In retrospect the original skipper was right. The captain of the Union Oil tanker Montebello did not want to leave Port San Luis. Sixteen days after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor rumors were running wild. Blackout drills were being held up and down the coast and false reports of enemy aircraft were not uncommon. Sailors had heard of a submarine monitoring the coastline.
The oil company gave the first mate the first command of his career and ordered the tanker to cruise north to deliver three-million gallons of Santa Maria crude to Vancouver, British Columbia where it vital war commodity was needed to fuel defense of the coast. Some accounts say the vessel also carried gasoline.
Just before sunrise on December 23, 1941 Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-21 would press home their second attack of the day. The first attack had been a failure. The Richfield oil tanker Larry Doheney had been fired on about 3 a.m. as it maneuvered through Estero Bay just north of Morro Rock. The Japanese would have reason to be familiar with oil operations in the region, the nation’s tankers had been loading oil here a few months before. Two or three torpedoes were fired, accounts vary. It was a near thing, one exploded near the Doheney knocking a door off the tanker’s cabin.
Howard Elmore of Morro Bay was a sailor on the tugboat Alma at the time, 46 years later he recalled the events.
“The [Doheney] master on board told me they shot one torpedo and missed. They shot another torpedo and it blew up alongside of them. He was going to beach it, when another torpedo was shot and blew up on the beach. Everybody around Morro Bay heard the explosion and woke up.
“Except I slept through it,” he chuckled.
An hour later the Japanese sub was stalking the Montebello. The sub had been part of the advance force at Pearl Harbor earlier in the month and two days after the attack had narrowly missed an opportunity to fire on a Lexington class American aircraft carrier.
No doubt the 94 officers and men aboard wanted to press home an attack.
Five-and-half hours after assuming command Montebello’s skipper was involved in a race for his vessel’s life.
Captain Olaf Eckstrom was notified at 5:30 a.m. that a submarine had been sighted by watchman William Srez about a half mile off of the starboard quarterdeck. They were about six miles off San Simeon. The 450 foot long, 8,000 ton tanker was a big target.
“I saw a dark outline on the water, close astern of us. Srez was right. It was the silhouette of a Jap submarine, a big fellow, possibly 300 feet long. 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. She was too close. [and] let a torpedo go when we were broadside to her.
“The torpedo smashed us square amidships,” said Srez, “and there was a big blast and the ship shuddered and trembled and we knew she was done for.”
The torpedo hit number two hold, the only compartment not loaded with petroleum. Still the damage was grave, wrecked were the radio room, deck house and superstructure. Water rushed into the gaping hole.
Said Eckstrom, “The men wouldn’t have had a chance if any other hold was hit.”
Crew members cursed the enemy submarine and wished they had a deck gun to return fire.
By all accounts the new captain managed his five-and-a-half hour command well.
“The skipper was as cool as a snowdrift,” said Srez. “He yelled an order to stand by the lifeboats and then an order to abandon ship, and there was something in the way he gave those orders that made us proud to be serving under him.”
All of the crew members made it to the deck as water flooded in. Accounts vary as to the number of crew, 38 men was the number used in accounts from 1941, later accounts list the number at 36. The men found their way to four lifeboats. As the lifeboats were lowered, the surfaced sub opened fire at close range with a deck gun.
Cambrian editor M.F. Waltz said he could see firing for 20 minutes as he counted 14 flashes from the deck gun.
“The sub began shelling us,” said Captain Eckstrom, “There were from eight to ten flashes. One hit the foremast, snapping it. Another whistled by my head so close I could have reached out and touched it. But there was no panic, no hysteria. We got all four lifeboats into the water. Splinters from one of the shells struck some of the boats, but by some kind of miracle, none of us was wounded.”
Unsure the crippled vessel was going to sink, the lifeboats stood nearby until the tanker slipped beneath the waves as dawn broke 6:45 a.m. It settled, 900 feet below the surface.
The fifteen-foot lifeboats rowed toward shore, looking back they could see the Japanese in the conning tower. The submarine attacked again raking the civilians with gun fire.
Though none of the men were hit the boat carrying Srez, Eckstrom and four others was damaged.
“Machine-gun bullets hit our boat,” said Srez, “and she began leaking like a sieve. We began rowing shoreward, with some of us leaning on the oars for all we were worth and the others bailing.”
Poor visibility forced the Japanese to break off the attack and six hours later the leaking lifeboat capsized on the beach below Cambria. Captain Eckstrom nearly drowned in the rough surf as the lifeboat splintered on the rocks.
Howard Elmore of Morro Bay was on the tugboat Alma which helped pick up the last lifeboat.
“It was kind of hair-raising. There were big swells 8 to 10 feet high. An airplane was used to spot them — we couldn’t see them due to the high swells.
“We picked up a boatful of men – they were just outside the breaker line. We knew we had to make it the first time…I knew we had to get them out of the surf because the breakers were so huge.”
One of the Montebello crew was carrying ax, in case he had to resort to hand to hand combat.
The crew of the Montebello was taken to Camp San Luis Obispo’s hospital, treated and interviewed. Bruised, scraped and oil stained the crew shared their stories.
In the aftermath of the attack “purse seiners”- fishing boats modified to carry deck guns, patrolled the coast. News reports spoke sightings of up to 4 enemy submarines operating off the coast though those reports also spoke of patrols of Navy aircraft bombing potential submarines.
The submarine shelled the tanker Idaho later the same day the Montebello was sunk.
The next day luck almost ran out for I-21. The submarine was spotted by a PBY Catalina flying boat on shore patrol. Commander Matsumura Kenji reported that the sub’s periscope was also seen by a small “Coast Guard patrol boat.” Two depth charges knocked out the vertical rudder and lights. Engineers were able to restore lighting as Matsumura was about to give the order to surface and fight. Soon the steering was repaired and the sub would survive to be reassigned to the coast of Australia.
The 350-foot-long type B-1 submarine would be the bane of shipping off of Australia for most of the next two years. It was the most successful U-boat to operate off of Australia, responsible for the sinking of 44,000 tons of shipping including the SS Kalingo, Iron Knight and Starr King. The last report from the vessel was made off the Gilbert Islands on November 27, 1943. The crew of 101 were never seen again. It may have been sunk by torpedo bombers November 29, 1943 near Tarawa.
The Telegram-Tribune was one of the few newspapers to report the sinking of the Montebello. Wartime censorship prevented the local scoop from becoming national news.
Almost 70 years later a $5 million dollar underwater assessment found no oil threat from the Montebello. Gradual leaks over time have dispersed the 3 million gallon cargo. The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund paid for the survey this year and a final report is expected in spring of 2012.
Telegram-Tribune; November 11, 1982: 1941 rescue in Cambria
Telegram-Tribune; December 23, 1987: Remembering the Montebello rescue
Telegram-Tribune; December 23, 1941
Telegram-Tribune; December 24, 1941