The Espiritu Santo you visit today has been developed largely due to the integral role it played as an Allied military base during WWII.
In fact, before the US established their military base in Santo, Luganville was just a coastal village with a few homes interspersed amongst jungle and coconut plantations.
During WWII, the war in the Pacific spanned a vast area and strategically chosen military bases were essential during the conflict. In response to the Japanese military’s presence in the Solomon Islands and construction of airfields in Guadalcanal, the US military decided to establish a military presence in Espiritu Santo, just 630 miles to the south east.
After the urgent 20 day construction of an airfield in Turtle Bay in July 1942, the base quickly grew to become the US military’s largest Pacific military base after Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Becoming the primary logistical supply base in the South pacific, at its height, the joint defense force base had more than 40,000 troops stationed there at any one time with more than 500,000 personnel spending time on the island.
Within a relatively short period of time Santo was developed to host 5 fighter and bomber airfields, a seaplane base, 3 hospitals, 10 small camps and 32 miles of sealed road. The protected waters of Segond Canal was the naval anchorage for close to 100 ships and just across the canal, Aore Island was developed into a military recreation facility featuring, among other things, more than 30 cinemas!
While there was never any attack on the Espiritu Santo base, especially as the front lines continued to be pushed back north, it became known for the sinking of luxury cruise liner tuned troop carrier, USS President Coolidge. After hitting friendly mines due to a communication error, the ship sunk within 45 minutes to rest on the seafloor, just 15 minutes outside of Luganville township. The Coolidge is widely considered as one of the best wreck dives in the world due to its easy access and relatively intact interior.
As the war drew to a close in 1945, the US Military began to disassemble the base. A large amount of military equipment, goods and supplies were intended to be sold to the local government, however after the fail of the sale the US Military chose to dump the millions of dollars worth of assets into Segond Canal rather than leave them to the local population. Today this area is referred to as Million Dollar Point.
Despite this, Santo’s WWII involvement can still be seen around Luganville and the island. In fact when you arrive at Pekoa International Airport, you are standing inside the only WWII airport still in use – Bomber Airfield no# 2. Quonset huts have been incorporated into the town infrastructure and the wide main road that runs through Luganville is the maintained main road of the base that was originally cleared and built by the Americans. Many of the unsealed roads around the island were once military roads and the cleared remains of airfields can still be visited today – they are popular places for Ni-Vanuatu youth the learn how to drive! Ammunition bunkers and plane wrecks can be found scattered around the island, often hidden by the dense jungle.
Espiritu Santo’s role in WWII has been immortalized most notably in James Michener’s prize winning novel ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ and later in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, ‘South Pacific’.
Photos courtesy of the South Pacific WWII Museum.