Meet the ‘American Noah’

Most military history enthusiasts don’t need to be told that it will be the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Northern Europe on June 6. For generations after that historic day in 1944, it has been known as “D-Day.” Stories of sacrifice, heroism, and compassion abound. Of all who contributed to breaking Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall,” one, who made the landings possible, is sometimes referred to as the “American Noah.”

 

United States Marine Corps reinforcements at Guadalcanal debark from an LCP(L). Though the surf is light and there is no enemy fire apparent, these men are still presented with some balancing challenges and a tall leap from the bow.

United States Marine Corps reinforcements at Guadalcanal debark from an LCP(L). Though the surf is light and there is no enemy fire apparent, these men are still presented with some balancing challenges and a tall leap from the bow.

 

Before WWII, Louisiana entrepreneur Andrew Jackson Higgins designed and produced small shallow-draft boats to operate the shallow marsh areas common to in the lower Mississippi River bottoms. These small, fast boats were called “Eureka Boats” or “Spoonbills.” One of the keys to the boat’s success was that the propeller was partially enclosed in a tunnel to protect it.  The boats could impact partially submerged logs without suffering damage to the propeller. For years, Higgins tried sell his nimble boats to the U.S. military, only to be rejected each time.

During the early stages of U.S. involvement in the Pacific Theater, however, the Marine Corps selected the flat-bottomed landing craft for troop landings on beaches. Higgins, who had paid heavily out-of-pocket to promote his boats, finally landed a government contract.

The Spoonbill was Higgins’ first design for a personnel landing craft to be used by the US Navy and USMC. Designated, “LCP(L)” (Landing Craft, Personnel (Large)), it was the main type of landing craft used for the invasion of Guadalcanal. Unfortunately, these landing craft required the troops to go over the sides in order to exit the craft. This was an unnecessary—and sometimes costly—exposure to enemy fire.

The LCP(L) had two machine gun positions at the bow. Commonly called the “U-boat” or the “Higgins” boat by Americans, the Brits who began receiving the boats in late 1940 called them “R-Boats.”

Higgins Industries expanded rapidly to meet the military’s needs, going from a single plant employing fewer than 75 people before the war to seven plants employing more than 20,000 workers by 1943. Higgins employed the first fully integrated working force of women and men, African-Americans, and white laborers in New Orleans. All were paid equal wages according to their job functions.

Earlier, testing had begun on a ramped version of the Eureka boat. This new boat evolved into the Landing Craft, Personnel (Ramped) or LCP(R). The machine gun positions were still positioned at the front of the boat but closer to the side, allowing access to a retractable ramp. Before going into production, the design was changed to incorporate a ramp wide enough for a Jeep to drive into or off the boat. With the machine gun positions moved to the rear of the boat, this new version was designated the “Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP). Most Americans who used them, however, simply called them “Higgins Boats.”

 

Higgins factory photo showing the boats’ wooden hull construction. Courtesy of Jerry Strahan

Higgins factory photo showing the boats’ wooden hull construction. Courtesy of Jerry Strahan

 

FAST TRANSIT TO SHORE

The Higgins Boat was used for many amphibious landings, including Operation Torch in North Africa, Operation Shingle in Sicily, Operation Avalanche in Italy, and Guadalcanal in the Pacific. The most, however, was during the D-Day landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Measuring only 36’ 3”, these small boats were the first landing craft to hit the beaches. Carrying about 36 men or a small vehicle (like a Jeep) and a 12-man squad, the LCVPs were manned by three sailors (the coxswain and the two machine gunners).

Larger ships carried the plywood-hulled LCPVs into the invasion area before lowering them into the water. Because of the shallow draft (3 feet aft and 2 feet, 2 inches forward), an LCPV could run right up onto the shoreline. The semi-tunnel that Higgins first incorporated into his earliest designs protected the propeller from sand and other debris.

The steel ramp at the front could be lowered quickly, permitting the LCPV to swiftly disembark men and supplies, reverse itself off the beach, and head back out to the supply ship for another load within 3–4 minutes. This rapid delivery of men and vehicles to the beach, coupled with relentless bombardment, established the toehold in Nazi-occupied Europe. Larger landing craft followed with more soldiers, bigger vehicles, artillery, and supplies. After the initial landings, however, the tiny Higgins Boats were regrouped and used for ship-to-ship transport and for continued deliveries to the beach.

 

USS Darke (APA-159)'s, LCVP 18, possibly with Army troops as reinforcements at Okinawa, circa 9 to 14 April 1945. US Navy photo

USS Darke (APA-159)’s, LCVP 18, possibly with Army troops as reinforcements at Okinawa, circa 9 to 14 April 1945. US Navy photo

 

By the end of WWII, Higgins turned out more than 20,000 boats—12,500 of them LCVPs. Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, declared the Higgins boat to have been crucial to the Allied victory on the European western front and the previous fighting in North Africa and Italy:

Andrew Higgins … is the man who won the war for us. … If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.

Higgins Industries produced over sixty different items for the US government during the war. It is ranked 70th among United States corporations in the value of WWII military production contracts.

After the war, Andrew Higgins tried to transition the company into consumer products such as appliances, personal watercraft, and housing materials. In late 1945, Frank P. Higgins, brother of Andrew, became director of marketing, operating the Higgins Marine Sales Corp.

When labor strife complicated the picture immediately after the War, Andrew Higgins liquidated the business in November 1945. A couple of months later, he formed another company, Higgins, Inc., to build pleasure watercraft. The business, later known as Higgins Marine Sales Corp., closed in 1975.

Today, Higgins, the “American Noah,” is most remembered, however, for those little, plywood-hulled boats that carried the troops to Hitler’s doorstep. Without his design, the liberation of Europe would have had to take a different path.

This June 6, remember all those who contributed to the liberation of Europe.

 

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader

 

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