August 13, 2020

World War II History Lesson - A Rhode Island Profile

Captain Elwood J Euart from R.I. of the S.S. Coolidge Dies After Saving his Troops

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Today, December 7th, 2019, is the anniversary of the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii which brought America full throttle into WW II. The S.S. Calvin Coolidge, a United States troop ship began as a luxury ocean liner upon completion in 1931. Some 10 years later she was acquired by the US War Department who began using her to transport men and equipment throughout the Pacific to reinforce US garrisons. The massive ship was refitted and converted into a troop ship initially transporting 125 injured Navy personnel from Hawaii. The Coolidge arrived in San Francisco on Christmas day in 1941. In January 1942 she was part of the first large convoy sent to Australia carrying troops, weapons, ammunition and supplies including P-40 fighters destined for the Philippines.

The Coolidge continued transport duties throughout the South West Pacific theatre. Her ports of call included Bora Bora, Suva, Auckland, Wellington and Melbourne where in the Spring of 1942, she transported the President of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon to San Francisco. On October 6 1942, the Coolidge sailed from San Francisco for New Caledonia and the New Hebrides. On board were the 172nd Infantry Combat Team, 43rd Division and a harbor defense unit that were going to protect the new bomber base on Santo that was providing support for the Allied forces at Guadalcanal. Also on board was my father, 22 year old Staff Sergeant Robert J. Rodericks of East Providence, RI. The Captain of the ship was Elwood J. Euart from Pawtucket, RI.

As the ship was entering the harbor at Espiritu Santo in what is now the Republic of Vanuatu on October 26, 1942, she hit a mine that exploded next to the ship’s engine room and seconds later a second mine exploded near her stern. The 5,340 troops and crew were ordered to abandon ship. The Coolidge listed heavily before slipping down into the shipping channel. Most troops made it ashore and there were just two casualties of the sinking - fireman Robert Reid, who was in the engine room at the time the ship struck the first mine and Captain Elwood J Euart. While Captain Euart was one of the troops who made it ashore at first, upon hearing there were men still trapped below decks, Euart returned to the ship and successfully rescued the men. The Captain pulled them out of the damaged ship by rope and lowered them to safety. By the time it was his turn to escape, the ship was slipping under water and he didn’t have the strength in his arms to pull himself out. The Captain went down with the ship.

In recognition of his heroism, Captain Euart was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (the nation's second highest award for valor), the Purple Heart, and the Rhode Island Cross. The ship was later discovered after the war and today The Coolidge is regarded as the most accessible shipwreck in the world for divers, for a ship of its size and type. In fact due to its location, depth, accessibility and the visibility of the water it lies in, it was named one of the top ten dive spots in the world.

Captain Euart remained entombed in the hulk of the Coolidge for more than 70 years, until discovered and safeguarded inside the wreck by a professional diver. After notice of the suspected human remains was passed from Vanuatu to Australia to the US Military in Hawaii, the US Army deployed a dive team from Hawaii in 2015 and, after recovery and DNA testing, they were conclusively identified as his. He was buried in his native Pawtucket on August 31, 2016.

Years later my Dad, like most WW II veterans talked very little about the war. He did tell us about that day when the big troop ship went down. He told of jumping into the water and "dog paddling" to safety as he wasn't a great swimmer. He earned a Purple Heart for wounds suffered later in the war, and returned home and started a family. There were many Rhode Islanders on that ship but they never talked of the incident much. They returned home after the war, got married, got jobs and raised families. They were true profiles in humility and quiet courage. Thanks Dad and all who served.

(Facts, quotes, photos and information for this story were obtained from the South Pacific WW II Museum, Pawtucket Times obituary archives, A History of Pearl Harbor and Wikipedia.)

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