By the Way With Joel Meeker
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A Deep Lesson From a Shipwreck

A dive on a sunken troopship from World War II sparked thoughts on how we can avoid spiritual dangers.

As we approached 70 feet (21 meters) under the surface of the South Pacific, the dark hull loomed. I watched the dive leader, my daughters and my wife pull themselves down the guide rope, bubbles trailing from their regulators. We were about to visit one of the most impressive accessible shipwrecks in the world.

The SS President Coolidge was a luxury liner transformed into a troopship by 1942, as the U.S. fought World War II. It was able to carry more than 5,000 soldiers at a time, which was the case when the ship steamed to the island of Espiritu Santo in today’s nation of Vanuatu. Captain Henry Nelson chose the most obvious channel into port, but he had not been given charts showing the underwater mines laid to protect the port. The Coolidge struck two and began to take on water. It was ordered run up on the beach.

The evacuation was successful, and only two men died. One was killed in the initial explosion, and the other was an Army captain, Elwood Euart, who went back in and saved trapped men but then was unable to again escape himself.

The ship filled from the stern, finally slipping backward to sink in shallow water.

Back in time

Barnacles now cover the gun deck on the bow of the SS Coolidge.

Barnacles now cover the gun deck on the bow of the SS Coolidge.

Today the wreck is open to recreational divers, which is why we were there. On the bow deck we found a 3-inch cannon. On the promenade deck, we passed military helmets, gas masks, a typewriter, rifles, bayonets and other flotsam of war.

On a second dive we took flashlights and penetrated deep inside, scissoring slowly through black holds full of gear. Our lights revealed mounds of medical supplies, vials of powders and a barber chair still bolted down. Somewhere down there was the U.S. Army’s entire supply of quinine in 1942. And somewhere were the remains of Captain Euart. (These were finally found in 2012; the officer was buried with full military honors in Rhode Island in August 2016.)

Our expedition was at once exhilarating and daunting. The immensity of the ship, the value of the cargo loss and the human tragedy were all astonishing. And it was all caused by the lack of a chart—missing information and a wrong assumption.

Missing charts

I couldn’t help thinking of Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”

Humans enter the world missing important spiritual charts. We don’t naturally recognize everything dangerous in life—what choices might later hurt or even kill. An action may seem advisable and safe, as eating the forbidden fruit did to Eve, but instead lead to calamity and carnage.

There is only one place to find such charts: in the Bible. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” wrote the psalmist (Psalm 119:105). God’s Word enables us to choose a clean course and escape spiritual mines lurking under life’s surface. But we must consult His Word frequently to stay on course.

The old maxim is correct: A man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them. And there is no better “good book” than the Bible. Steer clear of the fate of the President Coolidge.

–Joel Meeker


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