By Edward T. O’Donnell
Fifty-eight years ago this week, on June 6, 1944, the largest military operation in human history began. Operation Overlord, or D-Day, as it came to be known, commenced the long-awaited Allied offensive against the forces of Nazi Germany. Over the next few weeks, 4,000 vessels of every description would move some 3 million soldiers and a vast number of vehicles and equipment across the English Channel to a beachhead on the coast of France. But the key to the whole operation was the ability of the Allies to land an overwhelming number of troops, tanks, and equipment in the first few days. That they were able to do so was due in large measure to the genius of one boatbuilder, Andrew Jackson Higgins, the man Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower later said “won the war for us.”
His motto was “The hell I can’t” and it served him well. Born in Nebraska, Andrew Jackson Higgins (1886-1952) never graduated from high school. After a stint in the Coast Guard, he settled in New Orleans and found work in the lumber industry, eventually starting his own lumber business. His foray into shipbuilding began when he needed ships to carry the lumber he imported from around the world. He moved into shipbuilding full time in 1930, specializing in flatbottom boats for movement in shallow water. Despite his lack of any formal training in design and engineering, Higgins often sketched out prototypes for new boats and then had his team of experts create a workable design.
With war in Europe looming in 1939, the U.S. Navy announced a design competition for a high-speed troop transport capable of landing in shallow water. Having already designed similar crafts, including one for the oil industry to explore the swamps in Louisiana, Higgins had a head start. Still, as a small-time boatbuilder with no connections in Washington, it took a monumental effort even to get the Navy to look at his boat. When they finally agreed to test it, Higgins’s LCVP (landing craft, vehicle and personnel) so impressed the Navy that they awarded him a major contract. Higgins would later win contracts to build the famous PT (patrol torpedo) boats used in the Pacific.
The LCVP was the product of more than a decade of design modification. Made of sturdy wood, the craft combined high speed, maneuverability (even in high seas), and tremendous carrying capacity — 36 soldiers or one jeep and 12 soldiers. Larger Higgins boats were capable of carrying tanks. Most important, the LCVP could run right up on the beach without sustaining damage to its hull and propeller, deliver its cargo via a bow ramp door, and return for more. They transformed the nature of modern war, allowing for fast and efficient amphibious landing of soldiers and equipment along enemy shorelines.
Higgins’s LCVP’s were used extensively during the course of the war in both the Atlantic and Pacific. But their greatest test came on D-Day. For two years the Allies had been planning a major cross-channel assault on Normandy, massing a huge amount of equipment and men in England. Several challenges threatened the success of the invasion. For one, the Germans fully expected it and had spent years building up a formidable defensive position along the Normandy coast. The element of surprise would lie not in the invasion’s timing so much as in its location on the Normandy coast. The weather was also a concern. Unexpected storms would seriously impair the movement of ships, not to mention air cover and paratrooper drops. Given these factors, the key to D-Day’s success was speed — the ability to put men and materiel on the beaches of Normandy in the face of withering enemy fire. Higgins’s LCVP’s were perfectly suited for the task and 1,500 were designated for the effort.
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And so on June 6, 1944, despite the poor weather and a host of snafus, Gen. Eisenhower gave the go-ahead.
“This landing is but the opening phase of the campaign in Western Europe,” he announced to the world. “Great battles lie ahead. I call upon all who love freedom to stand with us.”
As anyone who has seen the film Saving Private Ryan knows, Nazi machinegunners cut down thousands of Allied troops as they poured off their Higgins LCVPs, but they were eventually overwhelmed by superior numbers and firepower. With a firm beachhead opened up, it took the Allies just a week to land 326,000 soldiers, 50,000 vehicles, and 100,000 tons of supplies. Much more would follow in the weeks ahead as the great rollback of Hitler’s forces began.
The highest and most authoritative testament to Higgins’s genius came from the man who knew best.
“He is the man who won the war for us,” Eisenhower said in 1964. “If Higgins had not designed and built the LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”
During the war, Adolph Hitler admitted as much, calling Higgins “the new Noah.”
By war’s end tens of thousands were at work in his huge Higgins Industries complex in New Orleans. They had produced 20,094 boats — more than 90 percent of the U.S. Navy fleet. But Higgins Industries fell on hard times after the war and Higgins himself was all but forgotten by the general public after his death in 1952. But D-Day commemorations in recent years and the growing popularity of books and movies about World War II have given momentum to the initiative to build a National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, the seat of Higgins Industries. Not surprisingly — and quite fittingly — the story of Andrew Jackson Higgins is a major feature at the museum.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
June 5, 1968: Moments after claiming victory in the California Democratic presidential primary in Los Angeles, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy is shot by gunman Sirhan Sirhan. He dies the next day.
June 9, 597: One of Ireland’s patron saints, Colum Cille, dies in exile at his monastery at Iona, Scotland.
June 11, 1534: Silken Thomas Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare, rebels against the authority of Henry VIII. He and several members of his family are captured and executed in 1537.
June 5, 1868: Nationalist and socialist James Connolly is born in Edinburgh, Scotland.
June 7, 1952: Actor Liam Neeson is born in Ballymena, Co. Amtrim, Northern Ireland.
June 9, 1916: Former U. S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, is born in San Francisco.
Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.