Times Past

Morro Bay has a rich maritime history that will be celebrated at museum’s grand opening

On Dec. 2, 1941, the Japanese submarine I-21 received the coded signal “Climb Mount Niitaka,” signifying that hostilities against the United States would commence Dec. 8.

Late in the evening of Dec. 6, 1941, 12 “I-type” submarines from the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 1st Submarine Squadron were in Hawaiian waters readying for the attack on U.S. Pacific Fleet ships. The Japanese High Command anticipated that once the aerial assault commenced, components of the U.S. Pacific Fleet might try to break out of Pearl Harbor.

That never happened. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s surprise attack was so successful that no ships left Pearl Harbor. Fortunately, the American aircraft carrier fleet was already scattered some distance from its home base, and no aircraft carriers were hit.

The I-21 did briefly pursue a Lexington Class carrier, but the appearance of American dive bombers and diesel engine breakdowns and electrical problems forced Captain Kanji Matsumura to abandon the chase.

The submarines were quickly redeployed to strategic locations along the West Coast where they could best interdict the shipping lanes and strike terror into the civilian population. Two weeks later, the subs commenced attacks on eight merchant ships, sinking two and badly damaging two others.

The I-21 was sent to patrol the waters between Point Argüello and Estero Bay.

The I-21 submerged less than 2 miles off Point Argüello, a place noted for being “the graveyard of ships.” It had to wait for two days. Then, on the morning of Dec. 22, 1941, the Standard Oil Company tanker H.M. Story appeared.

Lompoc High School student Jack Sudden, hunting for rabbits along the Southern Pacific tracks at Point Argüello, witnessed the encounter between the I-21 and the Story. He was first attracted to the panoply by the sound of the firing of the I-21’s deck gun. Then he, along with a woman who was walking the beach, saw the I-21 fire one or two torpedoes.

The Story, pouring black smoke from its funnel, went into full speed to evade the attack. Shortly afterward, U.S. military aircraft appeared, dropping several bombs that shook the ground. The Story made good her escape.

The I-21 went north searching for other merchant ships. At 3 a.m. the next day, it spotted the Richfield Oil Company tanker Larry Doheny off Cayucos. It fired two rounds from its 5.5-inch deck gun at the Doheny, missing both times. Then, Capt. Matsumura observed the Doheny’s exposed port side only 200 yards away. He ordered a torpedo fired. The “Long Lance torpedo” exploded after missing the Doheny. The noise awakened nearly everyone from Morro Bay to Cayucos.

The I-21 submerged and soon found another potential victim, the Unocal tanker Montebello, which it hit 6 miles off Cambria. Fortunately, the torpedo hit the only compartment not loaded with gasoline. Life boats were lowered, and the I-21 opened fire with its deck gun at nearly point-blank range. Early morning fog hid the lifeboats, and the I-21 left the scene.

Shortly after, the tugboats Alma and Estero Bay arrived to rescue the crew, as described in last week’s column.

Morro Bay has an incredible human maritime history that began when Hokan speaking Salinan people came to LE-SA MO (Morro Rock) to celebrate the summer and winter solstices. They were there when Cabrillo sailed by in 1542 and when the Manila Galleons began arriving in the 1580s.

Some of that history has been lost forever. Other remnants like the fragments of the torpedo fired off Cayucos reside in a maritime museum in San Diego. Since the early 1990s, a group has worked tirelessly, restoring the tugboat Alma, bringing a replica of Cabrillo’s ship, the San Salvador, to visit the Morro Bay in 2016 and obtaining a large working model of the I-21.

The Morro Bay Maritime Museum is celebrating its grand opening at 10 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 29.

The event will open with a special blessing from the Salinan tribe. I’ll join Director Larry Newland and community leaders and San Luis Obispo 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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