THE NEGLECTED EPIC OF ANDREW JACKSON HIGGINS
Until the National D-day Museum got under way in New Orleans, the name of Andrew Jackson Higgins had largely faded in American memory. Long ago this master boatbuilder and industrialist had been dismissed by his city’s social elite as a crude, hard-drinking outsider lacking Old South manners and French Quarter charm. In the Crescent City there are no schools or streets named for the Nebraska-born Irishman. But his truly Herculean feat of building 20,094 boats for the Allied cause during World War II is not forgotten by military historians—or by the veterans who stormed Normandy, liberated Sicily, fought on flyspeck Pacific Islands, or invaded North Africa.
The history of World War II often tends to focus on the leaders—admirals such as King and Nimitz, field generals such as Patton and Clark, strategists such as Marshall and Eisenhower. But World War II was not won only on the battlefield. Victory was made possible by industrial might and mobilization on the home front. Much has been written about the airplanes built in Henry Ford’s eighty-acre Willow Run Creek plant near Detroit, which Charles Lindbergh called the “Grand Canyon of the mechanized world.” But it takes troops on the ground to win a war, and it was Higgins Industries in New Orleans that designed and produced the landing craft—LCP, LCPL, LCVP, LCM—that got them there.
To put Higgins’s accomplishment in perspective, 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. “Higgins’s assembly line for small boats broke precedents,” FDR’s former adviser Raymond Moley wrote in Newsweek in 1943. “But it is Higgins himself who takes your breath away as much as his remarkable products and his fantastic ability to multiply his products at headlong speed. 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.”
Who was this master builder? Born in 1886, and tossed out of school for brawling, Higgins managed to complete three years at Creighton High Prep School before dropping out to join the National Guard. Drifting around the Gulf Coast states, he eventually landed a job in New Orleans in 1910 managing a lumber-exporting firm. Before long he organized his own business, the A. J. Higgins Lumber and Export Company, which sold pine planks and cypress blocks around the world. He also imported hardwoods from Central America, Africa, and the Philippines.
The roots of Higgins’s wartime success lay in the fleet of schooners and brigantines he built to carry his lumber. In 1937 Higgins owned one little New Orleans boatyard where fifty or so people worked. By the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, he was designing prototype landing craft in a warehouse behind his St. Charles Avenue showroom and owned a massive boat-manufacturing plant in New Orleans. A perfectionist obsessed with good workmanship, he was also positioned to rapidly accelerate his shipyard production to produce shallow watercraft, or even aircraft—whatever was needed. “The sad state of war,” he said, “has made it my duty to build.”
And build he did. Higgins Industries expanded into eight citywide plants, employing more than twenty thousand workers able to produce seven hundred boats a month. With a labor pool diminished by the young men drafted to fight, Higgins became an equal-opportunity employer by default, hiring women, blacks, the elderly, the handicapped—anyone he could find to build boats. Everyone who had the same job was paid the same wage. and together they set home-front production records. Winning the Army-Navy “E”—the government’s highest award for a company—was commonplace for Higgins Industries.
In his book Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats That Won World War II , the historian Jerry E. Strahan recounts the frenetic boatbuilding mania that swept over the Port of New Orleans under the Higgins name. Higgins Industries constructed two kinds of military craft during the war: high-speed PT boats and various types of steel-and-wood landing craft to transport fully armed troops, light tanks, and field artillery. It was this latter class of body that made the D-Day landing of June 6,1944, feasible. “Without Higgins’s uniquely designed craft,” writes Strahan, “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.”
No less an authority than General Eisenhower agreed. Higgins is “the man who won the war for us,” he said. Ike’s personal assistant Harry Butcher recalled his boss’s saying in March 1943 that when he was buried, his “coffin should be in the shape of a landing craft, as they are practically killing [me] with worry.” But a year later, because of Higgins Industries, there were enough LCVPs (or Higgins Boats, as soldiers called them) for Ike to plan the D-Day invasion with one less worry. “Let us thank God for Higgins Industries’ management and labor which has given us the landing boats with which to conduct our campaign,” he told the nation that year in his Thanksgiving Day address. So crucial was Higgins’s amphibious warfare craft that a disgruntled Adolf Hitler called him the “new Noah.”
Andrew Jackson Higgins may have been short on social graces, but he was a production genius when his nation most needed him. His motto was “The Hell I Can’t,” and he always far exceeded expectations. The profane, nononsense Higgins uncomplainingly worked sixteen-hour days throughout the war. If he bitched about Washington bureaucrats, grasping union leaders, foolish admirals, and New England shipbuilders, he never let a U.S. soldier or sailor down. There was no polish to his talk or elegance to his gait. He was a boatbuilder with a vision and the ability to turn that vision into reality. Higgins died in New Orleans in 1952, and Higgins Industries no longer exists, but there are many local old-timers who remember their enormous contributions to the Allied victory.
Andy Higgins’s genius is now receiving wider recognition, as predicted long ago by one contemporary who relied on him. “When the history of this war is finally written,” Capt. R. R. M. Emmett, who commanded landing forces in North Africa, wrote during the war, “by historians far enough removed from its present turmoil and clamor to be cool and impartial, I predict that they will place Mr. Higgins very high on the list of those who deserve the commendation and gratitude of all citizens.” It took more than a half-century, but now, thanks to new exhibits at the National D-Day Museum, a great American boatbuilder and the workers he employed will never again be forgotten. Andrew Jackson Higgins is permanently enshrined as one of the most effective armorers in America’s “arsenal of democracy.”