The U.S. Coast Guard lived up to its motto of being “Always Ready” in 2011 – from interdicting the first drug sub in Caribbean waters to providing humanitarian relief to a drought-stricken island nation, Coast Guard crews had a remarkable year. As 2011 winds down, Compass brings to you “Your Coast Guard in 2011” – a series highlighting the top stories, missions and cases from around the nation. Visit us every day this week to read about each district and the extraordinary men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard.
We are heading to the West Coast today, where you’ll hear about a unique underwater operation undertaken by the 11th Coast Guard District.
Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Adam T. Eggers and Petty Officer 3rd Class Seth A. Johnson.
In addition to the 11th Coast Guard District’s record-breaking drug busts and hundreds of life-saving missions, the Coast Guard played a key role in an unusual operation mounted off the coast of Southern California in 2011 that solved a decades-old mystery.
The tanker SS Montebello departed Port San Luis, Calif., in the early morning hours of Dec. 23, 1941, loaded with more than 3 million gallons of oil. A lookout spotted something traveling underwater in the tanker’s wake just before 5:30 a.m. The underwater vessel surfaced on the tanker’s starboard quarter and fired. Somehow, a Japanese Imperial navy submarine had travelled undetected to within six miles of the California coast – just 16 days after the attack at Naval Station at Pearl Harbor.
The torpedo strike sheared off the bow of the ship and after 25 minutes of frantic attempts to save the vessel, the order was given to abandon ship. By 6:45 a.m., the tanker had slipped below the ocean’s surface and was gone.
In an effort to avoid mass hysteria, federal agents stormed major city newsstands and confiscated copies detailing the attack and survivor accounts.
Over time, the tale of the Montebello was relegated to local lore and the ship was nearly forgotten.
In 1996 a research vessel located the wreckage and identified it as the doomed tanker. Seven years later, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, in collaboration with archaeologists from California State Parks and California Department of Transportation, surveyed the wreck. In 2009, a task force was formed to investigate the environmental risk posed by the tanker and its presumed cargo.
The task force worked with oil spill prevention personnel from Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach because the ship sits on the ocean floor in federal waters outside the state’s jurisdiction.
The mission called for an underwater remotely operated vehicle to travel 900 feet to the wreck, survey the site, drill and plug several small holes in the cargo tanks and take cargo and sediment samples. The massive list of difficult objectives needed to be completed within a two-week timeframe.
Coast Guard men and women from Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach, the 11th District, the Coast Guard’s Pacific Strike Team and Coast Guard Headquarters converged at the scene when operations started in Morro Bay, Calif.
“Our number one objective for this mission was to determine what threat, if any, the Montebello posed to the waters and shorelines of California,” said Capt. Roger Laferriere, commander of Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach.
To do this, a remotely operated underwater vehicle’s camera was deployed and provided responders with the visual of the challenge that lay ahead as it completed a full sweep of the tanker Oct. 12.
Over the next 11 days, the ROV returned to the final resting place of the Montebello using cleaning tools, nuclear imaging technology and a drilling system to tap cargo tanks. It drew samples after drilling a one-inch hole through the ship’s hull to the tanks – at the same time it sealed any gaps to avoid potential spillage. A sample was extracted into the drill, and the remaining hole was sealed.
After the samples were collected and examined by scientists, it was determined Montebello posed no risk to the environment because it had lost its cargo sometime in the past. After examining the evidence, the mission was called a success.
No matter the year, no matter the mission, the Coast Guard men and women of the 11th Coast Guard District will continue to protect the people and environment they serve.