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80th anniversary of submarine attack off of Central Coast which brought World War II home to region

The SS Montebello was sunk by a Japanese submarine off the Santa Luis Obispo County coastline 80 years ago, on December 23, 1941
NOAA Photo
The SS Montebello was sunk by a Japanese submarine off the Santa Luis Obispo County coastline 80 years ago, on December 23, 1941.

Survivor of the sinking of the SS Montebello, off of the San Luis Obispo County coast, recounts December, 1941 ordeal.

It was a bleak Christmas for America. It was just two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II.

80 years ago this week, the war came to the Central Coast.

A tanker loaded with three million gallons of crude oil was torpedoed, and sunk just hours after she left port San Luis.

Richard Quincy is the last living crew member from the SS Montebello.

Quincy was just 22 years old at the time. It was his turn to stand watch as the ship was headed north along the San Luis Obispo County coastline, near Point Piedras Blancas.

Richard Quincy on board the SS Montebello in 1941.
Richard Quincy
Richard Quincy on board the SS Montebello in 1941.

He saw the silhouette of a sub in the distance. Quincy says it all happened quickly after the sub was spotted. He notified the captain, but almost at the same time the ship was rocked by a torpedo hit.

Quincy says the biggest fear was fire. The 440 foot long tanker was carrying about 73,000 barrels.

He says they later figured out they were lucky in that the torpedo struck an oil tank which happened to be empty. But, at the time, the 38 crew members on board the ship which was bound for British Columbia knew their situation was bad, and as they discovered, it would soon get worse.

The Japanese submarine, the I-21, had fire two torpedoes at the Montebello. One was a dud, but the other hit. When the sub’s commander saw that the ship was sinking, he surfaced. That’s when they 1-21 opened fire with its deck gun. One of the rounds hit the bow of the tanker, speeding up its sinking.

As the crew watched from their lifeboats, the tanker slipped under the surface a little over an hour after it was torpedoed. Miraculously, all 38 crew members survived.

And Quincy is still a survivor. He’s 102 years old.

It wasn’t the only submarine attack off the west coast in the opening days of World War II. In December of 1941, eight ships were attacked, with two sunk and two damaged. The tanker H.M. Story was attacked by a sub off the Santa Barbara County coastline, but it escaped undamaged.

The Montebello ended up on the ocean floor about four miles offshore. The wreck is about 900 feet below the ocean’s surface. The wreckage was surveyed by a tiny two person sub in 1996, to try to assess the status of the tanks holding the three million gallons of crude oil.

But, further exploration with robotic craft in 2010, and 2011 determined that the oil was gone. The theory was that it was released, and that it dissipated right after the shop was sunk.

The shipwreck is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.