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 3 million gallons of Santa Maria crude to Vancouver, British Columbia, where the vital war commodity was needed to fuel defense of the coast. Some accounts say the vessel also carried gasoline.
Just before sunrise on Dec. 23, 1941, Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-21 would press home its 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. Two or three torpedoes were fired (accounts vary). 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. Forty-six years later, he recalled the events.
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“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 a 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 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,” Srez said, “and there was a big blast and the ship shuddered and trembled and we knew she was done for.”
The torpedo hit the only compartment not loaded with petroleum. Still, the damage was grave, wrecking 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.