At the National World War II Museum in New Orleans a sign asks the question that most visitors to the museum probably ask themselves: Why is New Orleans the host city for a museum dedicated to World War II? The answer is simple. It was home to the man who, as Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower once put it, “won the war for us.”
Andrew Jackson Higgins, who died this week (Aug. 1) in 1952, was the founder of Higgins Industries, a New Orleans-based shipbuilding firm that built the famous “Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel,” better known as the LCVP, but best known as the “Higgins Boat.” The Higgins boat was a shallow-draft craft that could carry soldiers and equipment from offshore transport ships right up to the shoreline, allowing them to disembark quickly.
It was, in other words, the perfect craft if an army needed to invade enemy territory from the sea. And as it happened, on June 6, 1944 — better known as D-Day — an allied invasion force needed to cross the English Channel and land on the beaches of Normandy, France, in order to reclaim the European continent from the armies of Nazi Germany, which had controlled most of Europe since 1940. As Eisenhower also said, “If Higgins hadn’t designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”
The Higgins boat actually evolved from his earlier Eureka boat, which had helped oil drillers maneuver along the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. The Eureka featured a recessed propeller built into the boat’s hull, which enabled it to maneuver in shallow waters where thick flora and other submerged objects rendered most boats useless. The Eureka also had a flat bow that allowed it to run right up to riverbanks and then easily disengage.
And then, in 1938, Higgins’ boats came to the attention of the U.S. Marine Corps, which was dissatisfied with its Navy-designed amphibious landing craft, and in tests the Higgins boat easily outperformed its naval competition. The one drawback was that both soldiers and equipment had to unload over the sides of the boat, which was cumbersome, slow and increased their exposure to enemy fire. So a ramp was added at the bow, which dropped once the craft had landed, allowing men to exit quickly. The “Higgins Boat” was born.
It was a major reason the Normandy invasion was successful. That invasion finally gave the allies a foothold in Europe, which, at least on the Western front, turned the tide of World War II, as even Adolf Hitler, who sarcastically called Higgins “the new Noah,” learned to his dismay.