Times Past

Tugboat restored that rescued crew of S.S. Montebello off SLO County

A worker directs the crane operator as the 48-foot tugboat Alma is moved onto a truck Thursday to be transported from the Morro Bay Harbor Department Boathouse to its new home at the future Morro Bay Maritime Museum on the Embarcadero.
A worker directs the crane operator as the 48-foot tugboat Alma is moved onto a truck Thursday to be transported from the Morro Bay Harbor Department Boathouse to its new home at the future Morro Bay Maritime Museum on the Embarcadero. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A small boat with a big history made its final journey on Thursday.

The 48-foot tugboat Alma was built by the Beviacqua Brothers in a small shipyard near the San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf in 1927. Classically constructed with a sawed oak frame and planked with Port Orford cedar, the Alma was typical of dozens of small craft that kept shipping moving to and from the harbors of the Pacific coast.

Much like the small craft that facilitated the British evacuation from Dunkirk in June 1940, the Alma from Morro Bay and the Standard Oil tugboat S.S. Estero Bay helped rescue the crew from the Unocal tanker S.S. Montebello.

On Dec. 22, 1941, the tanker loaded more than 3 million gallons of Santa Maria crude oil at the Union Oil wharf in Avila Beach. The ship was scheduled to sail to Vancouver, British Columbia, to supply the wartime defense needs of the coast, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

Three weeks earlier, Japan 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.

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

A Japanese submarine attacked the Montebello. Statements made by Capt. Olaf W. Eckstrom at the Camp San Luis Obispo Army Hospital were written down by E. F. James, deputy collector of customs, Port San Pedro. They can be accessed through the National Archives and Records Services Centers at Laguna Niguel and San Bruno.

Capt. Eckstrom stated that a submarine 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.

The submarine appeared to be 300 feet long with a large gun mounted on its forward deck. A torpedo struck the Montebello on the starboard side, forward of the No. 2 and No. 3 oil storage tanks. Entering the hull, the torpedo 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, lifeboats were lowered, manned and pulled away. As the ship sank amidst bursts of flames, the lifeboats headed for shore about 4 miles away.

The submarine opened fire on the lifeboats with its deck gun. No one was hit, but the boat containing Capt. Eckstrom and four other men was struck, and then wrecked as it landed on shore. Survivors were picked up by the S.S. Estero Bay and the Alma.

The entire 38-man crew of the Montebello was saved without serious injuries.

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.

The U.S. government officially denied the incident ever happened. Local fishermen knew that the Montebello’s hull lay under 850 feet of water off Cambria. On Nov. 7, 1996, the research ship S.S. Cavalier, with marine archaeologist Jack Hunter using the submersible craft Delta, was able to photograph the Montebello’s hull.

Hunter’s photographs generated a new interest in everything surrounding the sinking of the Montebello and the rescue of its crew. The Alma was donated to the Central Coast Maritime Museum Association in the late 1990s by the Kelsey family, owners of Sylvester Tug Service. A grant from the Hind Foundation and nearly 1,000 hours of volunteer labor beautifully restored the historic craft.

Today, you can visit the restored Alma at the site of the future Maritime Museum of Morro Bay on the Embarcadero between Beach Street and the power plant. Between noon and 2 p.m. Sunday you can enjoy a smoked chicken barbecue lunch sponsored by Tognazzini’s Dockside restaurants.

Bring your friends and children and help celebrate this very big “little” piece of our history.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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