The SS Montebello was just a few miles off the Central Coast on a December morning in 1941 when a young lookout spotted the dark outline of a Japanese submarine headed straight for the oil tanker filled with 3 million gallons of crude.

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

“It started going down right away,” Quincy, now 92, told The Associated Press. “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 survivor of the largely forgotten attack two weeks after Pearl Harbor that could still have significant environmental implications.

The ecological disaster after last year’s Gulf of Mexico spill prompted officials to find out how much oil remains in the hold of the 440-foot ship, which lies off the coast of Cambria, to determine how to prevent the crude from leaking and marring the coastline.

“If 3 million gallons 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 with a remotely operated underwater vehicle began their assessment Wednesday by taking samples, a process that was expected to take as many as 12 days.

Officials have video and photos from previous dives, but this is the first time technological advancements will allow them to recover oil samples from the tanks.

The Coast Guard said late that day that the remotely operated vehicle had completed its initial visual assessment of the ship and found no snag hazards or other issues that would impede the operations.

Then on Thursday, the vehicle, operated under contract by Global Diving & Salvage Inc., used a wire-brush attachment to clean a 30-inch by 30-inch square on the hull of the tanker so that an instrument called a “neutron backscatter” will be able to get an accurate reading of the amount of oil in the cargo tanks.

Only about a third of the areas needed had been cleaned after the first day.

Ultrasonic thickness testing of the steel hull got an initial reading of nearly a half-inch thick, which is also needed to calibrate the oil-measuring instrument.

While it’s possible the oil leaked out over the 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. “It’s 40 degrees down there. 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 on Dec. 22, 1941,  with fresh crude bound for a refinery in Canada.

Quincy said it was the second such trip they had taken, and they 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 into 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.”

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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 900 feet below the surface about six miles 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, Eggers said.

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 on the coast off Oregon and Crescent City.

Among other famous World War II attacks in the American theater, submarines shelled an oil field at Ellwood on Santa Barbara County’s Gaviota Coast as well as an Oregon military installation, and a float plane dropped incendiary bombs in the woods near Brookings, Ore.

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, R-San Luis Obispo, 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.

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