On June 6, 1944, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the green light for the largest amphibious military operation in history. Codenamed Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of the heavily Nazi-fortified coast of France’s Normandy region has come to be more popularly known as D-Day. On that monumental patriotic battle hung the balance of power in World War II (1939-1945) and the fate of the world.
By sunrise, 18,000 American and British paratroopers were on the ground.
At 6:30 a.m., American troops came ashore at Omaha and Utah beaches. By the day’s end, 156,000 British, Canadian and American forces landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch (Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches), and had established a foothold along the coast that could begin their advance into France.
History.com noted, “More than 5,000 ships and landing craft carrying troops and supplies left England for the trip across the Channel to France, while more than 11,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion.
“Within three months, the northern part of France would be freed and the invasion force would be preparing to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet forces moving in from the east.” By the following spring of 1945, the Allied forces completely defeated Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime.
The Normandy landings are regarded as the linchpin to the Allied victory, what is often now called “the beginning of the end of war in Europe.” And there was one military vehicle that was a critical constituent of the win: the LCVP, which were the small landing boats that brought the troops onto the beaches on D-Day.
One of the most unknown of the unknown heroes of D-Day was a man who never set foot on a Normandy beach, never commanded a single troop and never wore a uniform – Andrew Jackson Higgins.
In 2017, the Washington Post summarized Higgins’ character and contributions this way:
“Higgins was not native to the South. … 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 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’ accomplishment in perspective,” historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in a 2000 article for 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.”
Undoubtedly, Higgins’ greatest patriotic and military contribution was the creation of the LVCP – his glorified “Eureka” boat, as he called it. If you’ve ever watched a D-Day movie, you’ve seen them. They’re the small landing vessels with flat bottoms and high sides. They carried the troops up to the Normandy beaches, then dropped their flat bows into the water to let the troops exit off and out of the front of the boats.
As creative as this entrepreneur was, “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 was also known as being tough, wild and wily.
He once hung a sign at his company that said, “Anybody caught stealing tools out of this yard won’t get fired – he’ll go to the hospital.”
On Aug. 16, 1943, Life magazine reported how his demeanor was “famous for its opulence and volume,” which included a profundity for profanity and Old Taylor bourbon. He quipped how he limited his intake of drinking to sipping at a single location: “I only drink,” he told Life, “while I’m working.”
About this Midwest-raised Southern patriot, former President Eisenhower told WWII author Stephen Ambrose 20 years after D-Day: “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.”
In Karl Vater’s great and insightful blog, he added: “And what’s even more amazing is that Higgins did it all without any request from the military – in fact he did so by pushing against the wishes of the U.S. Navy.
“In WWII the Navy was only interested in larger vessels like destroyers and battleships. They had no interest in smaller vessels, especially not the LCVPs that Higgins had in mind.
“The Navy didn’t want LCVPs, which later became known to soldiers and the world as ‘Higgins Boats,’ because their small size and flat bottoms meant they couldn’t navigate across the English Channel.
“But Higgins saw what the Navy couldn’t see. That, after crossing the channel, the larger ships would not be able to get troops close enough to the shore. Higgins was a hothead, so even when the Navy finally relented and saw the need for smaller landing craft, they didn’t want anything to do with Higgins or his boat design. The Navy was determined to design their own landing craft.
“But Higgins had an idea, and he insisted on seeing it through. For over two years, he pushed and prodded until the Navy reluctantly allowed his design to be entered into the contract bidding. When they saw his design, the contest was over. Higgins’ design was superior in every way.
“Immediately, Higgins converted all his assembly lines into building LCVPs. At one time he employed over 30,000 men and women of all races. Almost unheard of in the deep South of that era.
In his amazing book, “D-Day: The Climactic Battle of World War II,” Ambrose tells about the conversation he had with President Eisenhower in 1964.
Ambrose was shortly traveling to New Orleans, so Eisenhower asked him if he had ever met Andrew Higgins. Ambrose said he had not, and that Higgins actually passed away back in 1952. To that fact, Eisenhower responded, “That’s too bad. He is the man who won the war for us.”
That is one amazing accolade from one of the world’s greatest military generals!
Even Adolf Hitler conceded to Higgins’ influence and power when he called him “the new Noah.”
And lastly, like with the biblical Noah, nothing came easy for Higgins. He was a man well acquainted with struggle and hardship. His father died from a fall when he was only 7 years old. With mom alone, times were hard and money was scarce, so Higgins “started a lawn cutting service and operated several newspaper delivery routes,” according to his Memorial Foundation.
Even later in life, after he built lucrative businesses, his Memorial Foundation shared that “many times he lost his company and savings to hurricanes and hard times,” including enduring the multi-faceted fallout of the Great Depression, severe droughts and dust storms during the 1930s. Through it all, Higgins also led and provided for his wife Angele and six children.
In the end, maybe what Andrew Jackson Higgins’ life and contributions best show us is that a once-expelled student who became a hothead, cursing, bourbon-loving “normal American with normal struggles” can change the world. And you don’t have to be famous or have fortune to do it. You don’t even have to leave your own backyard. Most of all, we learn that sometimes the key to success and victory is thinking smaller, not bigger, just as Higgins did with his LCVP boats.
Higgins’ life reminds me again of the words of D. L. Moody, who once wrote next to Isaiah 6:8 in his Bible: “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do, and what I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do.”
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