“Our only possible chance of stopping the Allies will be at the beaches.”
— German General Erwin Rommel, Spring 1944
In uttering his proclamation, Gen. Rommel didn’t consider the significance of one of America’s “secret weapons” — Higgins Boats.
He would later acknowledge the importance of the flat-bottom watercrafts during the June 6, 1944, D-Day landings and the genius of the man who invented them.
Adolph Hitler was equally impressed, calling Andrew Higgins “the new Noah.”
The early years
Andrew Jackson Higgins was born in Columbus, Neb., Aug. 28, 1886, the youngest of 10 children. After being expelled for fighting on school grounds his junior year at Creighton Prep High School, he left Nebraska and found work in the lumber industry in Mobile, Ala.
A natural entrepreneur, Higgins became manager of a lumber-importing business in New Orleans and in 1922 formed his own Higgins Lumber and Export Company, importing exotic hardwoods from various foreign countries and exporting Louisiana cypress and pine-cut lumber.
While his importing business eventually failed during the Great Depression, his previous design of a wooden shallow-draft boat, capable of skimming across the dense floras of Louisiana’s swamps, bayous and brackish coastal areas, remained in demand by oil drillers, hunters and trappers. His boat-building assembly plants also manufactured tugs and barges for private and commercial use, as well as motorized craft for the U.S. Coast Guard.
It wasn’t until 1938, when the Marine Corps earnestly began searching for a better way to amphibiously land men and equipment onto a beachhead, that the Higgins shallow-water, open-top designed boats received serious Navy and Marine Corps scrutiny. Borrowing from a Japanese bow (forward) drop-ramp design, Higgins adapted the concept to his nearly flat-hull boats, enabling the craft to practically plow onto a beach, lower the ramp to allow easy exiting of men and cargo, and then quickly pull back to return to a larger troop or supply ship to reload — sort of a taxi on water.
Higgins Boats established new thinking in naval warfare: The requirement for established harbors was no longer necessary to mount a coastal assault. The little boats could deliver troops and materiel practically anywhere they were needed.
The Pacific Theater of war was especially suited for the use of Higgins Boats, as America’s island-hopping campaigns against the Japanese were greatly enhanced and supported by the small watercraft.
During World War II, Higgins Industries also produced landing craft and speedy torpedo boats, as well as torpedo tubes, gun turrets and smoke generators. Over the course of the war, approximately 20,000 boats were produced in seven Higgins factories, deployed to both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. During peak production, Higgins churned out more than 700 of the swift flat-bottomed troop carriers a month.
His straight-talking, cigar-chomping demeanor didn’t always sit well with Washington big shots. He reprimanded Navy admirals for their lack of vision when reviewing boat and ship designs by scribbling across a certain blueprint, “This boat stinks.”
He also chastened President Franklin Roosevelt — a former assistant secretary of the Navy (1911-13) — that, “You don’t know the front end of a boat from the back end,” thinking, perhaps, Roosevelt was more familiar with ships than boats.
An astute businessman at heart, Higgins was also an honest and patriotic American. After a deal had already been agreed upon by the Navy, Higgins realized he was making too much money and demanded the contract be renegotiated to lower his bid because he believed it was immoral for him to be getting rich while American troops were dying at the hands of the Nazis and Japanese. He would build his boats at cost plus a small profit to grow the company.
On June 6, 1944, almost 3,000 Higgins Boats and assorted landing craft were loaded with soldiers, equipment and supplies in the largest military amphibious assault in history —”Operation Overlord.”
Each Higgins boat carried about 30 troops, while the larger LSTs (landing ship transport) contained additional men as well as tanks, trucks and assorted supplies. Multiple trips would bring additional soldiers and provisions to the five D-Day invasion beaches — Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword.
During the next few days, the French coast at Normandy was flooded with almost 200,000 American, British and Canadian forces, as well as 24,000 paratroopers and glider troops who made airborne landings.
Within two weeks, 557,000 troops, 81,000 vehicles and 183,000 tons of supplies had been offloaded onto the secured area, much of the work being done with the use of Higgins boats.
The handwriting was on the wall. Retaking of the European continent had begun, and the fall of Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich was less than a year away. Gen. Rommel’s massively armed Atlantic Wall was incapable of stopping the Allied onslaught. His forecast of future German defeat by failing to halt the Allies on the beaches had come to fruition.
Following success of the D-Day invasion and desperate to deter further bloodshed, Rommel advised Hitler that he thought the war was lost and Germany should petition for peace. Hitler ranted against the suggestion and ordered Rommel to counterattack with five infantry and Panzer tank divisions.
In his manic delusions, Hitler failed to realize three of the divisions were nowhere close to Normandy, and the Allies pinned down the other two. Consequently, no counterattack occurred.
The following month, Rommel was involved in the failed July 20 attempted assassination of Hitler. In a twisted act of “kindness,” Hitler allowed Rommel to commit suicide instead of death by firing squad.
Germany’s last serious attempt to stop the Allied advance occurred during the “Battle of the Bulge,” Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945. While the Allies suffered heavy losses, the German counteroffensive was repelled, leaving much of Hitler’s army and air force in shambles. The Russians were also advancing from the east, applying additional pressure to Nazi forces in the Berlin area.
Rather than be taken prisoner, Hitler reportedly placed a 9mm pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. His body was incinerated, and Germany surrendered a short time later.
It was an eerie quirk of fate that a hardworking Louisiana swamp boat builder helped advance the demise of a prestigious German general, his insane boss and a military machine that had rolled over most of Europe.
As a tribute to the ingenuity of Higgins, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower would later comment, “Without Higgins Boats, we could never have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”
Higgins proved it isn’t always necessary to produce the biggest ship on the water or the largest airplane in the sky to get the job done. Those implements of war have their place, while at the same time they are limited in their capabilities.
Higgins Boats filled a significant niche during the conflict and provided an invaluable service toward ending the war in Europe.
Andrew J. Higgins was granted more than 30 patents during his lifetime and received numerous awards and citations for his contributions to the war effort. He died in New Orleans on Aug. 1, 1952, 27 days short of his 67th birthday.