Cayucos, an old-fashioned beach town, sits on the coast of California between San Luis Obispo and Carmel. I’ve been there only once, but recently, I’ve developed a craving for the place, hoping rampant progress hasn’t turned it into New Port Beach (yet). Not only does it have a spectacular fishing pier, but also claims an intriguing bit of history.
In 1865, James Cass sailed around the Horn of South America (Cape Horn) and, when he reached middle California, acquired 326 acres of prime coastal land and there he settled. One of the first things he did was build a pier, in addition to multiple warehouses. Cass soon extended the pier to accommodate steamships to service San Francisco. Simultaneously, dozens of Swiss Italians, who were being displaced by the Kingdom of Italy, immigrated there. Butter, cheese, fish, and abalone were prime yields for San Francisco. Italian was the language most often spoken, and rum-running was in vogue. Ranchers indulged in disposable income, from time-to-time, and even had a humdinger of a bank robbery (which still remains unsolved).
As my interest in Cayucos soared, a World War II incident there caught my imagination.
In early 1941, my family lived in Hollywood and, from my second story bedroom window, I could watch searchlights in San Pedro fanning the skies for enemy aircraft. Meanwhile up the coast, the SS Montebello (440 feet long) was set to embark for Vancouver, Canada, from Cayucos. She had thousands of barrels of fuel oil and gasoline on board. The trip was well within her capabilities, as she had made trips to Hawaii regularly.
The ship’s departure was scheduled for just before midnight on Dec. 21, 1941. Minutes before the ship was to sail, the crew balked; the terms of their insurance didn’t match the danger that was involved. A replacement crew was found in San Pedro, and the original crew was replaced. At that point, the captain became ill and a new captain had to be found, plus all the previous paperwork had to be changed. Finally, just before midnight on December 23, just 16 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the SS Montebello set sail.
The night was foggy, visibility dismal. The ship just a short distance off the coast of Cambria and Cayucos. It was approximately 5:30 a.m. when a lookout sighted the silhouette of a submarine. The captain was notified, who immediately ordered a zigzag course, but it was too late.
The first torpedo hit an empty fuel compartment. It was a dud. The second torpedo hit a compartment filled with fuel. The impact blew the upper cabin house off the ship. Knowing the ship was sinking, the captain ordered “abandon ship” and three lifeboats were lowered. As the lifeboats pulled away from the ship, rifle fire erupted from the sub. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Then eight or nine salvos were fired from the deck gun of the submarine and that was enough - the ship sank. Tugboats were directed to the area and the entire crew was put ashore at the Cayucos pier.
What holds my interest is, this didn’t happen on the beaches of Normandy. On December 23, 1941, submarine I-21 of the Imperial Navy of Japan, sent the SS Montebello to the bottom just off shore of Cayucos, California. An important bit of history worth sharing.
Ron Walker can be reached at email@example.com