World War II Revisited

Stephen Parisi, born on December 16, 1916 in Providence, RI, joined the army at age 25 on March 17, 1941, three years after the outbreak of World War II and nine months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This is his story of his survival from a sinking ship in 1942, and at age 81, his dive to the ocean floor to visit its wreck.

The Survival

“I trained in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and California, and finally left San Francisco on October 6, 1942, on board the USS President Coolidge with 5,440 servicemen on board — all members of the 43rd infantry Division bound for Guadalcanal in the South Pacific.

“Twenty days later, after a pleasant uneventful trip and a short stop in Noumea, New Caledonia, we were entering Luganville Harbor at Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu, when our ship struck two mines. The Captain headed the ship toward shore and grounded the bow on a coral reef. The ship stayed afloat one hour and 20 minutes before disappearing into the channel. Luckily, all personnel were able to disembark with the exception of civilian seaman, Robert Reid, and Field Artillery Captain, Elwood Euart.

“Many boats were dispatched from shore to pick up survivors, others swam the few yards to shore. It was organized chaos, but most of the soldiers stayed calm throughout the evacuation.

“We remained on Santo until the following February, being re-equipped for combat. Then we left for Guadalcanal, and fought our way through the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, and the Philippines, where the war ended. I was wounded on April 4, 1945, for the fourth time during the Philippine campaign, and was evacuated back to the US after a hospital stay. I left the Army in September 1946.”

 

 

The Return to Santo

“In 1993, I was selected to represent the US Military at a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial erected for Captain Elwood Euart on the island of Espiritu Santo, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy. I also attended the dedication of a medical building erected by US Engineers for the people of Santo. That evening I gave a presentation on the voyage of the Coolidge to a group of Australian and French divers who were staying at the Bouganville Resort.

“I listened to their stories about diving the Coolidge with interest, never having considered the possibility, but my stay was too short, so I decided to return the following year.

“In 1994 I met more divers and during my six-day stay asked them many questions about the ship's condition, the visibility, what was down there . . . They showed me a video, it was very frustrating being so near the ship and not being able to dive it myself. I thought diving at my age — I was 78 — would be completely out of the question. While I was on the shore at the dive site, I looked at the buoys marking the spot and could just picture the huge ship laying beneath the surface.

“Everyone insisted I wasn't too old and looked fit and should give it a try. Enthused, upon returning home I had a complete physical, and with the go-ahead from my doctor, enrolled in a scuba diving course.

“I had been in touch with Allan Power of Santo Dive Tours regarding diving the Coolidge, but he had been reluctant to take me down on the Coolidge citing depth, regulations, limitations, and insurance. I am sure the reason for his reluctance was for the most part my age, but we finally agreed he would take me down to the bow and return me to the surface.  We made our dive on the morning of June 24, 1998. It was fantastic, 80 feet to the bow, and Allan must have felt better about my ability as he started showing me items strewn on the bow. It was wonderful. I was 81. I couldn't believe I was back on the ship after 56 years.

“The next day we did a dive to the Promenade deck at 100 feet for a 35 minute dive. But the icing on the cake was a third dive to No. 2 cargo hold to see jeeps, trucks, tractors and mounds of tires — 100 foot dive for 39 minutes. I really did see more than I had ever expected.

“Diving is exciting, at the moment I'm fit and plan to continue diving in New England with two of my sons who are certified divers — I'm just sorry I didn't have the opportunity 30 or 40 years ago!”

Stephen Parisi of Rehoboth, Massachusetts,
as told to Australian magazine Scuba Diver, January/February 1999 issue

 

To learn more about the book written by Peter Stone of the account of the sinking of the SS President Coolidge, click on the book cover photo at left. Steve Parisi is mentioned throughout the book.