California State Military Department
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A United States Army Museum Activity
Preserving California's Military Heritage
California and the Second World War
The Attacks on the SS Montebello and the SS Idaho
 
Sinking of the SS Montebello by George H. Cooper.

On 23 December 1941, the Japanese I-21 sights the Union Oil Company's 8,272-ton tanker MONTEBELLO that had departed Port San Luis, California, en route to Vancouver, British Columbia. The captain Commander Matsumura Kenji fires two torpedoes from 2,190 yards (2,000 meters). One of them is a dud, but the other explodes in her Number 2 hold. The 38-man crew abandons the tanker in four lifeboats. Matsumura fires several shells from his deck gun to speed the sinking. Some reports indicate that the I-19 machine gunned the lifeboats too. In about an hour, the MONTEBELLO goes under four miles south of Piedras Blancas. Later in the day, the I-21 shells and damages the 6,418-ton American tanker IDAHO near the same location.

The next day, while running at periscope depth, the I-21's periscope is spotted by what Matsumura identifies as a small "Coast Guard patrol boat". In a well-executed attack with only two depth-charges the patrol boat knocks out the I-21's vertical rudder and all her lights. Commander Matsumura gives the order to surface and battle it out, but at the last minute the emergency lighting is restored and the engineers manage to repair the steering.

The July 1998 issue of World War II Magazine printed a story titled, West Coast War Zone by Donald J. Young. The following is an extract of that article dealing with the sinking of the tanker MONTEBELLO:

About the time I-21 disappeared below the surface, another American tanker, the Union Oil Company's Montebello, was pulling away from the company wharf some 20 miles away at Avila, on its way north with a cargo of oil and gasoline. An hour and a half later she found herself in a life-or-death race with a frustrated Japanese submarine commander with vengeance on his mind.

At 5:30 a.m. William Srez, on watch aboard Montebello, alerted Captain Olaf Eckstrom that they were being stalked by what looked like a sub. Five-and-a-half hours earlier, Eckstrom had been the ship's first mate. At midnight, her captain had abruptly resigned, giving the command to Eckstrom.

"I saw a dark outline on the water, close astern of us," said the new captain later. "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."

Fortunately for Montebello, the torpedo hit the only compartment not loaded with gasoline. "The men wouldn't have had a chance if any other hold was hit," said Eckstrom. But it did knock out the radio.

"The skipper was as cool as a snowdrift," remembered 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."

As the crew responded by lowering the lifeboats, the Japanese opened fire with their deck gun at nearly point-blank range. "The sub began shelling us," continued Captain Eckstrom. "There was from eight to 10 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."

Despite the torpedoing, Eckstrom was not sure Montebello was going to sink, and he ordered his lifeboats "to lie a short distance from the ship. But 45 minutes later, just as dawn was breaking, she went down."

As the 36 men in four lifeboats began rowing for shore, I-21 opened fire with machine guns on the helpless American sailors until poor visibility forced the Japanese to retire. Although no one was wounded, the boat carrying Eckstrom, Srez and four other crewmen was hit.

"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."

Fighting fatigue, rough water and a leaking boat, it was not until noon--some six hours after the sinking--that the six men literally hit the beach below the town of Cambria. "We were caught in the surf," Srez recalled, "and the lifeboat capsized....Some of the boys were scratched up, and the captain nearly drowned."


The "Discovery" of Montebello

The Press Release Announcing the Discovery

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

November 29, 1996

 

Contact: John Robinson (831) 647-4237 or 4201

Oil Filled Tanker Found On Sea Floor Near Sanctuary

 

An oil tanker, sunk by a Japanese submarine off the southern Big Sur coast in 1941, has been found - apparently still filled with crude oil - resting on the sea floor in 900 feet of water adjacent to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The 440-foot tanker, the Montebello, was located by a team of marine researchers who surveyed and filmed the wreck in a small two-person submarine earlier this month. The ghostly vessel is sitting upright, teeming with sealife, and littered with webs of snagged fishing lines and nets, some of which billow above the ship

According to researchers, two of the Montebello's 10 onboard storage tanks were ruptured at the time of the sinking. The remaining eight tanks appear undamaged and may hold thousands of barrels of heavy crude oil.

Although the ship has been submerged for 55 years, the tanker's overall condition appears quite good - considering the circumstances - with little sign of hull deterioration. No leakage from the remaining storage tanks was observed.

–We are very concerned,” said Terry Jackson, manager of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. –This is a large amount of oil sitting in an aging tanker on the bottom of the sea.

Should it rupture, it could cause a major oil spill. But due to the extreme depth of water it was found in, it will be very difficult to attempt any salvage or removal of the oil.”

The Montebello was built in 1921 in San Pedro and was owned by Union Oil Co., making West Coast and trans-Pacific crossings with cargoes of crude and refined oil products.

On Dec. 23, 1941, just 16 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Montebello was loaded with 75,346 barrels (4.1 million gallons) of crude oil at Port San Luis near Pismo Beach. It set sail at 1:20 a.m. for Vancouver, British Columbia.

At about 5:45 a.m. the tanker was a few miles off Cambria when a lookout on the bridge spotted an Imperial Japanese Navy submarine surfacing about 100 yards away. The Montebello, whose top speed was 11 knots, tried to outrun the submarine but was unable to.

At 5:55 a.m. a torpedo slammed into the tankerês bow, hitting the one empty storage tank, according to crew members. The submarine continued to shell the tanker with a deck gun as the 38-member crew scrambled into lifeboats.

The Montebello sank a short time later, plunging bow first into the bottom and settling squarely on its keel nearly 1,000 feet below. All of the crew made it safely to shore, many being rescued by two Chevron Oil Co. tugboats, the Alma and Cayucos which steamed through heavy seas to aid the stricken tanker.

Although the general location of the sinking had been known - and fishermen had marked where they lost nets and rigging on a submerged object - it had never been precisely located or examined.

The expedition to the shipês final resting place was led by archeologist Jack Hunter , and organized by the Central Coast Maritime Museum Association. Funding was provided by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the National Undersea Research Center, both of which are programs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The expedition left from Santa Barbara Nov. 6 aboard a Delta Oceanographics research ship with carried the Delta, a 16-foot submarine which has previously been used to explore the shipwrecks of the Lusitania in the Atlantic Ocean and the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior, among others.

The team members included Roy Pettus of Geoarch Consultants, Stacey Kim of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, Robert Schwemmer and Patrick Smith of the Los Angles Maritime Museum Research Society, John Ljubenkov of Marine Ecological Consultants, and Steven Maddex, Robert Pavlik and Fred Novy, all of the Central Coast Maritime Museum Association.

After arriving at the rough coordinates of the Montebello, the submarine was launched and quickly guided to the wreck by echo sounders aboard the mother ship.

As they approached, the dark bulk of the Montebello took shape in small sections of illumination, as the submarineês searchlights could only penetrate about 30 feet in the murky water.

The lights reveled a tangle of rigging and sealife covering nearly all surfaces of the corroding steel ship. Carpets of white anemones clung to gangways, while crabs scuttled about the deck and hung from webs of fishing line like spiders, and schools of fish swam by.

–It was like the blind men describing an elephant,” said Hunter, who was on the initial dive. –All the fragile parts of the ship were crushed, such as the smokestacks which were made of thin metal. But we could see there were no holes in the deck and we inspected the hull very closely.”

A total of four, two-hour dives were made, with the submarine crews being very careful to avoid becoming entangled in the rigging and lines draped about the ship.

Detailed reports of the investigation are going to the various federal, state and local agencies involved in oil spill response and ocean protection.

–Any attempt at salvage would be extremely costly,” Jackson said. –We will have to evaluate the condition of the ship, the threat of a spill and what our options are.”

The threat of a spill depends partially upon what type of petroleum product the tanker was laden with. Due to the cold temperature of the sea at 900 feet, heavy crude oil would become very dense and flow slowly, if at all, from any hull breech. A lighter crude, or refined product, however, would surface much more quickly and pose a greater threat.

The cold water also slows down the corrosion process, although the sea will eventually eat through the hull of the Montebello.

The Montebello may also be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as a significant historical resource associated with the West Coast and the United States entry into World War II.

Video tape of the Montebello taken from the Delta submarine is available, after 11 a.m. Friday at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary office in Monterey.

Additional contacts will be provided.

The Montebello

Just south of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary boundary are the remains of the oil tanker Montebello. Built in 1921 at the Southwestern Shipbuilding Company in San Pedro California, the shelter deck tanker had an overall length of 457 feet (139 meters). The Union Oil tanker’s career carrying petroleum products was for the most part uneventful, making regular runs to ports like the Hawaiian Islands, Siberia, British Columbia and other ports in the Pacific. On December 22, 1941, Montebello loaded a cargo of 73,571 barrels (3,089,982 gallons) of Santa Marina crude oil at the Union Oil Company’s facility in Port San Luis, California. The crude oil was so thick it had to be heated before it could be loaded into the vessel’s nine liquid product cargo tanks. The destination of the cargo of oil was Vancouver, British Columbia.

With the outbreak of World War II just three weeks earlier, there were reports of Japanese submarines attacking merchant ships along the California coast. On December 23rd at 1:30 a.m., the tanker now loaded with the cargo of oil and sitting low in the water, cleared Port San Luis breakwater proceeding on a northbound course. At around 3:30 a.m. the crew was called to station and ordered to put on life jackets, the ship was notified that the tanker Larry Doheny had been fired upon north of their location.

Ordinary seamen Richard Quincy, then twenty-two years of age, recalled the events of the early morning. At 5:00 a.m. it was still dark, the Montebello’s lights were blacked out and the vessel’s position was nearing Piedras Blancas Point.

About a half-hour later, Quincy was on watch and could make out an object on the water running in the tanker’s wake and discounted it for a northbound coastal vessel. As the rising sun silhouetted the trailing vessel off the port quarter, Quincy realized it was a Japanese submarine low in the water. The I-21 then repositioned to the starboard quarter between the tanker and mainland and fired a single torpedo into the Montebello. At 5:55 the Captain gave the order to abandoned ship, all thirty-eight crewmen left the tanker in four lifeboats as the I-21 opened fired on the boats with its deck gun.

The lifeboats finally pulled away safely from the tanker as the submarine descended below the surface to avoid detection from responding aircraft. The crew watched the tanker settle in the bow, submerging below the surface at 6:45 a.m. As the bow started downward, the crew witnessed the stern clearing the ocean surface by 150 feet (45 meters). They concluded the tanker was struck amidships around the No. 3 tank, but couldn’t understand why the cargo, with a Grade A Flash point at room temperature, why the oil did not ichnite? The crew speculated the torpedo struck between decks above the oil storage tanks.

Montebello Reconnaissance

The Montebello was largely forgotten with the exception of local fisherman who found the site to be a productive fishing spot. It was not until members of the Central Coast Maritime Museum Association considered nominating the shipwreck to the National Register to properly memorialize the historic event. Further, there was the growing concern whether the shipwreck still contained its toxic cargo of crude oil potentially threatening the nearby waters of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. A proposal to investigate the site of the Montebello and document the integrity of its hull was submitted to NOAA’s West Coast National Undersea Research Center. NOAA agreed to fund the investigation utilizing Delta Oceanographics’ submersible, Delta, which is capable of working at depths up to 1200 feet (365 meters). Archaeologist Jack Hunter, President of the Central Coast Maritime Museum Association, was the project director and principal investigator.

On November 7, 1996, working aboard the research vessel Cavalier, the science team included archaeologists, historians, and biologists. Utilizing a Furuno depth finder, a large target was located in approximately 850 feet (259 meters) of water. Delta was launched off the Cavalier and navigated towards the target site. Radio communications from Delta confirmed a large shipwreck had been located at a depth of nearly 900 feet (274 meters) and that the submersible would ascend up to the main deck to confirm the identity. It was discovered that the shipwreck was covered in fishing nets, and the pipe configuration on main deck confirmed the vessel was a tanker. This dive was the first direct observation of the tanker since the historic event of being torpedoed by the Japanese Imperial Navy in California waters 55 years earlier.

Three additional Delta dives were made to the Montebello, with a total of fourteen full circumnavigations of the site recording the condition of the tanker through still photography and videotape footage. Observations made during the four dives concluded the hull was remarkably intact and resting on an even keel on the ocean floor. The bow had become detached separating just forward of the foremast where twisted metal indicated the torpedo impact zone. It was not until the end of the fourth reconnaissance dive that the bow section was located. It was discovered that the cutwater was buried in the sand some yards ahead of the main hull, with the aftermost part of the bow rising above the sea floor at a 40-degree angle with a slight list to port.

Based on this observation, it was determined that during the sinking, Montebello hit the ocean floor with enough force to drive the bow deep into the bottom sediment, separating at the torpedo impact zone. The aft 90 percent of the hull then recoiled back and settled squarely in its keel. More importantly the investigation concluded that the torpedo had not penetrated the region of the tanker’s oil cargo storage holds as reported by the Montebello’s crew, but actually struck forward in the pump room and dry storage cargo hold. It is the opinion of principle investigator Jack Hunter that the Montebello’s cargo of Santa Maria crude oil is still entombed in the tanker. During the four videotaped reconnaissance dives in 1996, there were no observations of oil being introduced into the water column. A Science team that includes staff members from the Monterey Bay and Channel Islands Sanctuaries will be performing reconnaissance dives to the site on September 23rd & 24th, 2003. One of the goals for the mission is to continue monitoring the hull’s integrity and note any changes since the 1996 investigation.

Transcribed by Robert Schwemmer


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