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Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011

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Now on the bottom: The SS Montebello is launched Jan. 21, 1921, in East San Pedro, California. AP

U.S. seeks to pull oil from tanker torpedoed by Japan


LOS ANGELES — The SS Montebello was just a few kilometers off California's Central Coast on a December morning in 1941 when a young lookout spotted the dark outline of a submarine headed straight for the oil tanker hauling 11 million liters of crude.

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The lull: Merchant mariners dine in the mess of the tanker SS Montebello in this U.S. Coast Guard photo released on Dec. 24, 1941, the day after the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off Cambria, California. All hands were rescued. AP

Richard Quincy saw a small spark in the dawn's early light, followed by an explosion as a Japanese torpedo rocked the ship and showered the bridge in water.

"It started going down right away," Quincy, 92, recalled. "We couldn't figure out why it wasn't burning. That was the scary part until they started shooting at us and then it got scarier."

Quincy is the last remaining survivor of the largely forgotten attack two weeks after Pearl Harbor that could still have significant environmental implications. The ecological disaster following last year's Gulf of Mexico spill drove officials to find out how much oil remains in the hold of the 134-meter ship to determine how to prevent the crude from leaking and marring the celebrated California coastline.

"If 3 million gallons (11 million liters) of oil made its way to the beaches in front of Hearst Castle, it would be a disaster for the area," said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman with California's Fish and Game Department.

Divers along with a remotely operated underwater vehicle are making an assessment and taking samples, a process that is expected to take a couple of weeks. Officials have video and photos from previous dives, but this is the first time technological advancements are allowing them to recover oil samples from the tanks.

While it's possible the oil leaked out over the past decades, officials say crude likely remains in the hull. By this point, the oil is so old it likely has the consistency of peanut butter, said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Adam Eggers.

"No one knows what 70-year-old oil does," he said. "Is it going to rise to the surface, warm up and liquefy or it is going to be a rock?"

The Montebello set out from Port San Luis, California, on Dec. 22, 1941, bound for a refinery in Canada with fresh crude.

Quincy said it was the second such trip they had taken and had been warned that Japanese submarines were in the area. The torpedo hit the ship's bow, which cracked off when the Montebello hit the ocean floor.

Quincy had just pointed out the sub when the torpedo exploded. Mariners jolted from their sleep scrambled in the winter cold to get in lifeboats.

"It was cloudy and a little misty and there was a wind blowing," Quincy said. "It was pretty miserable. Particularly for some of them who didn't have anything but their underwear on."

All 38 aboard were rescued after rowing away from the hail of bullets.

"I was real scared," Quincy said. "We thought it might catch fire because we were carrying a volatile product."

The Montebello, meanwhile, has been sitting upright ever since 275 meters below the surface about 10 km off Cambria. Murky pictures from previous dives show a ship partially covered in a thick coat of barnacles, starfish and marine debris.

Few knew about the Montebello's fate even immediately after it sank. Fearing a mass panic that the Japanese had gotten so close to shore, the government confiscated newspaper reports about the sinking at the time and did not publicly disclose the event even into the Cold War, said Eggers.

In fact, Japanese submarines operated along the U.S. West Coast, although they did not sink the large numbers of ships that German U-boats claimed along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico. In addition to the Montebello, two other tankers were sunk off Oregon and Crescent City, California.

Among other famous World War II attacks in the American theater, submarines shelled a California oil field and an Oregon military installation, and a floatplane dropped incendiary bombs in the woods near Brookings, Oregon. Japan also launched thousands of bomb-laden balloons across the Pacific in a largely failed attempt to set American forests ablaze. One bomb did kill an Oregon woman and five children.

Decades after it went down, the Montebello became a concern when local efforts to memorialize the sinking led to a 1996 scientific survey that located the wreck and discovered it was mostly intact — particularly the cargo holds. The presumption that oil was still inside led to worries that a rupture could threaten the nearby Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, but the depth made recovery unlikely and only monitoring continued.

It wasn't until 2009 that state Sen. Sam Blakeslee learned about the potential environmental disaster from a local newspaper report about the Montebello, news that eventually prompted him to help assemble a team of federal and state officials and scientists to investigate the situation. The effort will cost $2.3 million, money that will come out of a fund that oil companies pay into for such measures.

"It was one of those issues that was really not on anyone's radar and no one really knew the ship was out there," he said. "That terrible incident in the Gulf of Mexico galvanized all the stakeholders to take action and be proactive and get answers, given the terrible cost and environmental damaged that occurred."

A report recommending a possible course of action is expected to be released later this year.

Officials worry a potential spill from the Montebello could eclipse the massive Santa Barbara oil platform blowout that coated a stretch of California coastline in 1969, washing ashore the bodies of dolphins and seals.

Another ship that sank in 1953 near San Francisco called the SS Jacob Luckenbach slowly leaked some of the roughly 2 million liters of oil the freighter was carrying, fouling the coast for decades. The coast guard spent $20 million to remove oil from the ship and seal it from future leaks, which had already killed tens of thousands of seabirds.

For his part, Quincy said he intends to keep an eye on what the mission uncovers. He's seen past videos that panned over the ship and even spotted the area where he had been standing when they were hit.

"It'll be interesting to see just how much the damage there was and where it was and all that," he said. "It would bring back a lot of memories. It was a wild night."

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