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OBITUARIES : Frank Higbee, Former L.A. Port Warden

September 10, 1986|JERRY BELCHER | Times Staff Writer

Retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Frank D. Higbee, who went to sea on everything from square-rigger sailing ships to nuclear-powered vessels, has died in San Pedro at the age of 92.

Higbee, a decorated veteran of World Wars I and II, served as warden of the Port of Los Angeles for nearly 20 years.

Vigorous and alert to the end, he collapsed during his regular daily workout at the local YMCA, was rushed to San Pedro Peninsula Hospital and pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at 8:02 a.m. Monday.

'That's the Way to Go'

"I'll really miss him," his daughter, Anne Higbee-Glace, said Tuesday, "but when a man dies at 92 while doing push-ups--that's the way to go." Although he had long since stopped going to sea, he maintained his first-class pilot's license, renewing it only last July. "Allowing it to lapse," he told a reporter, "is to sink into the past."

A native of Albany, N.Y., orphaned as a child, Higbee enlisted in the Navy in 1913, serving on the cruiser Galveston in the Pacific, and on the Bainbridge, the first destroyer in the American fleet. By 1917, he had risen to the rank of warrant officer, and with the outbreak of World War I he was promoted to ensign.

He served throughout the war on transports, crossing and recrossing the U-boat-infested North Atlantic.

After the war he took his discharge to try farming in Oregon but went back to sea within a few months as an officer in the Merchant Marine.

He was commissioned a lieutenant in the Coast Guard in 1926. His first tour of duty as a Coast Guardsman was aboard the barkentine Bear, on which he spent two years in Arctic waters.

Captain of Port

He served as Coast Guard captain of the port for Long Beach and Los Angeles just before World War II.

In 1942, Higbee took command of the troop ship General Scott, later transferring to the Pacific Theater to command a flotilla of 32 landing ships.

Among his most treasured possessions was a portrait of Gen. Douglas MacArthur inscribed "to Capt. Higbee, a Comrade in Arms."

"I was serving as beach master at Tacloban, in Leyte, and met the general when he waded ashore on his historic 'I have returned' landing (in the Philippines)," Higbee recalled in a 1980 interview. "I saluted and said, 'Good morning, general,' and he responded with only four words, 'See me in Tokyo.' "

Higbee did indeed see MacArthur in Japan at the end of the war, when the veteran seaman was named to the temporary post of captain of the Port of Yokohama.

Higbee retired from the Coast Guard in 1946 as a rear admiral and in 1947 was appointed port warden, the port's chief technical administrator. Higbee was legendary for his strictness in enforcing safety regulations in the port and in 1954--long before the ecology movement became popular--had the master of a vessel jailed for spilling gasoline in the harbor. Some labor union leaders and shipping executives demanded his ouster because of his tough stance on safety.

After retiring from that post, he later became maritime adviser to the State Lands Commission.

His daughter Anne, of Bolton, Mass., is a veteran of Coast Guard duty during World War II. He also is survived by daughters Joan Mercer of Toronto, Canada, a World War II veteran of the Women's Army Corps, and attorney Joyce Denny of Monrovia.

A memorial service will be held Sept. 23 at the Navy chapel on Terminal Island.

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