- The Higgins boat is one of the iconic vessels of World War II.
- The Higgins boat, known as an LCVP, took US and allied troops ashore across Europe and the Pacific.
- The man behind it, Andrew Higgins, was a prolific inventor who churned out boats during the war.
A day after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, New Orleans-based shipbuilder Andrew Higgins filed an idea with the US Patent Office for a landing craft that could transport US soldiers from ships at sea to enemy-controlled beaches.
Two and a half years later, on the morning of June 6, 1944, the LCVPs — short for Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel — designed and built by Higgins’ firm were unloading wave after wave of American GIs on Normandy’s Utah Beach during the D-Day landings.
Equipped with an innovative ramp design, two .30-caliber machine guns, and room for some 36 infantrymen, “Higgins Boats” proved instrumental on D-Day. Those landings, still the largest seaborne invasion in history, were a major turning point in the war.
The Normandy invasion was a harrowing task of unprecedented scale.
To succeed, the Allies needed the ability to put troops, vehicles, and other equipment ashore on beaches littered with fortifications and obstacles emplaced by the Nazi defenders. Higgins’ landing craft made this possible.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower later referred to Higgins as “the man who won the war for us.” The shipbuilder’s reputation extended to Germany, where Adolf Hitler begrudgingly complimented him as “the New Noah.”
Who was Andrew Higgins?
Higgins manufactured more than 20,000 boats during his decades-long career. His landing craft were used in every major amphibious assault of World War II, from the shores of Europe to the Pacific islands.
“He was the right person with the right ideas and the right drive at the right time,” Joshua Schick, curator and restoration manager at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, told Insider.
Two Higgins landing craft are on display in the main pavilion of the museum, which also named its World War II-themed Hilton property the Higgins Hotel & Conference Center in a nod to the hometown hero.
Higgins, who Schick described as a “flamboyant industrialist,” was relatively new to building military hardware when World War II began, but he had a long record of entrepreneurship, innovation, and problem-solving.
Born in Nebraska in 1886, Higgins ran newspaper routes and started a lawn-mowing company as a child. Serving in the Nebraska Army National Guard exposed him to the boats used to move troops by water during militia maneuvers on the Platte River.
He moved to Mobile, Alabama in 1906 to break into the lumber business. By the 1930s, he’d formed Higgins Lumber and Export Company and was working as a lumber manufacturer in New Orleans. In the 1920s, Higgins developed the Eureka boat, a vessel designed for oil work that got the US Navy’s attention for its effectiveness in shallow water.
As the US military sought new ways to move large numbers of troops and supplies to beaches during amphibious operations, Higgins Industries saw enormous demand and explosive growth.
Anticipating the government’s need for boats and the size of the contracts to come, Higgins began building factories before the war started and began constructing boats in them before the factories had been completed.
Higgins eventually secured major government contracts that allowed him to expand production at an unprecedented rate and make extensive contributions to the war effort.
Higgins and his employees earned a reputation for quick and innovative design and construction. In one instance, Navy officials expressed interest in seeing a design for a new 56-foot tank landing craft three days before a scheduled visit to see another type of landing craft.
Using a tugboat they had on hand, and working without blueprints, Higgins and his engineers built a new landing craft that they successfully tested for the Navy officials during their visit.
The LCVP for which Higgins was famed was based on the design of a Japanese landing craft used in the late 1930s. Higgins had a mock-up made based on a photo of the Japanese vessel. Within a month of beginning work on the new boat, tests on Lake Pontchartrain showed its design was viable.
Each LCVP could carry 36 combat troops or 8,000 pounds of cargo, and 23,000 were built during the war.
Designing and manufacturing amphibious landing vehicles was the focus of his organization, but he also branched into other initiatives, at one point securing a contract to produce carbon components and metal parts for the Manhattan Project.
Higgins worked tirelessly and innovated obsessively, Schick said. By 1943, Higgins Industries employed some 20,000 employees working across seven plants.
His facilities spread across New Orleans and extended into new activities, such as refurbishing trucks and manufacturing components for aircraft, plastics, and other equipment. “He just explodes onto the scene,” Schick said.
Jerry E. Strahan, author of “Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II,” details Higgins’ progressive, efficiency-minded approach to business.
Higgins rejected the discriminatory hiring practices that excluded women and people of color from wartime work. He prioritized employing people who could do the job. Higgins also felt illnesses would be costly to productivity and started a clinic to provide free healthcare for his workers.
Higgins remained at the helm of his company until he had a stroke and died in 1952.
Schick hopes Higgins’ legacy will be celebrated through the museum’s tributes to him — especially the Higgins Hotel, located on Andrew Higgins Boulevard, adjacent to the museum. The hotel’s lobby displays a 1943 portrait of Higgins that once hung in his office.
“We look at all of these unnamed people who created this vast machine that ended up winning the war, and it’s a really great symbol of the arsenal of democracy,” Schick said of Higgins’ work. “I encourage people to read more. There’s always something to learn about Andrew Higgins.”
Katie Sanders is a journalist based in New York City. Her reporting has brought her to prisons, JDate, the CIA, and the White House. Follow her at @KatieSSanders. Mara Storey is a people analytics manager at Deloitte. She lives in Nashville. Follow her at @mtruslowstorey.