Times Past

Times Past: Montebello sinking was denied, then covered up

After 70 years, the broken hull of the Union Oil tanker S.S. Montebello still rests on the sea bottom approximately 6 miles off San Simeon.

On Dec. 22, 1941, the tanker 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.

Fifteen days 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.

The Navy and the West Coast Defense Command officially denied these assaults. No mention of the attacks will be found in the Navy Department’s 15-volume “History of United States Naval Operations in World War II,” edited by Samuel Eliot Morison.

Early in the morning of Dec. 23, 1941, the Montebello was sailing on a northbound course when a Japanese submarine attacked.

Capt. Olaf W. Eckstrom’s retelling of the attack at the Camp San Louis Obispo Army Hospital was written down by E. F. James, deputy collector of customs, Port San Pedro. It can be accessed through the National Archives and Records Services Centers at Laguna Niguel and San Bruno.

Eckstrom stated that a roughly 300-foot submarine with a large deck gun was sighted at 5:40 a.m. about a half-mile off his starboard quarterdeck.

He tried to zigzag to get out of the way but a torpedo struck the Montebello on the starboard side. Entering the hull, it exploded, destroying the deck house, radio room and tanker’s superstructure.

The Montebello settled forward quickly and sank at 6:45 a.m. A general alarm was sounded, and lifeboats were lowered, manned, and pulled away. As it sank amidst the bursts of flames, the lifeboats headed for shore about 4 miles away.

The submarine opened fire on the lifeboats with its deck gun, but no one was hit. But Eckstrom’s lifeboat was struck, and 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.

The official denials continued throughout the 1950s, even though several newspapers reported the incident with photos of the rescued crew. Government agents in San Francisco were sent out to buy all the copies of the Hearst paper, The San Francisco Call, which had reported the incident.

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

On Nov. 7, 1996, the research ship S.S. Cavalier, with marine archaeologist Jack Hunter using the submersible craft Delta, located the Montebello’s hull under 850 feet of water.

Marine specialists will never know for certain about the fate of the more than 3 million gallons of oil in the tanker’s hold. A computer model developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests that the oil seeped out over the years and was swept south by the prevailing currents.

As recently as last month, Jordan Stout, NOAA scientific support coordinator said, “Such modeling indicates that most of the oil remained offshore and headed south. Some would have evaporated within the first few days, and the remainder may have washed ashore but may have been so widely scattered that it went unnoticed.”