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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, June 07, 2018 1:00 am

Higgins boat crucial part of D-Day victory

Michael S. Rosenwald | Washington Post

Courage and devotion underlay the Allied troops' landing on Normandy 74 years ago, a mission that helped win World War II.

Not to be forgotten, though, is technology. American and British technological advances gave Allied troops the upper hand in many facets of battle throughout the war.

In addition to the obvious Manhattan Project atomic bombs, there was radar, bombsights, and even nylon rope and fabric. But one of the most crucial bits of technology in the Allies' surprise attack on Normandy was the hull of a boat – the Higgins boat.

It was built by a wily, hard-drinking inventor named Andrew Higgins, the man Dwight D. Eisenhower once credited with winning World War II.

“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.”

Higgins 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, who died in 1952, 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.

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 18 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.