S. S. Montebello: Sinking

nighttime scene of submarine on ocean surface and exploding ship in the distance
Artist rendering of the Montebello being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine

The S.S. Montebello is an oil tanker that was sunk off the coast of California on Dec. 23, 1941 by a Japanese submarine during World War II. The vessel is now in federal waters, approximately six miles off the coast of Moonstone Beach in Cambria, 900 feet below the water’s surface. Prior to its sinking, the Montebello loaded 73,571 barrels (3,089,982 gallons) of Santa Maria crude oil and 2,477 barrels (104,034 gallons) of bunker fuel at Port San Luis, California.

On December 23, 1941, amid multiple reports of Japanese submarine sightings, Montebello Captain Mogens Andreasen resigned his post, leaving command of the ship to First Mate Olof Ekstrom. Ekstrom and the crew of the Montebello knew there were Japanese submarines off the California coast, but they voted to ship out on the oil tanker anyway.

The Montebello departed at 1:30 a.m. and headed towards it's destination of Vancouver, British Columbia. At 5:30 a.m. Ordinary Seamen William Srez and Richard Quincy, on watch aboard Montebello, alerted Captain Ekstrom that they were being stalked by what looked like a sub. A few moments later the rising sun silhouetted the trailing vessel off the port quarter, Srez and Quincy realized it was an I-21 Japanese submarine low in the water. The I-21 then repositioned to the starboard quarter between the tanker and mainland and fired a single torpedo into the Montebello. Incredibly, the torpedo hit the only compartment not loaded with oil or gasoline. "The men wouldn't have had a chance if any other hold was hit," said Ekstrom. But it did knock out the radio.

At 5:55 the Captain gave the order to abandon ship. Recalling the Captain’s demeanor during those chaotic moments after the ship was hit, the crew said, “The Captain was as cool as a snow drift.” All thirty-eight crewmen left the tanker in four lifeboats as the I-21 opened fired on the boats with its deck gun. No one was hit by gunfire, but the lifeboat carrying the Captain was hit, and began leaking badly.

The lifeboats finally pulled away safely from the tanker as the submarine descended below the surface to avoid detection from reconnaissance aircraft. The crew watched the tanker settle in the bow, submerging below the surface at 6:45 a.m. As the bow started downward, the crew witnessed the stern clearing the ocean surface by 150 feet (45 meters). They concluded the tanker was struck amidships around the No. 3 tank, but couldn’t understand why the cargo - with a Grade A Flash point at room temperature - did not ignite? The crew speculated the torpedo struck between decks above the oil storage tanks.

The crew rowed for the next six hours till they finally reached the rocky coast just south of Cambria, California. All crew members survived.


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