The boats that won us the war
In a 1964 interview, Dwight Eisenhower, former U.S. president and five-star general, called Andrew Higgins, “the man who won the war for us.” Eisenhower went on to say, “If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”
Higgins was a New Orleans businessman who in the 1930s had perfected a shallow-draft workboat that could haul lumber and go oil- and gas-prospecting in the marshes and swamps of southern Louisiana. His ‘Eureka’ model operated in water as shallow as eighteen inches and ran through vegetation and over debris without fouling its propeller.
As war broke out in Europe and it appeared the U.S. would enter the fray, Higgins figured the U.S. Navy would need thousands of small boats. These vessels would allow us to come ashore without having to conquer major ports and harbors; instead our soldiers could land on relatively less-defended beaches. Speculating that steel would be in short supply for the boats he wanted to build, Higgins bought up the entire 1939 crop of mahogany from the Philippines and stored it for use in such boats.
The Navy didn’t see things his way at first, and it took a while for Higgins to convince them to enter into a contract to develop his amphibious boats. Eventually, though, his company produced a wide array of amphibious boats and other ocean-going vessels employed by our forces during the war. By late 1943, his seven boat-building plants employed more than 25,000 workers. This was the first workforce in New Orleans to be racially integrated and included whites, blacks, men, women, seniors, and people with disabilities, all of them paid equally according to job functions.
After a while, the indispensible LCVPs came to be known among the men who used them as “Higgins boats.”
Here’s what William had to say in appreciation of Higgins, based on his own experience in the Pacific during the war:
“His boats made it possible for men to land ashore without a long, dangerous slog to the beach. He created a number of flat-bottomed amphibious boats with drop ramps in front, each one improving on the last in features and capacity.
“The earliest one was a shallow-draft barge originally used on the Gulf Coast that was called into service by the Marine Corps to transport troops from large ships onto foreign beaches: You had to climb over the side of your ship on a rope net to reach the Higgins boat that would carry you to shore. Each Higgins boat held thirty to forty men. However, when these early Higgins boats approached the beach, men had to spill over the sides to wade in the water and could be drowned if the water was deep or the waves breaking too high. Even if a man was a good swimmer, the weight of his pack and rifle could make it impossible for him to keep his head above water. What was worse, men struggling ashore from the boats made easy targets for enemy gunners, as they had been on Tarawa.
“So Higgins next had his engineer design a boat with a drop ramp in front called the LCP (Landing Craft, Personnel). That one slid right onto beach full-bore, allowing men to run out directly onto the sand. (I landed on an island once this way.) Following that, there was a call for a vessel that could carry tanks and artillery pieces ashore as well as men, so Higgins produced a larger assault boat called the LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel). Eventually the Allies developed the LST (Landing Ship, Tank), a much larger craft that was a real ship. The LST could go right up on shore, depending on the depth of the water, with a bow that opened up on the beach and a ramp that dropped to deliver many more tanks, trucks, and men. That ship was designed by an American named John Niedermair employed in the Bureau of Ships, and he incorporated elements from a British boat designed by diplomat Sir Rowland Baker. Sometimes an LST carried LCVPs, depending upon the operation.
“The important thing in using Higgins boats was not to drop men from a big ship onto boats bobbing in the water if you could help it. With smaller boats bobbing like that, if the sea dropped away with the movement of swells, men could break their legs if the timing wasn’t right and the leap was too far. When not in the thick of battle, we practiced this timing thing a lot; we looked like a bunch of monkeys on a net.”