I love a good dive, and I enjoy a great story, and with wreck diving, I get to combine both. Inspired by our USA Diver design, I set about looking for interesting accounts of US wrecks that have gone down outside of US waters. Even if you’re not a diver, you can’t fail to be intrigued by the stories they tell from their watery graves.
These wrecks sit on the ocean floor and provide a playground for scuba divers and offer homes for marine life. I’ve picked my favorite three to share with you, if you are a diver, what better way to choose your next diving holiday than visiting an underwater museum as, with the right story to tell, that’s certainly what they are!
SS USAT Liberty, Bali.
Known by many names but most commonly referred to as The Liberty, this vessel was an army ship built in New Jersey in 1918. She served during both world wars and was carrying railway parts and rubber when she met her end courtesy of a torpedo from a Japanese submarine. She beached at Tulamben which in 1942 was little more than a tiny fishing village. Being wartime, she was stripped of anything valuable and sat abandoned and rusting on the shore. In 1963 the eruption of Mount Gunung Agung moved the ship into the water, and one of the world's most renowned wreck dives was born.
The interesting part of this story for me is how nature both takes and gives. The eruption of 1963 was devastating, yet without its effect, this ship would not have become the international attraction that it is today. The prosperity that it has brought to this former fishing village is immeasurable. The wreck changed the fortunes of this area. Today hotels, restaurants, and dive centers provide income and employment for many.
The dive is an easy shore dive, accessible to all levels of diver, and rich in color and swirling life. You’re as likely to see a pygmy seahorse as you are groups of bump head parrot fish, a vortex of jacks and stalking barracuda. The wreck is beached on its starboard side with its stern at just 10-15ft depth, the bottom slopes off leaving the bow area around 100ft deep. Those lucky enough have spotted mola mola here. The wreck has deteriorated both from being stripped, its beach languishing stage and wave action but this hardly spoils your enjoyment; you can still make out the rudder, boiler, cargo holds and forward gun. The wreck is some 400ft long, so there are loads to explore; it’s certainly worthy of multiple dives.
SS President Coolidge, Vanuatu
The SS President Coolidge started off her ocean-going career as a luxury liner in 1931, and along with her sister ship, the SS President Hoover were the largest merchant vessels of their time. Coolidge was pressed into service early in WWII evacuating US citizens from many parts of the world, transporting troops and even egressing the critically injured after the attack on Pearl Harbour. In 1942 she got her wartime refit which transformed her from luxury ocean liner to troop transportation capable of moving five thousand men at a time. She transported Manuel Quezon, President of the Philippines, and was on an expedition to support efforts in Guadalcanal when she sank.
Operating in the Pacific theater of war you would assume that I am about to tell you that, like the aforementioned SS USAT Liberty, she was sunk by Japanese aggression. Not so. She sank because her captain, Henry Nelson, did not get a message; the locations of the defensive mines on approach to her destination, Espiritu Santo, were not in her orders and consequently, she struck two. Nelson ran her aground and ordered all personnel to abandon ship. It took 90 minutes for 5,340 troops to safely disembark but attempts to save the Coolidge were in vain. She listed, sank and slipped down into the channel. What’s surprising about this story is that in the aftermath Captain Nelson was subjected to three separate inquiries that tried to place the blame at his door and three times he was acquitted.
Although she met a violent end under friendly fire, only two lives were lost, and it warms me that she was part of so many peoples story throughout her time afloat; in a very different way, she still enriches lives today.
As a dive she is monumental, her sheer size is awe-inspiring and, like the Liberty, she is accessed by an easy shore entry. Her depth ranges from 60ft to 200ft, and there’s over 600ft of her to explore so plan on making more than one dive. There are cargo holds to swim through, you can see the engine room, jeeps, machine guns, bullets, shells, medical supplies, military issue denim, and so much more; it was believed the ship wouldn’t sink so she was abandoned leaving all personal items behind for later retrieval.
Blackjack B17 Bomber, Papua New Guinea
Ships belong on the ocean and planes in the sky, so it’s brain-bending to find one on the seabed, but this is precisely where you will find the notorious Blackjack bomber. One of the first Flying Fortress bombers rolled out of Boeings Seattle factory; Blackjack was a leviathan of destruction. 74ft long with a 103ft wingspan, weighing in at 20 tons, carrying 13 machine guns and hurled into action by her ten crew, these monsters were a force to be reckoned with. Named Blackjack by her captain, Ken McCullar, because her serial number ended in ‘21’, she certainly dealt a ferocious hand.
Cpt Ken McCullar flew Blackjack into the history books as together they pioneered skip bombing. This risky but devastating maneuver entailed flying extremely low and skipping bombs along the surface, much like you might skim a pebble. While it puts you well within the enemy’s grasp, its efficacy is hard to overstate. She sank the Japanese destroyer Hayashio using this method but was very severely damaged. The crew had to jettison everything they could to gain ten thousand foot of altitude to make it home over New Guinea’s Owen Stanley mountain range; the climb took them two and a half hours, but they made it to safety! While the planes fame and notoriety grew, she took quite a beating in various raids, yet she was eventually lost to a tropical storm in 1943; happily, all of her crew survived and made it to the shore.
She lay on the ocean floor undisturbed for 43 years when a team of divers, looking for another bomber, came across her distinctive shape. She lies in 150ft of crystal clear water and is a sight to behold. Her depth naturally limits the number of divers who visit her final resting place making the dive reverential for those who can. The crew had mere minutes to abandon her, and so she is fully intact; ammunition belts sit machine guns that still swivel, and you can peer through open windows into the cockpit. Her nose is damaged from impact with the seabed, but otherwise, she sits wondrously preserved.
Your USA Diver apparel might just be the inspiration for your next dive trip too, so don’t forget to pack it for your surface intervals!
Check out video of these great dives here: