.
For links to all the information on the ship see the Main SS President Coolidge Index Page.
See References Page.