It’s the summer of 1943. If you took the West End streetcar line out to Lake Pontchartrain on a sunny afternoon, you probably would have seen some fast and sleek little boats speeding across the water. The PT boats manufactured by Higgins Industries were regularly put through their trials in the lake, along with the slower (but just as important to the war effort) landing craft.
Local New Orleans workers, under Higgins’ leadership, produced 20,094 boats that were used by U.S. forces in both theaters of the war.
In both theaters of operation during World War II, delivering troops via beach assaults was a main component of the Allied strategy. To get soldiers and marines onto the beaches of Italy and France, as well as onto the islands of the Pacific, the Allied armies needed boats. Lots of boats, too, that could be built swiftly and inexpensively.
Enter Andrew Jackson Higgins, who was described by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1964 as “the man who won the war for us.” Born in Columbus, Nebraska, in 1886, Higgins came to New Orleans in 1910, working in the lumber industry. By 1922, Higgins had formed his own lumber export company, which was a struggle to keep afloat.
A “Eureka” Moment
By the mid-1920s, Higgins branched out from lumber exporting to boat-building. The burgeoning oil industry in Southern Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico had a need for reasonably priced transport boats to get work crews and supplies out to rigs. Higgins identified that need and created the “Eureka boat,” a wooden craft with a very shallow draft that could easily come and go along the Louisiana Gulf Coast. Higgins closed the lumber business in 1930, opening the first Higgins Industries building on City Park Avenue in Mid-City (today, that building is part of Delgado Junior College). Higgins Industries built Eureka boats for commercial use, as well as for the U.S. Coast Guard.
From the Coast Guard to the Marines
Selling boats to the Coast Guard gave Higgins an “in” to doing business with the government. The Eureka boats caught the attention of the U.S. Marine Corps. They liked the shallow draft and low cost, but the need to disembark troops over the sides of the boat was problematic. After receiving reports of a Japanese landing craft that had a ramp at the bow, Higgins developed a modified Eureka boat with a ramp-bow. By 1938, Higgins Industries rolled out their first LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel). These boats became known simply as “Higgins boats.”
Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II brought incredibly rapid expansion to Higgins Industries. When the company began building LCVPs, they would put them on rail cars and bring them over to Bayou St. John to test them out in Lake Pontchartrain. Higgins quickly constructed additional facilities on St. Charles Avenue, the Industrial Canal, and in Michoud. The company made several different models of landing craft, as well as “Patrol-Torpedo” (PT) boats, the small wooden craft used across the Pacific by the U.S. Navy.
A Boon for New Orleans
At the height of its production in 1943, Higgins Industries employed more than 20,000 men and women in New Orleans. One of the more notable aspects of the company was that the Higgins workforce was fully integrated. White employees worked alongside African-Americans. Like in many other industries and parts of the country during the war, women were also a major part of the Higgins workforce. In all, those workers, under Higgins’ leadership, produced 20,094 boats that were used by US forces in both theaters of the war.
Higgins boats did their job, getting American, British, French, and Canadian troops on to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. They delivered soldiers and marines to the beaches of numerous islands in the Pacific, all the way to Okinawa.
Those Higgins boats did their job, getting American, British, French, and Canadian troops on to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. They delivered soldiers and marines to the beaches of numerous islands in the Pacific, all the way to Okinawa. The PT boats protected our fleets and shipping lanes so the “island hopping” would stay fully supplied.
Post-War and a Continued Legacy
After V-J Day, Higgins boats and PT boats weren’t needed in such mass quantities. Laborers willing to make sacrifices with respect to pay and work conditions for the war effort were less inclined to do so for manufacturing of consumer goods. Higgins Industries did not have the financial wherewithal to make the transition, and was liquidated in November, 1945. The company restructured, and by 1948 had consolidated boat-building operations at the Industrial Canal plant, closing all the others. Even with this move, the company struggled, as did Higgins himself with health problems. Andrew Higgins died on Aug. 1, 1952, of a stomach ailment.
The late Stephen Ambrose, Boyd Professor of History at the University of New Orleans, remembered the words Eisenhower used to describe Higgins in 1964 and made it his mission to recognize Higgins’ contributions to the war effort by establishing the D-Day Museum in New Orleans. That project blossomed into what is now the National World War II Museum — and it’s no coincidence the museum is located at the intersection of Magazine Street and Andrew Higgins Boulevard. The lobby of the Louisiana Pavilion of the museum contains a replica of a LCVP, a Higgins boat, built from original plans, with help from volunteers who worked at Higgins Industries during the war. You can follow the story of the Higgins boats in Europe as you walk through the D-Day exhibits in the Museum.
One of the interesting stories involving Higgins boats and Eisenhower involves conversations between President Roosevelt and his Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall. Ike knew he would need as many landing craft for the D-Day invasion as FDR and Marshall would allow him, but the view in Washington had to be broader. FDR had to cut back the number of boats going to Europe, because those craft were also needed to land troops on the Islands of the Pacific. The Allied plan in the Pacific Theater was to fight the Japanese Navy on the sea, while taking back the islands and archipelagos occupied by the Japanese Army. To learn how Higgins boats contributed to victory in the “island hopping” campaigns in the Pacific, check out the upcoming Road to Tokyo exhibit.
A signed and framed limited edition of the Rodrigue print shown above is sold at the Gift Shop of the National World War II Museum.