A SOUTH PACIFIC WAR JUNKYARD BECOMES A DIVER'S PARADISE
By ZOLTAN ISTVAN
National Geographic Channel
c.2003 National Geographic Channel
(Distributed by New York Times Special Features)

Under the aqua-blue waters of Million Dollar Point, on the South
Seas
island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu, the view is of countless schools of
exotic species of fish -- swimming in multicolored splendor among the
hulks
of tons of rusting, coral-encrusted military equipment.

The mile-long graveyard of wreckage is the namesake for one of the
South
Pacific's most unusual, and most renowned, dive destinations -- and an
example of how nature can transform even the castoffs of war into a
haven.

Only a mile away from Million Dollar Point is another celebrated
dive
site -- the S.S. President Coolidge, which sank in 1942 after
accidentally
colliding with Allied mines. More than 600 feet long, it is reputedly
"the
largest amateur divable shipwreck in the world."

The archipelago of Vanuatu formerly was New Hebrides. During World
War
II, the islands served as a staging area for some of the most
far-reaching
battle campaigns in the Pacific Theater.

Up to September 1945, more than a half-million allied troops moved
through New Hebrides. A major Allied naval base, designed to hold
100,000
troops, fed, housed and supplied them in the town of Luganville on
Santo,
Vanuatu's largest island.

After V-J Day, however, as a farewell to the war, American forces
assembled the military equipment on the island -- millions of dollars'
worth -- and drove or pushed it off a jetty into the water off the
eastern
point of Segond Channel, on Santo's southern coast.

"I reckon that 99 percent of the junk was earthmoving equipment,"
says
Allan Power, a dive tour operator who has lived on the island since
1969.
"There are bulldozers, cranes, trailers, forklifts and trucks -- also
electrical equipment, building materials, tires, generators, bags of
cement
and even crates of Coke."

In 1983 the government of Vanuatu designated Million Dollar Point as
a
protected historical reserve -- the better to preserve it for marine
life
that swims among the ghosts and the tourists who want to pocket World
War
II artifacts.

At low tide the shore is a litter of rusty wreckage -- crane
loaders,
engine parts and axles. Underwater, though, the junk becomes a jungle
as
time, corrosion and coral encrustation soften and disguise the original
purpose.

There swim the denizens: angelfish, eels, groupers, triggerfish and
myriad other species above the hard and soft corals and sea cucumbers.

At 75 feet, divers congregate near an upright fork lift and take
turns
"driving" it. A half-minute's swim away is a bulldozer that hasn't
pushed
anything except memories for nearly 60 years.

In Santo's dive bars a lively debate goes on about why all the
equipment
was junked.

The most common opinion is that it was too costly to ship everything
home to the states. Transport vessels were reserved for the thousands
of
soldiers on Santo, eager to get home.

Some island residents, though, grouse that when their forebears
refused
to buy the equipment at the going rate of eight cents on the dollar,
the
military drove it all into the drink, for spite.

The irony is that the waste has turned into an undersea treasure
trove.

"At the time it seemed like junking all the equipment was the worst
thing possible for a country that was developing," says Barry Holland,
a
dive guide at Million Dollar Point. "But what people see now is that
the
impact on tourism has been significant.

"Hundreds of people travel every year to Santo to dive on the
President
Coolidge and Million Dollar Point. It's really been a boost to the
local
economy and tourism is one of those businesses that just keep on
building."

"Yes, at the time the locals were angry with the Americans for
wasting
such valuable equipment," says Ian Mahit, a Vanuatu motel manager. "But
because of their actions Santo now has a steady business of tourism."