Times Past

Tugboat that rescued crew of tanker sunk off the coast of Cambria displayed at museum opening

Tugboat Alma with survivors of the S.S. Montebello.
Tugboat Alma with survivors of the S.S. Montebello.

The entire 38-man crew of the Unocal tanker S.S. Montebello, struck and sunk by a torpedo launched from a Japanese submarine in 1941, was saved without serious injuries.

On December 22, 1941, just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Montebello 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, British Columbia, to supply the needs of the West Coast, Alaska and Aleutian Islands defense effort.

There were reports of Japanese submarines shelling and torpedoing merchant ships along the California coast.

At 1:30 a.m. Dec. 23, 1941, the Montebello sailed on a northbound course.

A Japanese submarine attacked the Montebello 6 miles off the Cambria coast. Its crew was rescued thanks to the Standard Oil tugboat S.S. Estero Bay and the Alma from Morro Bay.

ss montebello
The S.S. Montebello, seen in this photo in the public domain from the Vancouver city archives, was sunk off the coast of Cambria in 1941. Walter E. Frost

People involved in the rescue, like Cayucos resident Merle Molinari, a member of the crew of the Estero Bay, didn’t talk about it much, in part for security reasons during the war, and in part, afterwards, because of popular incredulity.

The official history of Naval operations during the Second World War, edited by Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, omitted any mention of the sinking of the Montebello.

Longtime residents of Cambria, Cayucos and Morro Bay knew differently.

A few collectors had issues of the front page of the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune, The Cambrian and the San Francisco Call reporting on the incident along with dramatic photographs of the rescue taken by Marcus L. Waltz, editor of The Cambrian.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s when, under the Carter era Freedom of Information Act, historians could get full documentation dealing with the sinking of the Montebello and the rescue of its crew.

Meanwhile, the tugboat Alma was retired from service and rested in a Morro Bay shipyard.

As we approached the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1991, the county Historical Society (now the History Center) was preparing a book and commemoration for the event. Morro Bay dermatologist Dr. Fred Novy contacted me about having a celebration for the achievement of the Alma. That led to Brent Roberts conceiving the notion of a maritime museum.

Roberts created the Central Coast Maritime Museum Association that created the Morro Bay Maritime Museum. Original members still active on board are Larry and Janet Newland, Jack Hunter and Keith Kelsey. Roberts died in 2005.

Nonprofit status was achieved in 1994-1995 thanks to the hard work of Henry “Hank” Silka.

Next week, I’ll write about the restoration of the Alma and other seaborn adventures in Morro Bay. The Alma is on display at Morro Bay Maritime Museum between Beach St. and the Power Plant.

At 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, the museum will celebrate its grand opening. I’ll join Director Larry Newland and his board, community leaders and county Supervisor Bruce Gibson for the event. I’ll give a brief talk on Morro Bay’s rich maritime history.

Bring your friends and children and help celebrate this important piece of our history.

Dan Krieger is professor of history emeritus at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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