By Michael S. Rosenwald, Washington Post
Andrew Jackson Higgins, the man Dwight D. Eisenhower once credited with winning World War II, was a wild and wily genius.
At the New Orleans plant where his company built the boats that brought troops ashore at Normandy on June 6, 1944, Higgins hung a sign that said, “Anybody caught stealing tools out of this yard won’t get fired — he’ll go to the hospital.”
Whatever Higgins did, he did it a lot. “His profanity,” Life magazine said, was “famous for its opulence and volume.” So was his thirst for Old Taylor bourbon, though he curtailed his intake by limiting his sips to a specific location.
“I only drink,” he told Life magazine, “while I’m working.”
That Higgins was able to accomplish what he did — provide U.S. forces with the means to swiftly attack beaches, including on D-Day — despite his personal shortcomings is a testament, historians say, to his relentless talent and creativity as an entrepreneur.
“It is Higgins himself who takes your breath away,” Raymond Moley, a former FDR adviser, wrote in Newsweek in 1943. “Higgins is an authentic master builder, with the kind of will power, brains, drive and daring that characterized the American empire builders of an earlier generation.”
Higgins was not native to the South, despite his love of bourbon. He grew up in Nebraska, where, at various ages, he was expelled from school for fighting. Higgins’ temperament improved around boats. He built his first vessel in the basement when he was 12. It was so large that a wall had to be torn down to get it out.
He moved South in his early 20s, working in the lumber industry. He hadn’t thought much about boats again until a tract of timber in shallow waters required him to build a special vessel so he could remove the wood. Higgins signed up for a correspondence course in naval architecture, shifting his work from timber to boats.
In the late 1930s, he owned a small shipyard in New Orleans. By then, his special shallow-craft boat had become popular with loggers and oil drillers. They were “tunnel stern boats,” whose magic was in the way the “hull incorporated a recessed tunnel used to protect the propeller from grounding,” according to the Louisiana Historical Association.
Higgins called it the “Eureka” boat. The war brought interest by U.S. forces in a similar style vessel to attack unguarded beaches and avoid coming ashore at heavily defended ports. The Marines settled on the Higgins boat, transforming what had been a 50-employee company into one of the world’s largest manufacturers.
“To put Higgins’s accomplishment in perspective,” historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in a 2000 article for American Heritage magazine, consider this: “By September 1943, 12,964 of the American Navy’s 14,072 vessels had been designed by Higgins Industries. Put another way, 92 percent of the U.S. Navy was a Higgins navy.”
Though Eisenhower and even Hitler acknowledged the importance of the Higgins boat — military leaders came to call it “the bridge to the beach” — its builder went mostly unmentioned in histories of the war. That is, until 17 years ago, when the World War II Museum opened in New Orleans and recognized Higgins’s life, displaying a reproduction of his boat.
Still, there’s been just one biography written: “Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II,” by historian Jerry Strahan.
“Without Higgins’s uniquely designed craft, there could not have been a mass landing of troops and matériel on European shores or the beaches of the Pacific islands, at least not without a tremendously higher rate of Allied casualties,” Strahan wrote.
Higgins, who died in 1952, certainly wasn’t modest about his accomplishments.
“You’re the only man I’ve ever met,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt told him, “who has done all the talking.”
That’s another thing he did a lot — talk.
“His majestic laughter booms like thunder in the mountains,” Life magazine wrote. “He has an immense stock of stories.”
Including the one about winning a war.