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Captains of the United States

From The Last Great Race The S.S. United States and the Blue Riband

by Lawrence M. Driscoll

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Harry Manning // 1952 – 1953

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Commodore Harry Manning
Photo Courtesy of the Mariner’s Museum

When Harry Manning took over as skipper of the S.S. United States the country had developed a reputation as a great sea power with a first rate Navy, offset by a regrettable third-rate passenger fleet. In control of the most powerful passenger liner ever built, Manning was determined to show the world that Americans could build and sail record breaking ocean liners.

Determination was nothing new to Manning. A short kid with a lisp, his parents were never surprised when he came home from school with a bloody nose. Smart and tough, he conquered the lisp, graduated from the New York Nautical School and went to sea. As a junior officer on tankers, freighters and passenger ships Manning became known as a perfectionist who wanted things done his way. “I was an awful son of a bitch in those early days,” claimed Manning and he had the scars to prove it. Both his hands bore the knife marks wielded by stowaways and fights with “various obstreperous members of the crew”. At one time an angry steward tried to poison him by dumping roach powder in his coffee.

Manning believed in the power of the human will to achieve any objective. Ambushed and beaten up by drunken sailors in Bremerhaven he decided that a rudimentary knowledge of boxing could have made the difference. He quickly set out to become an accomplished boxer. Pursuing other interests with the same determination, he became an expert aviator, navigator, radio operator, student of Shakespeare, pianist and tango dancer. His navigation and radio skills were so good that Amelia Earhart asked him to join her in her around the world flight. Manning flew with Earhart as far as Hawaii where the plane encountered mechanical difficulties. Forced by time commitments to return to his sea duties, Manning withdrew from the ill-fated flight.

In the press he was known as the ‘habitual hero’ for his various mid-ocean rescues. In 1929 he was catapulted to fame for his rescue of 32 seaman from the sinking Italian freighter Florida. Using a lifeboat, Manning and a volunteer crew rowed for over an hour in heavy swells and blustery winds for a just in time rescue. The next day his exploits were front page news and he returned to a hero’s welcome. The mayor of New York City gave him a ticker tape parade and the keys to the city. His fame did not last long. He was roundly criticized in the press for using his influence at City Hall to get a speeding ticket fixed. His relationship with the press deteriorated further when he threw a drunken reporter out of his office. Anti – smoking advocates criticized him for cashing in on his celebrity status by lending his name to a cigarette endorsement. Reflecting on his moments of fame and fall from grace, Manning commented, “My life wasn’t my own, it dawned on me that I was being shown around to amuse people and I didn’t like it.”[1] He was glad to return to sea.

In the early days of WWII, when the United States was neutral, a German U Boat Captain stopped Manning and his ship, the Washington. In the early pre-dawn hours the Nazi captain flashed a blinker message “Torpedo Ship.” Manning loaded the 1500 passenger into the lifeboats. He flashed back “American Ship,” the sub responded, “You have ten minutes” followed by a long silence. As the lives of his passengers and crew hung in the balance, Manning began a series of rapid-fire messages designed to keep the sub captain translating instead of calculating torpedo trajectories. As daylight crept over the water the sub captain recognized the Washington, “Thought you were another ship, please go on, go on.”

His fame and nautical skills landed Manning the honorary title of Commodore of the line and position as captain of the newly renovated passenger liner S.S. America. A perfectionist, Manning was hard on himself and his crew. To the officers and crew he was known as a great ship handler with a prickly personality. Passengers admired him for his sincerity competence and devotion to their safety. A friend once remarked, “You don’t always get a glad hand when you sail with Manning, but you feel dammed safe.” [2]

Manning felt more comfortable on the bridge than at the captain’s table. There is evidence that he shared the view of some mariners that ‘There are two kinds of people in this world – seagoing folks and shore bastards.’ A self-described “stubborn, bullheaded, tactless introvert”, he lacked a capacity for small talk. He overcame this handicap with the usual determination and taught himself enough of the social graces to get by. As captain he entertained small groups of VIP passengers in his cabin. They were stiff formal affairs. If the guest lingered too long he would end the visit saying he was needed on the bridge.

Devotion to a career at sea also took a toll on his personal life. His first marriage lasted only two years before ending in divorce. According to Manning “I couldn’t serve two masters.”[3]

As a self-centered individualist, he had little use for unions. When captains formed their own union and threatened to tie up his ship unless he joined, Manning blasted back. “I’ll starve before I join … England rewards the captain of the Queen Elizabeth with knighthood. They want to reward me with a union card and picket sign.” [4] The Unions backed down and let his ship sail.

Harry Manning retired to mixed reviews. To many, he was a hero who restored pride to the American Merchant Marine. Decorated and honored by his country and by foreign nations for his rescue at sea, he was known as America’s captain and was with the most recognized nautical name in the country.

Strongly opinionated, he attracted more than his share of critics. Some found his speeding in fog on the maiden voyage reckless. Crewmembers called him “Hurry up Harry” for speeding in rough seas. Unions disliked his dictatorial management style. William Francis Gibbs disliked his stubborn behavior when the two perfectionists clashed over what each considered proper ballasting of the ship.

At the height of his career Manning became disillusioned with his job. Unions had eclipsed his power, ship to shore radio gave management influence over his activities, chief engineers were master of the engine room and company agents infringed on his authority in port. As the glory and sense of personal achievement from the maiden voyage faded, it was replaced by a feeling of despair. “The only time he’s (the captain) any dam use is when there’s trouble. If there’s no trouble, he doesn’t amount to a tinker’s damn.”[5] The years at sea also took a toll on his health. On the maiden voyage he lost ten pounds and slept an average of four hours a night. He suffered from reoccurring seasickness and injuries from a previous airplane crash. It was time to retire. On May 1, 1953 John Franklin accepted the Commodore’s resignation “with regret.”

“Forty years at sea is sufficient,” Manning, told a good friend. “It’s time to quit when one is at the top.” [6] Manning moved to New Jersey, remarried and led a quiet life of lecturing and consulting.

On August 2, 1974, Vice Admiral Harry Manning passed away at his home in Saddle River New Jersey. He was seventy seven years old.

John Anderson // 1953 – 1964
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Commodore John Anderson
Photo The United States merchant Marine Academy Museum

Commodore Anderson’s greatest regret was not being in command of the United States on her maiden voyage. Anderson was then captain of the America. Nine months later he took command of the United States.

As captain he was fair with the crew yet insistent on discipline and good service to passengers. Always a gentleman, he had an unfailing good nature and a reputation for excellent seamanship. In maritime parlance he ran a ‘happy ship’ defined as a positive on board atmosphere that comes from a good relationship between the captain, officers and crew.

He broke the Queen Mary’s record eighteen times while avoiding the impression of racing. “We don’t race anybody,” Anderson explained, “We don’t have to; we’re faster than anybody else.” [7] In contrast to Manning, Anderson would detour the United States to avoid embarrassing the crew and passengers of the Queens by passing at close quarters. “I’m sure any Cunard captain in the same position would do the same thing.”[8] He proved his skill as a ship handler when he finessed the United States into Pier 86 during a tug boat strike. The feat brought cheers from thousands who came to watch what could have been a disaster. The episode was front-page news with Anderson declaring that “Tugs are a convenience.”

As captain, Anderson earned less than some members of his crew. With tips, stewards and waiters could afford luxury transportation. When the ship docked in New York they were picked up in Cadillac’s and Lincolns while Anderson drove away in a battered old Ford. To many on the crew something was wrong when the captain of the nation’s flagship was relegated to a lower form of transportation. Determined to show their concern and appreciation, the crew pitched in and gave him the keys to a new Ford upon his promotion to the rank of Commodore.

On February 19, 1964, Commodore Anderson ended his 49 years of service with a ‘flourish’, according to the New York Times. Without the aid of tugboats, which were out because of a strike, he docked the United States in a swirling snowstorm. His final docking was saluted by a fleet of Coast Guard vessels and New York City fire-boats.

Leroy J. Alexanderson // 1964 – 1969

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Commodore Leroy J Alexanderson
Photo US Merchant Marine Academy Museum

The last master of the United States was a tough guy who barked orders in a never fading Brooklyn accent. He looked and acted the part of commodore of the line and captain of the ship. A distinguished looking man, with silver gray hair, Alexanderson had a commanding manner and was always perfectly attired. A stickler for detail, he once banished a passenger department staffer from the dance floor for wearing his black bow tie loosened a la Sinatra. To the crew he was Alex or Captain Ajax for his demanding white glove inspections.

Alexanderson served as captain of the America until 1955 when he moved over to the United States as executive officer. He would later recall, “That was a move up for me. It was quite an honor to be assigned to a ship like that.” Alexanderson served as captain after Commodore John Anderson retired in 1964. Two years later he was named Commodore of the US Lines 52 ship fleet.

He served as captain until the ship’s lay-up in 1969, then as captain on the container ship American Legion for seven years. Commodore Alexanderson retired in 1976 after spending more than 40 years at sea in war and peace.

His interest in the United States never wavered, moving down to the Newport News Virginia area to be close to his ship. He was hurt and angered by her slow decline and the sale of the contents. When asked to say a few words at the auction of the ship’s contents, he told bidders it deserved a better end than being stripped apart and left to languish at the pier. “I’d rather have them take her out to sea with all flags flying and let her go.”

He was 93 when he passed away in Hampton, VA., near his vessel’s birthplace, Newport News.

Abridged Interview with Captain John S. Tucker // 1967 – 1969

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Captain John S. Tucker, S.S. United States bridge wing-at sea; 1967-1969
Photo courtesy of Captain Tucker

Abridged interview with Captain John S. Tucker. Summer 2008 issue of STEAMBOAT BILL, The journal of the Steamship Historical Society of America.

My search for information on the United States and US Lines led me to one of the ship’s last captain, John Tucker. He was there at the beginning as a deck officer for the acceptance trials and maiden voyage. In the 1960’s he would serve as captain and in the end, he kept the lights burning while the ship was laid up in Newport News.

After years of living in tight quarters at sea, John Tucker has settled into a large comfortable home in remote Western Maine. We move into his study, and when he tells me “Do I have some stories for you” I know this is going to be an interesting visit. Over the next six hours we talked about his career, ships, people, and the United States.

Tucker graduated from the United States Merchant Marine Academy in 1950 as regimental commander, rated as outstanding in academic work and leadership. From there he landed a job at United States Lines working on the company’s freighters and the luxury liner S.S. America. “I liked the America. She was a nice ship but a bit short up front. In heavy weather they rued the day she was designed with a short bow. I hate to say this but the older S.S. Washington could walk away from the America in heavy seas”.
His next assignment from the Marine Superintendent was an offer to sail on the new S.S. United States. “Get your second mate’s license and I will get you a job as third officer on the ship”. He joined a select group of nine deck officers for the builder’s trials.

On June 23, 1952; the new S.S. United States sailed into her home port of New York. Third Mate John Tucker was put in charge of the ships horn. The welcoming salutes were pouring in so fast he found no time to take his hands from the whistle control. “I was blowing enough so I had to listen to what was being said on the bridge so as not to interrupt an order”.

Tucker move up the ranks at United States Lines serving on the company’s freighter ships. As a Captain he returned to the United States s as Executive Officer and relieving Captain under Commodore Leroy Alexanderson. “I was 41 when I first took the US out”. He clearly enjoyed the job. “I can remember when I was skipper and people would say to me. Doesn’t the responsibility of everything on this ship and you are a very young man, doesn’t that bother you? I told them no; if it bothered me I should not be here”. What did he like about the job? “I loved all of it. I remember Commodore John Anderson came up to the bridge one moonlight night; he looked up at the stars and said, “You know it’s a sin to take the money”. I was a natural; I liked what I was doing every time I stepped on board a ship, big or small”. As captain, what were his concerns? “Traffic, visibility, other ships, where are they? In addition, where are they going”?

He was there at the end when the ship was retired serving as caretaker along with Chief Engineer John Logue. Together they performed maintenance duties and make-work projects. “We kept the lights going as long as we had bulbs including the stack lights. “It was a lot of make work projects” said Tucker who recalls making silverware searches. As officers on the bridge, they once had the privilege of ordering anything they wanted to eat while on watch. They now prepared their own lunch with canned goods from the pantry. “We had a lot of very expensive canned smoked oysters and lobster; we warmed them on the hot plate, added crackers and ate lunch”. Water came from a single garden hose. Shipyard workers took advantage of the bathroom facilities. Tucker, who used to entertain the Duke of Windsor in his cabin, was left with cleaning up. “Johnny Logue and I had to clean them out. I often thought to myself, if the Duke of Windsor could see me now”!

Tuckers last command was the American Puritan. When he docked the ship in Oakland, the Marine Superintendent called to tell him it was over, no more US Lines, the company had declared bankruptcy. “By then I was 60, had led a full life, however after 37 years it was time to retire.”

In retirement, the Tuckers traveled, visiting friends and sailing the North Atlantic on board the Cunard Liners, Queen Elizabeth 2 and Queen Mary 2.


Captains of the  United States


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