On December 23, 1941, the S.S. Montebello, loaded with a cargo of 73,571 barrels of crude oil and carrying 2,477 barrels of bunker fuel oil and an unknown quantity of lubricating oil, was torpedoed by a Japanese Imperial submarine and sank in federal waters. The wreck is located approximately two miles south of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and is 6.5 miles off the coast of Cambria, California. It is completely submerged and laying upright in approximately 900 feet of water, adjacent to an un-named submarine canyon.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funded two investigations (1996 & 2003) to assess the vessel’s integrity using a manned submersible. Several dives were conducted and the observations made concluded the hull was “remarkably intact” and the torpedo did not penetrate the cargo and bunker fuel tanks.
Robert Schwemmer, West Coast Regional Maritime Heritage Coordinator for NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, presented his historical research on the Union Oil Company tanker S S Montebello at a meeting in Cambria December 2. He also shared underwater imagery of the sunken ship that sits in 900 feet just south of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Schwemmer was part of the science team that rediscovered the wreck in 1996 in the two-manned submersible Delta. In 2003, Schwemmer returned to the sunken tanker along with a science team from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and State of California to continue the visual survey of the Montebello.
In 2009, the Montebello Assessment Task Force was established at the request of California State Senator Sam Blakeslee to coordinate a risk assessment to determine the likelihood of a release of the cargo of more than 3,000,000 gallons of Santa Maria crude oil that potentially could be onboard. In 2011, the U.S. Coast Guard awarded a contract to Global Diving & Salvage to conduct an assessment of the condition of the sunken tanker and determine if the oil was still onboard. Schwemmer served on the taskforce and was on board the OSRV Nanuq during the U.S. Coast directed assessment serving as a technical advisor. “The history of the Montebello is still deeply rooted in the communities of Cambria, Cayucos and Morro Bay, for these citizens took heroic action to launch a sea and land rescue for the Montebello’s crew of 38. Today, 70 years after the sinking, of the Montebello people are just learning about the little known history of Japanese submarines attacking and sinking American merchant ships within site of the California shoreline” said Robert Schwemmer
Schwemmer encouraged the community to seek listing for the site on the National Register of Historic Places. Perhaps to commemorate the 75th anniversary? He has helped retrieve this event from lost history. Such a listing would do Cambria proud.