Much of history, including that about World War II, outlines events in general terms — the big names and a summary of what happened. As always, however, the larger truth generally lies in the details. Digging beneath the surface there was one particular innovation that changed the tide of the war for the Allies. Simply put, small boats made the difference — fast, lightweight vessels that were able to withstand the strongest of waves –Higgins landing craft.
In order to destroy Hitler’s army, Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces, was in charge of planning the inevitable – -an invasion by air and sea. All the strategies he came up with led to only one conclusion, and that was to invade from the shores of France. Nearly all the shoreline was rocky, shallow, and very open to the sea. Also, most of the miles of beach had high banks and cliffs which would be perfect spots for the enemy to set up their cannons and machine gun nests.
The navy’s ships would be able to get the hundred of thousands of soldiers to within several miles of the beach without their ships running aground. After that, the risks for the troops were enormous. There was always the possibility of bad weather. Rough seas and foul weather could also determine the drop point from the ships. The initial plan might call for a quick one mile run from ship to shore, but that could easily turn into six or seven miles depending on the seas and the winds. And these concerns are what kept Dwight Eisenhower up at night — just how fast and how safely could he transport 36 men per boat times thousands, and avoid having them blown to bits.
June 6, 1944 was of course, the most important invasion, D- Day. Eisenhower had actually wanted that invasion to occur a year, possibly two years, earlier, but he did not have enough landing craft. Almost from the moment that he was named Supreme Commander, Eisenhower began requesting that the government produce large numbers of landing crafts. He was disappointed in the production amounts, and he was not convinced of their quality. Harry Truman, then U. S. Senator from Missouri, was chairman of a special Senate committee dealing with national defense, and he shared Eisenhower’s concerns. The Navy knew a lot about building big ships, but was struggling to design an effective small landing craft that met Eisenhower’s requirements.
The Navy and the Marines both failed at building a landing craft that could meet what Eisenhower needed. The Marines finally admitted that they could not, and suggested the Higgins Company from New Orleans.
Andrew Jackson Higgins is a name that most Americans are not familiar with. The New Orleans boat builder began his career in the 1920’s by building shallow-draft small vessels used for oil drillers. Higgins’ small boats had propellers that were recessed into a semi-tunnel in the hull, and this one adjustment allowed the vessel to perform in very shallow waters full of obstacles, and additionally, Higgins boats were fast.
Truman’s committee insisted that the Navy allow head-to- head competition. When tested against the Higgins landing craft, it easily surpassed the Navy-built craft. With Senator Truman’s support, the government contracted with Andrew Higgins to build the landing craft and other amphibious boats that were needed in the war. Pre-war, Higgins’ New Orleans boatyard employed fewer than 100 employees, but by 1944 his company had over 25,000 workers building over 20,000 boats for the military.
In addition to the thousands of landing crafts built, Higgins’ boatyard also produced the fast moving PT boats, supply vessels and other watercraft made for specific needs. By the end of the war, Andrew Higgins’ boats had been used successfully in many of the major landing invasions including Normandy, Okinawa, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. It could be said that his landing crafts delivered many of our troops to their deaths. His skillfully designed boats, however, allowed the invasion to happen, and with speed and the utmost precision in delivering the troops to the shores.
Adolph Hitler had not counted on the Allies coming up with such an effective landing craft, and he referred to Andrew Higgins as “the new Noah.” Dwight Eisenhower summed up the value of Higgins’ contribution by saying, “Andrew Higgins … is the man who won the war for us … If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVP’s, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”
For more information check out William Lee Miller’s Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World.