THE MARITIME COMMUNITY LOST A FRIEND the other day. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Frank Higbee, 92, died the way he had lived, active and vital, just after the daily mile swim that he said had kept his mind sharp the extra two decades beyond the usual three score and ten.
Adm. Higbee had been raised by his grandfather, a survivor of the Sultana riverboat disaster at the end of the Civil War. That steamship was overloaded with former prisoners from the South's Andersonville and Castle Morgan prison camps when its boilers exploded on the Mississippi River, with the loss of more than 1,500 lives.Adm. Higbee never forgot his grandfather's story of clinging to the wreckage in a river filled with dying men. He devoted much of his life to the cause of maritime safety.
He first went to sea in the days when commercial ships still used sails. After many years in the Navy, he transfered to the Coast Guard. He cursed his luck at being assigned to chart the obscure waters of the Philippine Islands. When World War II began, he became the expert on those islands. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines, it was Adm. Higbee's men who had cleared the beaches for him.
He also was assigned to monitor wartime port security at Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors. During a visit by President Roosevelt, Frank Higbee took the president around the harbors in a launch, pointing out dangers and urging use of wartime powers to control the hazards. Safety rules set up by President Roosevelt's executive order helped establish the Coast Guard captain of the port system that exists today.
Later, the retired Adm. Higbee was named port warden for Los Angeles harbor, a role that did not always endear him to officers for shipping lines. He once jailed a ship captain for a weekend after he discovered alleged safety violations. In his later years, Adm. Higbee was a champion of tanker safety, urging that such ships be kept out of extremely congested inner harbor areas and that they be moored so they could be quickly sailed to sea in the event of a fire.
Tim Waters, a Southern California maritime writer, noted shortly after the admiral's death that most of us in the maritime field would do well to accomplish half what Adm. Higbee did. We agree.