In last month’s issue, the disastrous Tank Farm Fire captured the destruction and devastation of “the greatest petroleum conflagration in the history of the American oil industry.” While it certainly was “History in the Making,” during its rampant path of destruction, attempts were made to alleviate the ocean of oil flowing to the sea. One effort was to siphon the black gold into the awaiting tanker vessels at the Avila port. One, the newly launched S.S. Montebello, became its own unique headline 15 years later as it ended its career.
Here’s the story. Owned by the Union Oil Company (today Unocal), the 440-foot tanker joined an expanding ocean fleet of transportation carrying the precious gift of the earth to refineries and storage tanks along the Pacific Ocean to aid in the war efforts. It was considered the largest tanker in the world. With the national shock and mourning at the death and destruction caused by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, within two weeks, on December 23, 1941, the war came to the Central Coast with high drama.
Heading for Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, the Montebello had begun its perilous journey at midnight when its service abruptly ended some six hours and twenty miles later parallel to Cambria. A lurking, deadly enemy was not unexpected. In fact, so palpable was the fear, the skipper resigned rather than brave the potential—and in this case—real danger of attack. First mate, Olaf Eckstrom, assumed the helm and was later praised for his professional ability during the attack. “The skipper was as cool as a snowdrift,” remembered one crewman. Fear was subjugated to duty.
Eckstrom recalled seeing the silhouette of the submarine estimated at 350 feet long between the ship and the shore. It was later identified as an L-21 submarine. “I ordered the quartermaster at the wheel, John McIsaac, to zigzag. For 10 minutes we tried desperately to cheat the sub, but it was no use.”
From a few thousand yards, two torpedoes found an easy mark. It was the start of every mariner’s nightmare. Recalled by crewman William Srez: “There was a big blast and the ship shuddered and trembled and we knew she was done for.” Radio contact was lost. It could have been much worse. One torpedo hit the only dry storage hold among the multiple oil-filled compartments; the other was a dud. The ship held over 73,500 barrels of crude oil and over one hundred thousand gallons of fuel oil for her engines. A direct hit would have left no survivors.
There was only one alternative: abandon ship. While the unarmed men scrambled for safety, the submarine surfaced and opened fire with its deck guns. Minutes seemed like hours as the hapless crew in the lifeboats endured the terror until poor visibility forced the submarine to submerge.
One lifeboat carrying the captain and four others was hit and was “leaking like a sieve.” Some rowed vigorously while others tried to bail out the sea. It would be hours before they were rescued. The mortally-wounded Montebello struggled for survival but with the crew safely away, with her bow upright as if in a final salute, she slipped quickly into her final journey. Those on land watched the evolving situation and rescuers were soon eager to help. The captain’s lifeboat was smashed along the rocks and Cambria’s fire chief dove into the treacherous waves to the rescue. There were even a few boats dispatched for the rescue. The Standard Oil tug, the Alma, survives to this day and shares in the heroism of both the sailors and the citizens. A pleasant daytrip is visiting the lifesaving tug as one of the restored features of the Morro Bay Maritime Museum.
Greeted by loud cheers in Cayucos as well, furnished with blankets and hot coffee, the crew traveled to the San Luis Sanitarium where except for “bumps, bruises and exposure,” all were well enough to head south or north for their next assignment.
Undoubtedly a night never to be forgotten by the sailors and rescuers, the Montebello lies almost intact 900 feet beneath the surface. Given the massive attack and loss of life just a few weeks earlier in Pearl Harbor, the incident became a fading memory as the local reminder underscored that war follows no protocols or respect for anyone. Nearly forgotten, the 77-year-old wreck rests to this day beneath the lure of the open sea.
When interest began to surface in its story, it was not to resurrect the rusting hulk but to determine the ecological hazard of the tanker’s cargo. Various deep-water expeditions reaffirmed the grave presented no hazard to the living … its cargo has disappeared.
An intriguing question remains as to what the fairly somnambulant coast considered after the attack. If a Japanese submarine found an easy prey in the ill-fated Montebello, were there more attacks on the horizon? In fact, the enemy submarines prowled the coast and attacks on other vessels were not unusual. Could a plan be afoot somewhere to shell the easily visible storage tanks or towns along the coast? Obviously, if the Japanese were able to wreak havoc and destruction in Hawai’i, what was to stop them from simply deciding to attempt the same along the Pacific shore states? On the other hand, discussions about enemy attacks was discouraged as a detriment to citizen morale. It was best not to remember the Montebello.
But remember we must. The near-miraculous conclusion to a night of terror underscored the ability of the captain and crew to save themselves and the bravery and compassion of strangers to come to their rescue. The Montebello joined scores of other vessels off America’s shores relegated to anonymity in the ocean’s depth.
Nonetheless, the unlucky ship is part of our history. Neither as spectacular nor destructive as other maritime tragedies of World War II, it is a reminder close to home that there is a face to wars … both inanimate as ships and animate as humans. No longer forgotten, the shipwreck is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (2016).
In a now-remembered tribute to the selfless spirit of humankind, the Montebello rests in the depths of the sea as a reminder of when war came to the Central Coast.