The Little Boat That Won the Big War

HIggins Boat

Photo courtesy of United States Army

The Little Boat That Won the Big War

By Earl Perkins | published June 9, 2014 |
Thursday Review associate editor

American General Dwight D. Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill didn't agree on many things, but they concurred that small landing crafts designed by Andrew Jackson Higgins were the primary reason the Allies won World War II.

"Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us," said Eisenhower in a 1964 interview, years after his term as President. “If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel), we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”

Seventy years ago this month, troops from the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada stormed ashore at Omaha Beach along France's northern shore, culminating several years of planning, construction, arguing, and of course deception of the Third Reich. The D-day operation was called Overlord, but the European invasion was code-named Neptune, capped by the landing of almost 1 million men and everything they needed to wage war—all of this in less than one month, according to Craig Symonds in the Daily Beast.

This was the largest seaborne invasion ever, and by nightfall on June 6, 132,450 troops had landed on the Normandy coast. They were accompanied by thousands of tanks, jeeps, trucks and numerous other support vehicles, having been ferried across the English Channel by somewhere between five and six thousand Allied ships which had embarked from 171 ports.

Hitler and the German Reich were toppled for numerous reasons, but American industrial productivity was the linchpin of the Allied war effort. U.S. shipyards produced massive amounts of warships, most importantly the destroyers that guarded trans-Atlantic convoys, along with 2,700 Liberty Ships and thousands of specialized landing crafts. In 1943, American workers built more than 800 LSTs and LCIs, and 8,000 Higgins boats, with many working 60-hour weeks at 50 cents an hour.

Higgins was a fiery-tempered whiskey drinker who originally built oil-prospecting wooden boats in Louisiana, but when the war broke out he sensed the Navy would need thousands of small boats. Knowing steel would be in short supply because of the war, he purchased the entire 1939 crop of mahogany from the Philippines. He designed a half-wood half-steel assault or LCVP boat capable of landing troops and material on beachheads.

He long sought a position as a Naval designer, insisting that the Navy "doesn't know one damn thing about small boats." With that attitude, it took quite some time before the powers that be finally acquiesced to Higgins' wishes, hiring him to develop his LCVP. In 1938, Higgins had one boatyard with less than 75 workers, but at its peak his New Orleans factory employed between 25,000 and 30,000 workers.

Higgins created the first racially integrated workforce in New Orleans, hiring whites, blacks, men, women, seniors and people with disabilities. He paid equal wages according to job functions, and before the war ended, his workers had produced more than 20,000 boats, including 12,500 LCVPs.

And Eisenhower was not the only military man to rave about Higgins and his LCVPs. “The Higgins boats broke the gridlock on the ship-to-shore movement. It is impossible to overstate the tactical advantages this craft gave U.S. amphibious commanders in World War II,” said retired Marine Col. Joseph H. Alexander.

The Higgins boats were 36’3” long with a 10'10'' beam, displacing 18,000 pounds unloaded. They maintained a speed of 9 knots, were defended by two .30-caliber machine guns and were capable of carrying 8,000 pounds of cargo or 36 infantrymen and their equipment.

Higgins eliminated the need for established harbors by designing amphibious boats, including LCTs, LCPLs, LCMs, PT boats, supply vessels and other specialized crafts. Higgins’ various landing craft were used in every major amphibious operation in the European and Pacific theatres, and the boat became an indispensable tool in the arsenal of democracy. And in Army and Navy vernacular the boats were never known as LCVPs, because everyone just called them Higgins boats.

For many younger people, the Higgins Boat is known from its role in recent motion pictures and TV mini-series. Carefully recreated working models were built for Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, the former film set in Europe and the latter set in the Pacific. Both films were released in 1998 and each met with critical acclaim, raising the bar of understanding for contemporary movie audiences unfamiliar with the challenges faced during World War II. Higgins Boats were also featured in the epic mini-series The Pacific, which was produced by Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman. In all of these film venues, the Higgins Boat was portrayed as a key tool for inserting soldiers quickly and effectively into combat by way of amphibious landings.

You are welcome to visit the National World War II Museum at the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion in New Orleans where a reproduction of one of his boats is displayed. It was built entirely from Higgins' original plans by volunteers—including several who worked for Higgins Industries during the Big War. If you are able to visit the museum, you may also view a WWII-era LCPL (Landing Craft Personnel, Large), which doesn't include the forward ramp.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Detroit to Paris: Honoring Veterans of D-Day; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; June 5, 2014.

The Last Fellows of Easy Company; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; March 18, 2014.