About the time the Japanese submarine I-21 disappeared below the surface, the Union Oil Company's Montebello was pulling away from the company wharf some 20 miles away at Avila, on its way north with a cargo of oil and gasoline. An hour and a half later she found herself in a life-or-death race with a frustrated Japanese submarine commander with vengeance on his mind.
At 5:30 a.m. William Srez, on watch aboard Montebello, alerted Captain Olaf Eckstrom that they were being stalked by what looked like a sub. Five-and-a-half hours earlier, Eckstrom had been the ship's first mate. At midnight, her captain had abruptly resigned, giving the command to Eckstrom.
"I saw a dark outline on the water, close astern of us," said the new captain later. "Srez was right. It was the silhouette of a Jap (sic) submarine, a big fellow, possibly 300 feet long. I ordered the quartermaster at the wheel, John McIsaac, to zigzag. For 10 minutes we tried desperately to cheat the sub, but it was no use. She was too close.[and] let a torpedo go when we were broadside to her."
"The torpedo smashed us square amidships," said Srez, "and there was a big blast and the ship shuddered and trembled and we knew she was done for."
Fortunately for Montebello, the torpedo hit the only compartment not loaded with gasoline. "The men wouldn't have had a chance if any other hold was hit," said Eckstrom. But it did knock out the radio.
"The skipper was as cool as a snowdrift," remembered Srez. "He yelled an order to stand by the lifeboats and then an order to abandon ship, and there was something in the way he gave those orders that made us proud to be serving under him."
As the crew responded by lowering the lifeboats, the Japanese opened fire with their deck gun at nearly point-blank range. "The sub began shelling us," continued Captain Eckstrom. "There was from eight to 10 flashes. One hit the foremast, snapping it. Another whistled by my head so close I could have reached out and touched it. But there was no panic, no hysteria. We got all four lifeboats into the water. Splinters from one of the shells struck some of the boats, but by some kind of miracle, none of us was wounded."
Despite the torpedoing, Eckstrom was not sure Montebello was going to sink, and he ordered his lifeboats "to lie a short distance from the ship. But 45 minutes later, just as dawn was breaking, she went down."
As the 36 men in four lifeboats began rowing for shore, I-21 opened fire with machine guns on the helpless American sailors until poor visibility forced the Japanese to retire. Although no one was wounded, the boat carrying Eckstrom, Srez and four other crewmen was hit.
"Machine-gun bullets hit our boat," said Srez, "and she began leaking like a sieve. We began rowing shoreward, with some of us leaning on the oars for all we were worth and the others bailing." Fighting fatigue, rough water and a leaking boat, it was not until noon—some six hours after the sinking—that the six men literally hit the beach below the town of Cambria. "We were caught in the surf," Srez recalled, "and the lifeboat capsized... Some of the boys were scratched up, and the captain nearly drowned."
THE LITTLE KNOWN DAY IN THE HISTORY OF CAMBRIA By Frank Gregg Goodall
The morning of December 23, 1941 is still very clear in my memory, when our family was awakened by rounds of explosions or gun fire. We didn't know what. We lived in one of the first homes just south of the main business district of Cambria and my older brother and I were sleeping in the front bedroom. My brother was one of the elite, in that he was a member of the Civil Patrol, as I think it was called, and, even more important, he had the keys to the new Chevy pickup owned by Lyon's General Store, where we worked.
My brother, Ralph E. Goodall, or "Butch" as he was called, immediately took off to more or less report to duty. I had just turned 14 years old. I stayed home for a while. However the excitement was too much for me, so I convinced my mother that I should be allowed to see just what was happening. I was after all, a member of some sort of patrol, the Junior Civil Patrol, which had only met once. I don't think anyone had any real idea what to do with a group of young boys.
I immediately caught a ride to the ocean, which was about six miles from our house. I joined a large group which had formed by then on the shore. We could see some sort of shapes out on the ocean. One was apparently the submarine that was firing on the S.S. Montebello. At the time, the S.S. Montebello was the largest oil tanker in the world and was owned by Union Oil Company. A statement that has been widely quoted was that the S.S. Montebello "began to rise from the end and like lifting a telephone pole" slipped beneath the surface. I cannot say that I saw anything that clearly, but I did see the shapes and saw the one flash of gunfire.
We had just returned to the main town of Cambria, when we immediately heard that the lifeboats were attempting to come ashore on the coast, south about five miles from where the tanker had been sunk. This is very rugged coastline with no beach at all.
The only family that I recall living near there was the Wong family. The father lived with his two sons, Victor and Herbie, in a small home just on the edge of the ocean. Their mother lived in San Francisco, where they made frequent trips to visit her. Victor was a classmate of mine, and Herbie was a few years younger. The Wong's, like a number of Chinese families during this period, made a living collecting sea weed on the rocks, baling it like hay and shipping it to China.
When we arrived back at the coast, where the boats had been sighted, we could see just one boat having a very difficult time perhaps 200 yards out to sea. This section of the coast is beyond the Cambria Pines Lodge, maybe six miles from the main part of Cambria and reached from what we always called "the Pines". At that time, there was no public road along the coastline from where the tanker sank and the area the boat was coming in. Plenty of help was available on shore, but it was difficult to see just what to do. Some of the more capable men were able to get a rope out to one person on the rocks closer to the open water.
The sea was rough. You might say that this section of the coast is never very calm. From this time, action came in a hurry as some of the crew started jumping out of the boat and attempting to secure footing on the rocks! All were washed back into the ocean, but then, one by one, they were pulled out to safety.
The captain, Olaf Eckstrom, was really in danger, but one man, David Chase of Morro Bay, jumped into the water with a line and was able to get to the captain. They were both pulled up onto the rocks to safety.
One crewman stayed with the boat. When the boat was lifted by the waves up onto the rocks for a few minutes, he was able to scramble out of the boat onto the rocks without any problems.
It was then that I scrambled out on the rocks and reached into the boat and grabbed one of the oars. I pulled it up the bluff which was then a scene of confusion. The crew was bundled with warm blankets, given coffee and donuts, and placed into various cars for transportation to a safer place. Several of the rescuers were also very wet so they were given the same treatment. The boat itself washed out to sea and disappeared from our sight.
The main crowd left in a hurry, but I stayed to talk with the Wong family a bit. Mr. Wong was very upset over the incident and was thinking of immediately leaving for San Francisco. His two sons, Victor and Herbie, convinced him to stay for the time being. Actually, he lived there into the 50s. Victor and Herbie now both live in Alameda, California, but they still return to Cambria for reunions of Coast Union High School.
There I was on the coast with this eighteen foot oar. The only others remaining were those with regular cars, but no one had any desire to try to load an oar into their car. So I left, very cold and very hungry by now, with my oar. I began walking and walked just past the Cambria Pines Lodge, some six miles perhaps, when Johnny Johns, of the Cambria Water Works, came by in his pickup. He had a rack on top of the truck for pipe, so he loaded me in and took me and my oar home. In those days, everyone in Cambria knew each other, and Johnny, in particular was a friend to everyone including all of us kids. By the time I reached home, I had large blisters on my hands from the several hours it took to carry the oar over the hill.
It is interesting to note that this incident of the S.S. Montebello has rarely been noted in history. The incident on the Santa Barbara shore, where a Japanese submarine actually shelled the coast with a few rounds, is the only event usually noted history. Cambria did not have the Aircraft Watch, which was started later in a small building next to the original site of the elementary school above the main community. About six months later, the Coast Guard moved in and for several years thereafter patrolled the beach with men and dogs.
On the day of the sinking there was no evidence of any military interest. About 2:00 p.m. that afternoon a plane did fly along the coastline, but we were not able to see if it was a military plane or an interested pilot.
In the meantime, I was at home, the proud possessor of an oar from the lifeboat of the S.S. Montebello, which was sunk off the coast of Cambria on December 23, 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor was on December 7, 1941.
Editor's Note:The oar is on display at the Cambria Historical Museum.