September, 1943, when the United States Fifth Army landed at Salerno,
Italy, and General Douglas MacArthur's forces captured Salamaua in New
Guinea, the American navy totaled 14,072 vessels. Of these boats, 12,964,
or 92% of the entire U.S. Navy, were designed by Higgins Industries, Incorporated;
8,865 were built at the Higgins plants in New Orleans, La. Founder
and president of this remarkable company was Andrew Jackson Higgins, an
outspoken, rough-cut, hot-tempered Irishman with an incredible imagination
and the ability to turn wild ideas into reality. He hated bureaucratic
red tape, loved bourbon, and was the sort who tended to knock down anything
that got in his way. To the Navy's Bureau of Ships, which favored the
big Eastern-seaboard shipyards, Higgins was an arrogant small boat builder
from the South - a thorn in its side. To the Marine Corps, which desperately
needed an effective amphibious assault craft, he was a savior.
Higgins rose to international
prominence during World War II for his design and mass production
of naval combat motorboats - boats that forever changed the strategy
of modern warfare. Thanks to Higgins, the Allies no longer had to
batter coastal forts into submission, sweep harbors of mines, and
take over enemy-held ports before they could land an assault force.
"Higgins boats" gave them the ability to transport thousands of
men and hundreds of tons of equipment swiftly through the surf to
less-fortified beaches, eliminating the need for established harbors.
Higgins designed and produced
two basic classes of military craft. The first class consisted of high-speed
PT boats, which carried antiaircraft machine guns, smoke-screen devices,
depth charges, and Higgins-designed compressed-air-fired torpedo tubes.
Also in this class were the antisubmarine boats, dispatch boats, 170-foot
freight supply vessels, and other specialized patrol craft produced for
the Army, Navy and Maritime Commission.
The second class consisted of various types of Higgins landing craft (LCPs,
LCPLs, LCVPs, LCMs) constructed of wood and steel that were used in transporting
fully armed troops, light tanks, field artillery, and other mechanized
equipment and supplies essential to amphibious operations. It was these
boats that made the D-Day landings at Normandy, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo
Jima, Okinawa, Leyte and Guam and hundreds of lesser-known assaults possible.
Without Higgins' uniquely designed craft there could not have been a mass
landing of troops and material on European shores or on the beaches of
the Pacific islands, at least not without a tremendously higher rate of
As late as 1930 Higgins was involved in the lumber importing and exporting
business. By 1940 he was producing workboats and prototype landing craft
in a small warehouse located behind his St. Charles Avenue showroom. When
the government began ordering his craft for military purposes, Higgins
expanded into eight separate plants in the city, employing more than 20,000
workers. At the peak of production, the combined output of his plants
exceeded 700 boats a month. His total output for the Allies during World
War II was 20,094 boats, a production record for which Higgins Industries
several times received the Army-Navy "E", the highest award that the armed
forces could bestow upon a company.
Higgins was the ideal person for the needs of the time. In World War II,
with its massive contracts, his strengths - design and rapid production
- were all-important. Administrative weaknesses were suddenly irrelevant
- the war offered him opportunity. Had the Japanese not bombed Pearl Harbor,
Higgins probably would have remained a successful, but small, southern
boat builder. Because of the war, he rapidly became an internationally
known figure (even Hitler was aware of Higgins, calling him the "new Noah").
In his 1944 Thanksgiving Day address to the nation, General Dwight D.
Eisenhower said "Let us thank God for Higgins Industries, management,
and labor which has given us the landing boats with which to conduct our
campaign." Andrew Jackson Higgins' influence on amphibious warfare and
his contribution toward the Allied victory in World War II cannot be overstressed.