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Torpedoed tanker off Cambria turns 80


The SS Montebello being launched in San Pedro, CA, 1921. Image from NOAA.


The oil tanker SS Montebello was sunk by Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-21 in December 1941, 9 miles off the coast of Cambria. She was sunk just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, as part of a 10 month offensive in the Eastern Pacific, which included the Bombardment of Elwood, just north of Goleta. Elwood was the first place where Japanese fire landed on mainland U.S. soil during the war, doing less than $8,000 damage in today's dollars, while causing hysteria throughout the west coast (see the Battle of Los Angeles, it's not just an album title!) and offering justification for the internment of thousands of Japanese American citizens a few weeks later.

The Montebello was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2016, on the 75th anniversary of the sinking, and now also resides in the proposed Chumash National Marine Sanctuary. We connected via email with Robert Schwemmer, the West Coast Regional Maritime Heritage Coordinator for the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuary, who provided lots of helpful background for this story, including the following regarding the historic designation:

"The Montebello shipwreck represents the most complete and undisturbed archaeological remains associated with the Japanese attacks in the eastern Pacific within U.S. waters. The listing also acknowledges the heroic actions by citizens of Cambria, Cayucos and Morro Bay that risked their lives and vessels to launch a sea and shoreline rescue that resulted in saving all 38 crewmen in their four lifeboats, providing blankets, shelter and food until the Army transported the survivors to Camp Roberts hospital."

Robert also let us know that the last known surviving crewman, Dick Quincy, passed away in 2016, but not before doing multiple interviews with Robert and others, in which he describes spotting the sub immediately before the torpedo struck, and watching the ship list almost vertically before sinking below the waves, where it now rests almost 900 feet below the surface.



The propeller of the SS Montebello as it looked in 2003, with new residents. Image from NOAA.


In local conservation circles on the central coast, the ship had long been considered a ticking time bomb, as its 3 million gallons of Santa Maria crude oil, bound for Vancouver, sat on the ocean floor. However, a 2011 dive found otherwise. According to a NOAA webpage (not Robert):


A Unified Command led by the U.S. Coast Guard and California Department of Fish and Game's Office of Spill Prevention and Response assessed cargo and fuel tanks of the sunken ship S.S. Montebello. The Unified Command determined that there is no substantial oil threat from the Montebello to California waters and shorelines.


Further detail, from a 2011 press release, states:

"Given the data discovered and records available, a long-term release model seems most reasonable," said NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Jordan Stout. "Such model 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 it went unnoticed. There are a number of unknowns associated with this release; therefore, we will probably never know exactly what happened to the oil."

So 3 million gallons went...somewhere?

Stay tuned for part two of this story, as we investigate more about the proposed Chumash National Marine Sanctuary Designation, which would include the Montebello. In the meantime, you can watch three short videos about the Montebello here.

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