In the early morning hours of December 7, 1941, Japan unleashed a massive attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii which instantly drew America into World War II and, for the next four years, daily life in America was dramatically altered. An enormous number of men and women enlisted in the military and were shipped overseas. For the rest there was rationing of some commodities and dramatic shortages of others and, for the first time, women went to work in large numbers in “defense plants”. But, for most Americans, the actual fighting seemed to be in far-off, previously unknown places except for those living along the Pacific Coast.
On December 23, 1941, sixteen days after Pearl Harbor, an oil tanker belonging to the Union Oil Company (later called Unocal) was attacked by a Japanese submarine just south of Piedras Blancas Light Station. The tanker Montebello was sunk with the crew escaping in lifeboats. Survivors in three of the lifeboats were picked up and taken to Cayucos but the fourth boat foundered on the rocks just south of Cambria.
In spite of the enormity of this event, most Americans were unaware of its occurrence and, even today, very few know about it. It is often said that the general ignorance of this event was due to an effort by the U. S. Government to suppress the story in order to prevent panic among its citizens, especially those living along the west coast. However, no evidence of this has been found and articles about the sinking of the Montebello appeared at the time in several newspapers including the Cambrian, The San Luis Obispo Telegram Tribune and the San Francisco Call-Bulletin. The Cambrian alone printed at least seven articles including at least four photographs of the actual rescue in two separate issues a week apart.
The facts of the actual sinking of the Montebello appear to be these. On the morning of December 23, 1941 the Montebello was steaming northward, bound for Vancouver, British Columbia, and was carrying 73,571 barrels of crude oil from the Santa Maria oil fields. At about 5:30 AM, when the tanker was about four miles south of Point Piedras Blancas, the Japanese submarine I-21 was spotted near the tanker and ten minutes later the submarine fired a torpedo which struck the Montebello on the starboard side in the area of the pumps just forward of the first oil tank. The crew abandoned the ship and got into four life boats which moved away from the ship far enough to avoid further danger but remained in the vicinity to see if the Montebello would sink, which it did at 6:45 AM. During the interval, the submarine used its deck gun to fire on the lifeboats although it is not clear whether the target was the Montebello or its lifeboats.While no one was injured, the lifeboat containing Captain Olof Eckstrom and five other crew members was seriously damaged and began taking on water. While the crew was watching, the Montebello began taking water in the bow which began to sink, ultimately causing the stern to rise up out of the water about 150 feet. At this point the tanker went under and sank to the bottom retaining its bow-down attitude until it hit the bottom about 900 feet below. The bow buried itself in the sandy bottom and the remainder of the ship broke off at the point of the torpedo impact and settled on the bottom in an upright orientation where it remains to this day.