The Life of Harry Manning, First Captain of the SS United States
Blog post author Michael G. Jedd is an SS United States Conservancy member.
Harry Manning was born in Germany in 1897. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 10 and was educated at the New York Nautical School, currently known as SUNY Maritime Fort Schuyler, and majored in navigation.
His first assignment after graduation was navigator aboard the sailing bark Dirigo. Upon U.S. entry into World War I, Manning was re-assigned to the school ship USS Newport, which was responsible for bringing stranded American refugees home from the Mediterranean.
In 1921, Manning joined United States Lines as a Junior Officer. A man of many talents, he enjoyed linguistics, aviation, Shakespeare, ham radios and the piano. He also became an accomplished boxer after being ambushed by a group of drunken sailors in Bremerhaven, Germany.
In 1928 Manning assumed command of the SS President Roosevelt. It was at this time that a lasting friendship with famed aviator Amelia Earhart began. Earhart was returning to the United States from her historic solo transatlantic flight, and Manning provided her a respite aboard the ship prior to all the publicity that would ensue upon her arrival in New York. While aboard, Earhart noticed Manning's impeccable skills as a navigator and radio operator. She was so impressed that she asked him to be her navigator on her upcoming historic trip to circumnavigate the globe. Manning agreed, and was granted a leave of absence from United States Lines. But in March of 1937, Earhart's Lockheed 10E Electra ground-looped and suffered significant damage. The mission had to be delayed.
It was at this time that United States Lines ordered Manning back to duty, while Fred Noonan took on Manning's role alongside Earhart. It’s also speculated that after the Electra crash, Manning began to doubt Earhart’s skills as a pilot. He determined that her quest to become the first pilot to circumnavigate was the globe was a foolish endeavor.
He was proven correct: both Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were later lost in the Pacific.
Harry Manning also holds the distinction of being one of the few individuals in history to have not one, but two ticker tape parades held in his honor. The first was in 1929 after a daring rescue in the Atlantic.
Manning was chief officer of the SS America (ex-Amerika of Titanic fame). On January 22 en-route from France to New York, the America received a distress call from the Italian ship Florida. The Florida was listing and in danger of sinking, along with its 32 crew members. Captain George Fried ordered Manning and eight crew members into a lifeboat to rescue the crew. The city of New York honored Manning and Fried with a parade up Broadway, along with the keys to the city. Manning’s second ticker tape parade was after the record breaking maiden voyage of the SS United States.
Manning was in command of the SS President Washington when World War II broke out on September 1, 1939. He was at sea with 1,000 American passengers when the Washington was confronted by a German U-Boat — at early dawn, the U-Boat surfaced and signaled the Washington, giving its passengers and crew ten minutes to abandon ship. Manning ordered everyone into lifeboats. He then began a series of communications in Morse code with the U-Boat commander while skillfully maneuvering his ship into the rising sun. The U-Boat commander then realized the Washington was from a neutral country and apologized. The ship then proceeded to its final destination, Belfast.
Manning remained aboard the Washington as Chief Navigator until he was reassigned by the Navy in 1944 to the U.S. Maritime Radio Training Station at Hoffman Island, NY.
In 1952, Manning was selected by United States Lines to command their new flagship, the SS United States. Manning was honored, but felt ill at ease with his new assignment. He realized the responsibilities and took them seriously. As Commander he woke up early every morning, had a quick breakfast and conducted a full inspection of the ship. He drove himself as hard as he did the crew. He exercised by boxing every day with a sparring partner.
Manning considered himself a stubborn, bullheaded and tactless introvert. The social aspect of being commander of a passenger vessel was not his forte; he never enjoyed that aspect of his job. He graciously greeted VIPs, yet forced himself to take command of his newfound situation by learning social graces and proper etiquette. He would invite small groups to his cabin for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. If the guests remained in his company too long, he would politely excuse himself as being needed on the bridge. He was not at ease engaging in small talk, to dance and tango.
Manning was a religious man who neither drank nor smoked. While his social interactions were cold and formal, he strived to make passengers feel safe and in good hands while on board. But public opinion meant little to Manning. He always did what he thought right without regard to popularity.
On the SS United States' record-breaking maiden voyage, he averaged four hours of sleep and lost ten pounds. He removed himself from command after only a few voyages. There has always been speculation and rumor as to why he left so soon. Some believe he wanted to retire early, while others believe he had a falling-out with ship designer William Francis Gibbs and the unions. Gibbs and Manning were both headstrong. They did respect each other, however, and were ardent supporters of their respective accomplishments, but their conflicting personalities eventually resulted in Manning departure as commander.
It was overheard once that Manning and Gibbs had a disagreement as how best to operate the liner in bad weather. Manning also detested organized labor. He was once quoted as saying, “I’ll starve before I join any union. No Captain can be subject to the dictates of a union delegate”.
Harry Manning was also one of only a handful of individuals to receive the Congressional Gold Medal for Lifesaving. Other awards include the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Chevalier of the Order of Maritime Merit of France, Italian Medal for Life Saving, United States Line’s Distinguished Service Medal, and New York City’s Medal for Heroism.
Harry Manning died at the age of 77 in Saddle Brook, New Jersey after a long illness. He is interned at Arlington National Cemetery Section 41-523.
CLICK HERE to listen to a 1952 radio interview with Commodore Harry Manning, recorded following the triumphant maiden voyage of the SS United States and made available by the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.
Top photo courtesy of Susan Gibbs. Bottom photo courtesy of Michael G. Jedd.