Why I Always Start at the Dessert End of the Buffet Table

The S.S. President Coolidge, a luxury steamship converted to a troop transport, carried my father to the Solomon Islands during World War II.

All the way across the Pacific, my father and his buddies saved their chocolate and cigarette rations, because they knew supplies would be short during the actual battles.

Long story short, the captain didn’t get a vital message about the location of the American minefield at the Espiritu Santo (my father always spelled it Espirito Santo) harbor entrance and sailed right into the channel. A pair of American mines blew the bottom out of the ship, the captain ran it aground on the beach, and all but two men escaped; some actually walked from the ship to the beach. My father said one casualty was in a card game in the bilge, but that’s likely a tall tale. The other was the ship’s an Army Artillery Captain who rescued a bunch of guys in the galley infirmary. [Update: it’s been a long time since I heard him tell the story, OK?]

Anyhow, the Coolidge took all their weapons, supplies, ammunition, and the chocolate and cigarettes to the bottom of the harbor on 26 October 1942, 67 years ago today. They were right about the subsequent ration situation, too, as the Army had to resupply the entire shipload of troops before they could get down to warfare. They completely missed the battle for Guadalcanal, an event that would have probably changed my personal history.

My father passed on his hard-won lesson:

When you go to a buffet, they’ll have the desserts set out on the right side of the table. Get a dessert first and then pick up the rest of your meal. If you don’t, there might not be any when you come back.

Words to live by. I always get a dessert first and usually wind up telling that tale, hoisting a cookie to his memory.

You can find far more information about the Coolidge using the obvious search terms; start with a good summary of the events [Update: dead link. Go there or to a comprehensive narrative.] It’s evidently a spectacular wreck-diving site. Dad was in the 172nd Regiment, 43rd Infantry Division, if that helps pin it down. His Company E comrades held a reunion every year for nigh onto half a century at my parents’ house in Hummelstown PA.

[Update: An Australian movie crew making Grave of a President about the wreck asked my father if they could film the next reunion. He agreed. They then asked if the reunion, which was always held during the last weekend of September, could happen in October, because it wasn’t convenient for them to get halfway around the world on short notice. Dad said the reunion wasn’t held for their convenience. They showed up on schedule and made my father a movie star.

If you happen to have a good copy of that film, let me know.

Further Update: The Australian archives have a copy. Wish I could get a copy of that.]

I haven’t seen this picture anywhere else on The Web, but it’s been hanging in my parents’ house forever. It’s a photographic enlargement of a newspaper picture and in rather crappy condition after all these years, so you can’t tell that one of those guys swarming down the side (yes, like rats leaving a sinking ship) is my father…

Sinking of the SS President Coolidge
Sinking of the SS President Coolidge

Update: I stumbled across a slightly different version in Collier’s Photographic History of World War II!

USS President Coolidge - Abandon Ship - Colliers Photographic History of World War II
USS President Coolidge – Abandon Ship – Colliers Photographic History of World War II

[Further Update: a wartime map of the area.]