By Nicole Lind
Coca-Cola is probably one of the most widely known and collected types of sea glass, especially in the popular sea foam color. But who would have thought that thousands of Coca-Cola bottles would end up in the South Pacific? My husband and I visited the 83-island state of Vanuatu in 2016 and discovered a treasure trove of vintage Coca-Cola bottles in this remote South Pacific island nation.
During World War II, American soldiers were sent to Vanuatu, known then as the New Hebrides, to help stop the Japanese army from gaining a foothold in the Pacific arena. By May 1942, over a hundred thousand soldiers were stationed in the archipelago. There was no modern infrastructure on the islands, and the mood among the young men deteriorated quickly. They were thousands of miles away from home and there was little to do after the hard work of building roads, shops, and other structures. The U.S. government needed to improve the spirits of the troops.
By the 1920s, the Coca-Cola company had 1,000 bottling plants across the U.S., and by the start of World War II, Coke was bottled in 44 countries. During the war, Coca-Cola built 64 international bottling plants to supply troops, but a plant in Vanuatu was not practical. Instead, the U.S. government decided to ship thousands of bottles of Coca-Cola to bring the soldiers a little piece of home.
After the American servicemen drank Coca-Cola, the bottles were discarded in the sea or buried in dumps in the tropical jungle. No one would have guessed that these discarded bottles would be considered collectible 70 years later.
Locals have discovered Coca-Cola and other vessels and bottles decades later in their gardens while planting taro, manioc, and kava. A roadside museum, privately owned and wonderfully managed by Ernest Kalkoa in Tanoliu on Efate Island, has an outstanding collection of World War II memorabilia. His Coca-Cola collection includes thousands of bottles and fragments that were found in the sea and in landfills that were left after World War II. The collection includes bottles from over 300 plants across the U.S., each clearly identifiable by the name of the bottling plant where they were made, molded into its base.
In 2015, cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu, with its category 5 eye and 160-mile-an-hour winds passing close to Efate Island. Half of the population of Vanuatu was affected by the storm, losing homes and property, and eleven people lost their lives. The ocean around Efate was churned up by the massive storm and with it, treasures no one had seen for 75 years.
My husband and I stayed in Vanuatu a year later for a month. There were rumors that Coca-Cola sea glass had been spotted along a secret cove. We took a short ride with a couple of friends to the other side of the island of Efate and located the beach. We found Coca-Cola bottles from Oakland and San Francisco, California, plus a lot of larger half bottles that must have been buried in the sea for decades, lying in the coral.
When we travelled 9,500 miles back to Scotland, we brought back a few sea foam and white Coca-Cola pieces, as well as some bonfire pieces melted together with the Coca-Cola logo still visible. We left the “uncooked” half bottles to be carried away by future tides, so they might be found by future beachcombers.
A selection of Vanuatu Coca-Cola sea glass jewelry is available at Tiliabythesea.com.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2019 issue.