On Dec. 22, 1941, the tanker S.S. Montebello, freshly painted a concealing gray, loaded more than 3 million gallons of Santa Maria crude oil at the Union Oil wharf at Avila. The ship was scheduled to sail to Vancouver to supply the needs of the West Coast, Alaska and Aleutian Islands defense effort.
Three weeks earlier, the Japanese Empire had attacked U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor without warning. There were reports of Japanese submarines shelling and torpedoing merchant ships along the California coast.
Patrick Brown of San Luis Obispo, a Unocal employee, stood guard over the Montebello with only a short steel rod as it was loaded at Avila before its fateful departure.
The Montebello’s longtime captain, Mogens Andreasen, refused to take the vessel out of port. He resigned his post, leaving command of the ship to First Mate Olof Ekstrom.
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The Montebello departed at 1:30 a.m. The 350-foot-long Japanese Fleet Submarine I-21 was tracking the Montebello from the time that she left Port San Luis.
At 5:30 a.m., the I-21 fired two torpedoes at a range of 2,190 yards. One of the torpedoes was a dud. The other struck the Montebello forward of the pump room and dry storage cargo hold. The ship’s 18 cargo tanks containing the crude oil were apparently not affected.
The Montebello settled forward quickly and sank at 6:45 a.m. A general alarm was sounded, life boats were lowered, manned and pulled away. As it sank amidst the bursts of flames, the lifeboats headed for shore.
The submarine opened fire on the lifeboats with its deck gun and machine guns. No one was hit. The boat containing Capt. Eckstrom and four other men was struck and then wrecked as it landed on shore. The other survivors were picked up by the Standard Oil tugboat S.S. Estero Bay and the Alma from Morro Bay.
William Srez, a crewmember of the Montebello, recalls Capt. Ekstrom being “as cool as a snowdrift. 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.”
Ekstrom’s actions were critical in saving the entire 38-man crew.
The broken hull of the Montebello sits 900 feet below the surface approximately seven miles off the coast of Cambria.
It was an interesting morning for San Luis Obispo Mountain View Hospital Nurse Toshiko Eto, daughter of Tameji Eto, the acknowledged leader of the Japanese-American farming community in much of San Luis Obispo County. She found herself nursing Montebello crewmembers at the hospital on the upper end of Marsh Street.
Two weeks earlier, her father was among the first to be seized as a “security risk” by the county sheriff acting for the FBI, an action disclosed by the Telegram-Tribune on Dec. 8, 1941.
For Eunice Fish Pierce of San Luis Obispo, the sinking of the Montebello resolved an issue with her fourth-grade teacher. In the two weeks since America’s entry into the war, school administrators had urged families to send staples such as candy and dried fruit to school to be kept in the classroom for “wartime emergencies.”
Eunice’s teacher had ridiculed these emergency rations as an unnecessary bother. Eunice recalls that after the sinking of the Montebello, the “teacher changed his tune.”
A mood of seriousness to the war effort reigned over the 1941 Christmas in San Luis Obispo.