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Andrew Jackson Higgins – A Legacy

Andrew Jackson Higgins

Andrew Jackson Higgins, the man Dwight D. Eisenhower once credited with winning World War II, was a wild and wily genius.

At the New Orleans plant where his company built the boats that brought troops ashore at Normandy on June 6, 1944, Higgins hung a sign that said, “Anybody caught stealing tools out of this yard won’t get fired — he’ll go to the hospital.”

Whatever Higgins did, he did it a lot. “His profanity,” Life magazine said, was “famous for its opulence and volume.” So was his thirst for Old Taylor bourbon, though he curtailed his intake by limiting his sips to a specific location.

I only drink,” he told Life magazine, “while I’m working.”

It is Higgins himself who takes your breath away,” Raymond Moley, a former FDR adviser,  wrote in Newsweek in 1943. “Higgins is an authentic master builder, with the kind of will power, brains, drive and daring that characterized the American empire builders of an earlier generation.”

USNS Andrew J. Higgins, Sept. 1987

Higgins was not native to the South, despite his love of bourbon. He grew up in Nebraska, where, at various ages, he was expelled from school for fighting. Higgins’ temperament improved around boats. He built his first vessel in the basement when he was 12. It was so large that a wall had to be torn down to get it out.

He moved South in his early 20s, working in the lumber industry. He hadn’t thought much about boats again until a tract of timber in shallow waters required him to build a special vessel so he could remove the wood. Higgins signed up for a correspondence course in naval architecture, shifting his work from timber to boats.

In the late 1930s, he owned a small shipyard in New Orleans. By then, his special shallow-craft boat had become popular with loggers and oil drillers. They were “tunnel stern boats,” whose magic was in the way the “hull incorporated a recessed tunnel used to protect the propeller from grounding,” according to the Louisiana Historical Association.

Higgins ‘Eureka’ boat

Higgins called it the “Eureka” boat. The war brought interest by U.S. forces in a similar style vessel to attack unguarded beaches and avoid coming ashore at heavily defended ports. The Marines settled on the Higgins boat, transforming what had been a 50-employee company into one of the world’s largest manufacturers.

“To put Higgins’s accomplishment in perspective,” historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in a 2000 article in American Heritage magazine, consider this: “By September 1943, 12,964 of the American Navy’s 14,072 vessels had been designed by Higgins Industries. Put another way, 92 percent of the U.S. Navy was a Higgins navy.”

Though Eisenhower and even Hitler acknowledged the importance of the Higgins boat — military leaders came to call it “the bridge to the beach” — its builder went mostly unmentioned in histories of the war. That is, until 17 years ago, when the World War II Museum opened in New Orleans and recognized Higgins’ life, displaying a reproduction of his boat.

Still, there’s been just one biography written: “Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II” by historian Jerry Strahan.

“Without Higgins’s uniquely designed craft, there could not have been a mass landing of troops and matériel on European shores or the beaches of the Pacific islands, at least not without a tremendously higher rate of Allied casualties,” Strahan wrote.

Higgins Hotel, New Orleans

The WWII Museum in New Orleans officially broke ground on the Higgins Hotel directly across the street from the museum in 2017.

The one man in the South I want especially to see is Andrew Jackson Higgins.  I want to tell him, face to face, that Higgins’ landing boats such as we had at Guadalcanal are the best in the world.  They do everything but talk; honest they do.”  ___ Warrant Officer Machinist, James D. Fox, quoted in the Shreveport Times, 6 March 1943

AJ Higgins held 30 patents, mostly covering amphibious landing craft and vehicles.

Higgins died in New Orleans on 1 August 1952, and was buried in Metairie Cemetery.  He had been hospitalized for a week to treat stomach ulcers when he suffered a fatal stroke.

Article resources: The World War II Museum in New Orleans (2018 Annual Report), The Marine Corps & the Washington Post.

There will be more information on the boats in the upcoming post.

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Military Humor – Navy Style ……

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Farewell Salutes – 

Bill Balser – Anderson, IN; US Army Air Corps, WWII, PTO, Co. A/127th Engineers/11th Airborne Division

Thomas Carney – Naples, FL; US Army, Vietnam, 173rd A/B Brigade / Cmdr. of 5th Infantry Div., Lt. Gen. (Ret. 35 y.)

Donald Davis – Orangeville, PA; USMC, WWII, PTO

Bill Hardin – Wheat Ridge, CO; US Navy, WWII, PTO, 72nd Sea Bees

John Johnson – Sanford, NC; US Army, WWII, 9th Infantry Medical Detachment, medic

Garry Massa – Pickney, MI; US Army, Vietnam, 82nd Airborne Division

Roger Patrick – Tabor, IA; US Army, WWII, Sgt.

Paul “Ken” Rash – Indianapolis, IN; US Navy, WWII, PTO

Roy Schwabe (100) – Park Ridge, IL; US Army, WWII

Carl Wheaton – Bar Harbor, ME; USMC, WWII, PTO, Lt. Colonel, pilot

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