Posted by Anita Folsom
Seventy years ago this spring, in 1943, Andrew Higgins won a hard fought campaign against a stubborn adversary. He wasn’t directly in combat with the Nazis or the Japanese. In his struggle, he had been up against U.S. Navy bureaucracy.
Andrew Higgins was a man’s man, hard talking, blunt, and incredibly knowledgeable about boat building. Although he was born and raised in Nebraska, Higgins loved boats and forestry, so he moved south in 1906 to pursue his career in southern Alabama. It wasn’t long until he was in New Orleans, building boats and learning about naval architecture.
He hadn’t finished high school in Nebraska, but he wanted to improve boat designs and knew he needed to learn. He studied naval designs through correspondence courses, and he observed nature to see how animals moved in the water.
Higgins Industries became a leader in the building of shallow-draft boats that were ideal for the waters of the Louisiana bayous. Oil companies bought his boats so that their engineers could reach oil wells in remote locations, both in the U.S. and Latin America. Trappers in Louisiana loved the boats as well, because they could reach their trap lines along shallow rivers and swamps.
Higgins tried to convince the U.S. military that his unusual looking boat could be modified to carry soldiers from ship to shore. The U.S. Marines immediately became enthusiastic supporters of what they called Higgins boats. A Marine’s job in combat is to make an amphibious landing, and Marine commanders could see that Higgins boats gave them a big advantage: Higgins’ design would keep going over small obstacles, such as sand bars or logs, and could be steered right up on the beach. The motor was powerful enough to retract the boat away from the beach after all the Marines had landed.
But the U.S. Navy was another matter. Navy bureaucrats were older officers who were determined that official Navy designs would be used to build the watercraft that ferried Americans to shore. The Navy continued to build its inferior craft, even when deaths of servicemen resulted from capsized vessels in heavy surf.
The U.S. war effort was just decentralized enough to give Higgins a chance to go outside naval bureaucracy to prove his point. By appealing to Senator Harry Truman, Higgins won the right to challenge the Navy landing craft in a head-to-head contest at Norfolk, Virginia, on May 25, 1942. The Navy’s Bureau of Ships sent their landing craft to carry a thirty-ton tank through rough seas, and the Higgins boat did the same. The results were dramatic. During the race, the Bureau of Ships craft obviously couldn’t continue in the rough seas and almost sank. At one point, the sailors on board were sitting on the railings, preparing to jump overboard if the vessel capsized. At the same time, the Higgins boat handled perfectly, landed the tank on the beach, and dazzled the observers watching the race.
Higgins Industries began receiving more contracts from the government, and Andrew Higgins’s mailbox was filled with letters from appreciative servicemen overseas who were using Higgins boats. But the Navy’s Bureau of Ships hadn’t given up. Its tradition-minded officers continued to push for their poorly designed landing craft to carry Americans into combat.
Finally, in October, 1942, younger officers were appointed to head the Bureau of Ships. By the spring of 1943, the world recognized that Andrew Higgins was a boat-building genius. Even Hitler, in the Nazi propaganda newspaper Voelkischer Beobachter, called Higgins “the new Noah.” American General Dwight Eisenhower simply called Andrew Higgins “the man who won the war for us.”