Andrew Jackson Higgins and His Louisiana Team: Contributions that Won World War II and Changed the World
Ambition, training and persistence often combine to create a successful entrepreneur. Add to those attributes the inspiration to solve the problem of a specific geography, the opportunity to contribute to America’s efforts to wage a war, and the patriotic commitment and sacrifice of a team of skilled workers and the result changes the world.
Andrew Jackson Higgins (1886-1952) was born in an era in which America may not have been able to envision rising to the challenge of world war. Born in Nebraska, Higgins could not have yet been inspired by the marshy shoreline of the Louisiana coast. If Higgins the man was born in Nebraska, Higgins, the “new Noah,” as Adolph Hitler would call him, was born in the geography of coastal Louisiana and rose to the challenges of world war with a team of Louisiana patriots. (Strahan 166)
Higgins’ contribution to WWII was built upon the successes and near misses of all his adult life. His most iconic World War II boat, the LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel, one of his boat designs collectively nicknamed Higgins boats), did not spring from a blank blueprint page. Its design was a modification of Higgins’ Eureka boat, a shallow-draft craft, designed to maneuver through the shallow, marshy coastline of his adopted home of Louisiana for the timber and petroleum industries and for the U.S. Coast Guard. In modifying the Eureka boat for WWII to create the Higgins boat, Higgins added a rear ramp so that soldiers would not have to disembark, and equipment did not have to be lifted, over the boat’s sides. World War II provided the opportunity for Higgins’ boatbuilding operation to evolve from employing just a handful of workers constructing the Eureka boat to hiring more than 25,000 Louisiana citizens who came together from all walks of life to contribute their efforts. One of those workers was my own grandfather, Richard John Cook, Sr., who became a boat carpenter at Higgins Industries’ City Park Avenue plant and tester of the Higgins boats on Lake Pontchartrain.
The talent of the Louisiana team Higgins assembled complemented Higgins’s own talent to develop ideas quickly and work tirelessly to make them a reality. The relationship between Higgins and his workers wasn’t without its tensions. Nevertheless they amassed, putting aside their former careers for the patriotic cause of winning a world war. Several Higgins facilities were constructed in New Orleans, including the enormous indoor boat building plant on City Park Avenue. Boat builders sometimes worked alongside crews still finishing the construction of the plants. Because one plant’s ceilings were too low to use construction cranes, workers combined their muscle to get the job done. Higgins’ plants constructed more than 20,000 boats for WWII, making possible beach landings and in this way outperforming any that the U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy had developed, and also trained military personnel to use them.
The result of Louisiana’s contribution was the ability to execute amphibious landings on the beaches across the world, most notably the landings on the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima. Without Higgins’ landing boats, the U.S. military would have to rely on ships’ arrival at deep water ports or anchoring ships off shore and using rowboats to ferry soldiers and equipment to the beaches. What might have D-Day looked like without Higgins boats? How would we have landed at Iwo Jima?
Praise heaped on Andrew Higgins was applicable to the efforts of his Louisiana team. Former President Dwight Eisenhower, who had been a WWII General, said Higgins “won the war for us.” (Strahan 3) U.S. General Holland Smith wrote of Higgins: “Where…would the Amphibious Force have been without you and your boats?” (Strahan 93)
A “Radio Reader’s Digest” program compared Andrew Jackson Higgins to earlier American legends, such as Davy Crockett, John Henry, and Paul Bunyon, but it could have more fairly described the efforts of Higgins’ entire Louisiana team: “We Americans walk big, we talk big, we think big….We think up giants. American giants still walk the American earth….This giant’s name is Andrew Jackson Higgins.” (Strahan 258-259)
Quotes courtesy of Jerry Strahan’s book, Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II.