SS Montebello

SS Montebello
Owner: Union Oil Company
Builder: Southwestern Shipbuilding Company
Yard number: 21
Laid down: 20 April 1920
Launched: 1921
Fate: Sunk 1943
General characteristics
  • 8,272 GT
  • 5,107 NT
Length: 440 ft (130 m)
Beam: 58.2 ft (17.7 m)
Draft: 32.8 ft (10.0 m)

SS Montebello was an oil tanker sunk by the Japanese submarine, I-21, off the coast of California on December 23, 1941.[1][2]

Ship description

Report on the sinking.

SS Montebello was a shelter-deck oil tanker built by the Southwestern Shipbuilding Company in San Pedro, California for the Union Oil Company. She was launched in 1921. Steel hulled, she had a length of 440 feet (130 m), beam of 58.2 feet (17.7 m), and draft of 32.8 feet (10.0 m).[3] The ship had ten divided liquid storage tanks which ran the width of the ship and was a single-hull design. She had an expected life of 25 years and was 20 years old when torpedoed.[3] When she went down, Montebello held 73,571 barrels (11,696.9 m3) of crude oil along with 104,034 US gallons (393,810 L) of fuel oil for her engines.[2]


Montebello was torpedoed after leaving for Vancouver, British Columbia, from the small Central Coast seaport of Port San Luis.

The officers and crew were aware there had been several attacks on American shipping off the West Coast. The risk was so high that Montebello's skipper had refused to take the ship to sea and he quit. After replacing the captain with the chief mate, Olaf Eckstrom,[2] they set off at midnight. At approximately 5:45 am, off the coast of the small town of Cambria, California,[4] just north of Morro Bay, two torpedoes hit the ship. Though one was a dud,[2] the torpedo responsible for the sinking struck forward in the pump room and dry storage cargo hold.[5]

The crew was unarmed, and as the men jumped into lifeboats, the submarine surfaced and fired at them with its deck gun. By 6:30 am, the ship had stood on her bow and slid under, according to a report published the next day. No one was killed.[6][7][8]

Exploration of the wreck

In an expedition conducted on November 7, 1996, the submersible Delta descended with two men on board to the wreck at a depth of 880 feet (270 m) and found Montebello sitting upright on the bottom. Based on their observations it was concluded that a single torpedo hit Montebello just forward of the pump room. While the bow was broken from the impact with the sea floor, the overall condition of the wreck was thought to be quite good, giving rise to the concern that she could still hold her liquid cargo.[3][8]

In August 2010 the wreck was examined by a robot submarine from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute[2] to determine whether the oil cargo was still on board and whether it posed a possible environmental threat. The expedition created three-dimension images of the ship using sonar, to be analyzed onshore. Jack Hunter, an archaeologist for Caltrans who examined the wreck in 1996 and compared the images from the 2010 expedition expressed concern that the wreck has deteriorated over the past 14 years and could represent a risk if the cargo leaks.[2]

Further explorations of the wreck were scheduled for 2011 at an expected cost of $2.3 million, to be paid from a fund which oil companies pay into for such situations.[2][8][9] After two weeks of extensive testing in October 2011, researchers determined that no crude oil remained in the tanker and such oil most likely was released from the vessel shortly after sinking and dissipated throughout the region.[9][10]

The shipwreck was listed on the US National Register of Historic Places in 2016.


  1. Chawkins, Steve (February 20, 2004). "Experts probe WWII wreck just off California's coast". Oakland Tribune via HighBeam Research. (subscription required (help)).
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Nolte, Carl (August 27, 2010). "Oil aboard sunken WWII tanker may pose threat". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved October 18, 2011.
  3. 1 2 3 Ruppe, Carol (2002). International Handbook of Underwater Archaeology. Kluwer Academic Publishers. p. 728. ISBN 0-306-46345-8.
  4. "S.S. Montebello". California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Retrieved January 6, 2014.
  5. "S.S. Montebello:Assessing Potential Pollution Effects to the Marine Environment and California Coast" (pdf). California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Retrieved October 18, 2011.
  6. "WWII tanker off Calif. coast may still pose threat". Boston Globe. Associated Press. August 29, 2010.
  7. "Title unknown". New Times. San Luis Obispo. December 2009.
  8. 1 2 3 Schwartz, Noaki (October 17, 2011). "Is sunken WWII tanker a threat to coast?". Orange County Register. Santa Ana, CA. pp. 1, 6.
  9. 1 2 "U.S. seeks to pull oil from tanker torpedoed by Japan". The Japan Times. Associated Press. October 19, 2011. Archived from the original on October 19, 2011.
  10. Barboza, Tony (October 20, 2011). "Sunken WWII boat mystery: Where did 3 million gallons of oil go?". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 21, 2011.

Coordinates: 35°35′N 121°16′W / 35.583°N 121.267°W / 35.583; -121.267

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