Friday, June 3, 2016

June 1941: The first Higgins Boats Arrive in Hampton Roads

By Jerome Kirkland 
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator


On June 4, 1943, 381st Port Battalion Company "C" Scouts practice disembarking from a Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCM) in Newport News, Virginia. (Army Signal Corps Photograph/ Library of Virginia) 
Many people would recognize a “Higgins Boat” if they saw one in a movie like “Saving Private Ryan”, “Sands of Iwo Jima”, or any other number of movies with amphibious landing craft “hitting” the beach during the Second World War. Few, however, may realize the battle the boat’s creator, Andrew Jackson Higgins, had to fight to get these indispensable boats accepted by the US Navy. Fewer still would realize that by September 1943, over 90% of the vessels in the US Navy would have been designed by Higgins. Nearly two decades later, none other than the former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, Dwight D. Eisenhower, would recall that Higgins was “…the man who won the war for us.”
Andrew J. Higgins (Wikimedia Commons)

In the years between World War I and World War II, Higgins developed a boat for shallow water use in the bayous and swamps around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. During this same time, the United States Marines were looking for boats that would help them carry out the new amphibious assault techniques they were developing. When these two got together, the battles between Higgins and the Navy, the beginnings of a specialized amphibious Navy, and the birth of an iconic piece of WWII military equipment would all get their start.

In 1938, as war was breaking out in Europe, the US Marine Corps requested that Higgins send a 30-foot long version of his “Eureka” boat to Norfolk for testing on Willoughby Spit and Virginia Beach against other boats built by Chris Craft and the US Navy’s Bureau of Construction and Repair (Navy Bureau). The 30-foot length was a requirement of the Navy to fit current davits on ships for launching boats. Higgins’ boat performed well enough for the Navy to award a small order, along with Bureau versions, for further testing.

This set the stage for Higgins' first battle with the Navy. Higgins felt a 36-foot-long boat would perform and meet the services’ needs better than a 30-foot version, so in September of 1940 he built and shipped a 36-foot version of his boat, at his own cost, to Norfolk for the final round of testing. Higgins argued that the Navy should change the davits on its ships in order to get the best boat for the job, rather than accept an inferior boat. With the support of the Marine Corps, the Navy accepted Higgins’ 36-foot boat for testing. By the end of testing, the Higgins boat outperformed all the others and exceeded all requirements. The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) report to the Secretary of the Navy listed Higgins' design as the best option, followed by the Chris Craft design. The Bureau’s own design finished last, yet days after the report’s release, the Bureau ordered its own version to be built.


An LCP(L), originally invented by Higgins and designed by the Eureka Tug-Boat Company of New Orleans, is used to land Marines during the Guadalcanal Campaign (Wikipedia)
After protests from Higgins, the Marine Corps, and the US Army, the Navy finally placed their first order for Higgins’ 36-foot Eureka boat, to be called the Landing Craft Personnel, Large or LCP(L) in November of 1940. During the testing and development of the LCP(L), and the 30-foot "medium" Navy version called the LCP(M), a major drawback of the latter design became obvious: Troops and cargo had to be unloaded over the side of the boat. Modifications were made to the LCP, putting a narrow ramp between the two forward machine gun mounts, making it an LCP(R) for “ramped.” This design created a bottleneck at the bow of the boat while unloading. Higgins felt he could do better, and this would set the stage for his next battle with the Navy.

A Higgins PT boat. 
In November of 1940, with an order for LCP(L)s in hand, the Navy arrived in New Orleans to witness testing on Higgins’ Torpedo Patrol Boat design, PT-6 (prime). Higgins took the opportunity to demonstrate a new 36-foot landing craft equipped with a full-width ramp at the bow. Over the next several months, amidst complaints of unfair testing, Higgins finally won a contract for his PT boat and by the end of the war, he had built around 200 PT boats of different variations. During this time, between November 1940 and May 1941, Higgins also fought to have his wide-ramped 36-foot landing boat evaluated. By late May 1941, Higgins finally got his test on Lake Pontchartrain. With enthusiastic support from the Marines and the Army, Higgins got an order to produce the first 26 boats to be delivered to Norfolk, Virginia, by June 15. This is the iconic landing boat of the movies, called the Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP), or more commonly, a “Higgins Boat.”

A Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP) belonging to the attack transport USS Darke (APA-159) off the coast of Okinawa in April 1945. (Wikipedia)  
During these battles between Higgins and the Navy over his PT boat and LCVP, the Navy was also seeking a landing barge, called a tank lighter, that could deliver a tank or artillery piece ashore. So on the same day in late May that Higgins received an order to build the first batch of LCVPs, he also received an order to deliver a set of plans for a tank lighter. This would set the stage for the biggest battle between Higgins and the Navy.

Higgins told the Navy that he would not only deliver plans for the tank lighter, but he would also deliver a completed boat. Despite claims it could not be done, Higgins took a partially completed tow and barge tender and converted it into a 45-foot tank lighter. Designing it as he built it, Higgins completed his boat in only 61 hours and tested it in front of the Navy on Lake Pontchartrain by the end of May. The design was good enough for the Navy to order six of them for testing.

Between May 1941 and May 1942, testing between tank lighters by Higgins, the Navy Bureau and others consistently showed Higgins' tank lighter to be the best, yet the Navy Bureau consistently ordered their own design to be built. This would eventually lead to Senator Harry Truman, Chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, intervening and ordering a head-to-head test between boats. Starting in Norfolk, going to Little Creek to test bay and inland waters, then out to Fort Story to test ocean waters, the Higgins boat not only completed the testing course but rescued the Bureau’s boat when it foundered and nearly capsized. This was the birth of the Landing Craft Mechanized, or LCM.
LCVPs await completion and delivery at Higgins' shipyard near New Orleans. (Library of Congress)

Higgins won this battle, yet when President Roosevelt called for 600 more LCMs to be delivered by September 1, 1942, in preparation for the landings in North Africa, the Navy Bureau took advantage of this. They increased the order to 1100 so that they could have their own design built. It took protests from the Army and Marines to have Higgins’ design built before the Navy Bureau relented.

After May of 1942, Higgins was on much better terms with the Navy, designing and producing boats such as the LCP, LCVP, LCM, PT boats and others. By September 1943, of the 14,072 vessels listed in Navy rolls, 12,964 of them, or 92 percent, were designed by Higgins. It was Higgins’ innovative designs and determination to produce the best boats possible that led to his boats becoming icons of WWII equipment. Far from being a profiteer, however, Higgins often put up his own money and even renegotiated contracts with the Navy for less money, even after they were awarded, when he found ways to reduce costs.
On a Landing Ship, Tank (LST) somewhere off the coast of Sicily in July 1943, soldiers of the 45th Infantry Division get one last hour of rest before making a landing as LCVPs loom in their davits overhead. (Library of Congress)
Higgins’ determination, quality of his boats, and the shear number produced, is probably what led Adolf Hitler to refer to Higgins as the “new Noah” in an interview in the Nazi propaganda newspaper Voelkischer Beobachter. These qualities are probably what led Former President Eisenhower, in 1964, to say of Higgins “…he is the man who won the war for us.” “If Andy Higgins had not developed and then built those landing craft," Eisenhower continued, "we never could have gone in over an open beach. It would have changed the whole strategy of the war.”

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