American troops prepare to go ashore in a Higgins Boat on D-Day, June 6, 1944
They remain iconic images of the “Longest Day:” American GIs, gathered behind the ramp of their landing craft, ready to splash ashore in Normandy. Other photos, taken just moments later, capture the same men, wading through the surf towards the beach. Many never made it; killed by German machine gun or artillery fire, or by simply stepping into an unseen hole in the sandy bottom; with more than 50 pounds of equipment on their backs, a soldier who slipped beneath the surface was likely to drown.
Given the immense human drama of D-Day, little thought is given to the miracles of organization, logistics and technology that delivered troops to the invasion beaches of northern France. Operation Overlord came barely 30 months after America’s entry into World War II. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army had only 600,000 men, many of them recent conscripts who were poorly equipped and inadequately trained. Two-and-a-half years later, there were almost five million American soldiers serving overseas, organized into 80 divisions (emphasis ours). While many of those formations were still green, there were plenty of battle-hardened units with combat experience in northern Africa, Sicily, Italy and the Pacific, among other locations.
Virtually all of those campaigns began with amphibious landings, and the difficult task of moving personnel and equipment from ship to shore. While the Marine Corps and the Army would provide the troops, tanks, artillery, vehicles and supplies, the job of getting everything to the beach rested with the U.S. Navy, which had its own ideas about the “right types” of amphibious craft to get the job done. Unfortunately, most of the American landing craft of the early 1940s were poorly designed and had a nasty tendency to capsize in heavy surf.
But an American entrepreneur had a better idea. Andrew Jackson Higgins wasn’t a naval architect by training; in fact, he dropped out of high school in Columbus, Nebraska after his junior year. Interested in ships and timber, Higgins migrated to the Gulf Coast, where he became a successful importer and exporter of wood. He also built a shipyard to service the vessels that carried his timber to distant markets.
Settling in New Orleans (where his shipyard was located), Higgins became aware of the pressing need for shallow-draft boats that could be used by trappers and the oil industry. By this time, Higgins had completed several correspondence courses in ship design; that training, coupled with his own experience, allowed Higgins to develop a flat-bottomed model he called a “Eureka boat” that proved to be extremely popular with trappers and the oil companies. It also attracted the attention of the Marine Corps, which foresaw the vast amphibious operations that would characterize war in the Pacific. Not only could Higgins’ craft keep going over such obstacles as sand bars and small logs; its motor was powerful enough to pull the craft off the beach after the Marines went ashore.
The Navy, however, refused to budge and Higgins appealed to then-Senator Harry Truman. That set the stage for the “Battle of Norfolk,” a competition between a Navy landing craft and a Higgins boat in May, 1942. Both were assigned to put a 30-ton tank on the beach, through rough seas. The Navy-designed craft almost foundered; at one point, sailors lined the sides, preparing to jump overboard if their boat began to sink. Higgins’ design performed flawlessly, and his company received orders for thousands of additional landing craft.
To meet the demand, Higgins greatly expanded his New Orleans shipyard. In the late 1930s, he had less than 100 employees at the facility; by 1943, more than 25,000 were working in the yard, producing various types of landing craft, PT boats and other light vessels for the war effort. Higgins’ workforce was completely integrated–virtually unheard of in a southern shipyard of that era–and regardless of their background, all workers doing the same job received equal pay.
On D-Day, most of the landing craft that ferried troops and equipment ashore were the Higgins design, and many came from his yard in New Orleans. The two-fisted, hard-drinking man who told the Navy it “didn’t know a damned thing about small boats” had revolutionized warfare. No longer were amphibious forces required to attack through heavily-defended ports, to reach docks where troops and equipment could be off-loaded. With Higgins’ LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle/Personnel) and larger LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank), amphibious attacks could be planned over wider areas, complicating enemy defenses. Even Adolf Hitler acknowledged Higgins’ contribution to the war effort, referring to him as “the new Noah.” General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the Normandy invasion, put it more succinctly, calling Andrew Higgins “the man who won the war for us.”
After the war, Higgins found himself in tax trouble with the IRS and struggled to keep his shipyard going. Suffering from a stomach ailment, Higgins passed away in 1952; his son was forced the sell the business in 1957. Mr. Higgins was largely forgotten in the years that followed, but interest in his boats–and his contribution to the war effort–was rekindled by veterans and historians. The late Stephen Ambrose was instrumental in bringing the National D-Day Museum (now the National World War II Museum) to New Orleans, providing a venue to showcase Mr. Higgins and his craft. The LCVP on display at the museum is actually a replica, built from original plans, by surviving workers from Higgins’ World War II yard.
ADDENDUM: Early variants of the Higgins boat did not have a front ramp that could be lowered, allowing troops or vehicles to depart. Disembarking or unloading from the original model meant “going over the side,” an arrangement that was completely unsatisfactory. When Andrew Higgins heard about a Japanese landing craft with a deployable front ramp, he described the system over the phone to his chief engineer, with directions to develop a similar system for his boats. By the time he returned to New Orleans, his designers had a prototype ready.
It was that type of visionary risk-taking that helped American win World War II. Henry Kaiser had never built a ship before 1940, but that didn’t stop him from opening shipyards that produced a Liberty Ship in as little as four days. Henry Ford built a massive complex and workforce–from scratch–that churned out more than 8,000 B-24 Liberator bombers. Today, the byzantine rules of military acquisition and contracting discourage that type of innovation. If we fought the Second World War with today’s regulations, we would have produced enough equipment for D-Day–by 1952.