Rescue of the Montebello Crew

Word of the Montebello sinking reached Cayucos and, at about 8:00 AM, two Standard Oil tugboats, the Alma and the Estero, departed from there in search of survivors. The two tugs picked up thirty two crew members who were in three of the lifeboats and delivered them unharmed to the Cayucos pier at about 11:00 AM. 

The fourth lifeboat contained Captain Olof Eckstrom, First Mate Kenneth McClean, Second Mate John Young, William Frez, John Smith, and Edgar F. Smith.  This boat was hit by at least one shell from the submarine’s deck gun which damaged the bow and caused it to become water logged.  Four of these men manned the oars of the boat while Captain Eckstrom sat in the rear of the boat using an oar as a rudder and the sixth man bailed water from the front of the boat. Around 11:00 AM the damaged lifeboat crashed on the rocks near the Harper Sibley ranch (later known as Rancho Marino) on the southern edge of  Cambria.

Cambrians pulling Montebello survivors from foundering lifeboat. Captain Olof Eckstrom can be seen in the water.

Cambrians pulling Montebello survivors from foundering lifeboat.

More than five hours elapsed between the torpedo explosion and the time the lifeboat came ashore which allowed plenty of time for local citizens to assemble on the shore and observe the lifeboat approaching. When they realized that the crew members were in danger, some of them participated in a dramatic rescue. J. N. (Neil) Moses, of Morro Bay, was a member of the Cambrian staff and he wrote an eyewitness account of the rescue which was published in The Cambrian on January 1, 1942 and which is reproduced in part here:

“The sea was a tempest and the wind was blowing a gale. On they came, slowly, laboriously. They were headed for the rocks, but they couldn’t help it. With each mountainous swell it looked like the storm-tossed lifeboat would capsize. They were taking the sea broadsides all the way. Maybe it was because they were green hands at the oars; possibly because they didn’t have the strength to right the boat against wind and current.

“On they came, inching closer and closer to exposed and partially submerged rocks. They were straining with every ounce of energy they possessed, but it looked like they were doomed to crack up on a jagged rock 50 yards from shore. Split seconds passed while we held our breath. Then, miraculously, a big swell lifted the small craft high on its peak and carried it square between two treacherous rocks.

“A moment’s relief. The lifeboat was now a mere fifty feet from the rescue party standing on an outcropping of rock, bare and rough. One of the men tried unsuccessfully a couple of times to throw a line to the boat. Another swell brought it within twenty feet of the outcropping. The skipper, for reasons unexplained, plunged into the sea and made it to the rock just as a big swell struck him. He was unable to grasp anything and the back-sweep of the swell carried him thirty yards out.

“Finally the lifeboat crashed into the shore rock. It was hard to recount what happened after that. There was a wild scramble by four of the men. One or two of them made it after a drenching. Two others floundered in the seas but managed to hang onto the lines.

“A husky young man, who turned out to be David Chase of Morro Bay, had stripped and plunged into the sea to take a line to the skipper who was held afloat by his lifebelt. The skipper was too exhausted to struggle and was just drifting in the swells. By using an oar Chase finally made contact and the two were towed in. In another corner Jack Freebody, Cambria fire chief, was struggling to help one of the victims out of the boiling sea and was swept off the rock and considerably bashed up before the two were hauled in.The last to be rescued was a small man with little meat on his bones. He clung desperately to a line and twice was able to mount a low rock ledge only to be swept off by successive swells. Again he clambered onto the ledge and this time I managed to get down in time to help him to his feet. I secured a line around his waist, hitched up his drooping dungarees that were hindering his movement, and gave him a boost up over the rock and to safety. A couple of swells took my measure. (But there were no heroics. I only got a drenching, which was enough to make me a confirmed
landlubber.)

“In the meantime, the sixth man, Fireman Edgar F. Smith, perhaps thewisest of the lot, had stayed with the boat. It drifted around the outjutting rock and into a very small cove. A swell lifted its bow momentarily onto a rock and Smith climbed on it and there remained out of reach of the water until he had rested. When he later climbed the bluff he came up vigorously swearing at the Japs.“

Among the Cambrians involved in the rescue were Ray Shamel, a prominent Cambria citizen who later owned a hardware store on the  south side of Main Street west of Soto’s where Cambria Drug and Gift is now (2009), Dave Woodward, Lyle Mitchell, Austin Waltz (editor of The Cambrian), Royal Waltz, John Johns, Dick Skanse, Bryan Gates, Joaquin Soto, Eldon Warren, Bob Marshall, Mr. Dugan, Art Dueck, Junior Phillips, Ralph Goodall and Jack Freebody (Cambria Fire Chief). Also present was Ralph Goodall’s fourteen year old brother, Frank, who recovered one of the lifeboat oars and  who donated it to the Cambria Historical Museum in November, 2008.

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