Shared History - November 2020
- Story by Dena Temple
Like many people, Skip Higgins has sequestered himself in his Bay St. Louis home since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.
“I haven’t read much since my college days, but since the start of the pandemic I’ve taken up reading,” he said. “I’m on my 46th book.” Skip favors historical novels by authors like Ken Follett, James Michener and Herman Wouk.
It’s not surprising that Skip has an interest in history – his grandfather helped change the course of US history.
Boat builder Andrew J. Higgins (1886-1952) was first exposed to boatbuilding while serving in the Engineer Corps of the Nebraska Army National Guard.
Higgins established a shipyard to service his own fleet, and while intense competition put his lumber company out of business, he retained the shipyard and established a shipbuilding business, drawing on his past experience.
In 1926 Higgins designed the Eureka boat, a craft designed for use for oil and natural gas exploration in shallow waters. It featured a "spoonbill" bow design that allowed it to be run onto riverbanks.
This design captured the interest of the US Navy and Marine Corps, who needed a better boat for beach landings. With modifications to allow large numbers of troops to deploy at once via the bow (rather than over the sides), the LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel), nicknamed the “Higgins boat,” was born. It could carry 36 soldiers, and over 23,000 boats were produced during World War II at Higgins’s shipyard in New Orleans.
Wikipedia sums up its importance: “With the help of the Higgins boat, armies could unload across open beaches instead of at ports, which were heavily guarded. This allowed the troops to spread out and attack from a wide range of areas. These tactics were utilized for many Allied operations, including the Normandy landings.”
In addition to his LCVP landing craft, Higgins Industries also produced aircraft (by acquiring Tucker Aviation from inventor Preston Tucker) and Motor Torpedo (PT) Boats. He also built an aircraft manufacturing facility in Michoud, Louisiana, that later became NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility for Saturn V rockets.
The story of Andrew Jackson Higgins might have slipped into obscurity had it not been for author, history professor and historian Stephen Ambrose, biographer of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and author of the book, D-Day: June 6, 1944.
Ambrose decided that this story was too important to be lost and enlisted the help of local politicians in New Orleans to create a national D-Day Museum, which opened in 2000. The museum focused on the amphibious invasion at Normandy and how it facilitated the German defeat.
The United States Congress awarded the museum the designation of "America’s National World War II Museum” in 2003, and its scope has significantly expanded to offer information and exhibits on all facets of the war, from all branches of the military and both the European and Pacific theaters of battle.
According to the museum’s website, it offers “a compelling blend of sweeping narrative and poignant personal detail, [with] immersive exhibits, multimedia experiences, and an expansive collection of artifacts and first-person oral histories, taking visitors inside the story of the war that changed the world.”
In fact, PT-305, the National World War II Museum’s fully restored Higgins patrol-torpedo boat, was brought to Bay St. Louis last year as a floating exhibit. Read about it here, and see photos here.
The story of Andrew Jackson Higgins will never be forgotten, thanks to Stephen Ambrose.