The Boat That Won WW II

By Major Van Harl USAF Ret.

For those of you who have seen the movie Saving Private Ryan you will recall the opening minutes where the army troops are on landing craft headed for the beach on D-Day. One of the classic photos of D-Day is taken from the back of a landing craft with the ramp down, soldiers rushing forward into the water.

Or there is the John Wayne movie Sands of Iwo Jima where Wayne, as Sergeant Striker is telling his Marines to "lock-n-load" just prior to hitting the beach from their landing craft. In all those movies the landing craft they were using was a Higgins Boat. It is a flat bottom, thirty six foot long landing craft, made of plywood with some metal plating to protect the troops from hostile fire.

On a road trip to South Dakota I drove through the town of Columbus, Nebraska. There is a memorial for the WW II famous Higgins Boat. It looked like a D-Day memorial with an all metal Higgins Boat, ramp down and three soldiers with weapons ready, charging onto a beach. What I did not understand was why this memorial was in Nebraska. It turns out that Andrew Jackson Higgins, the man who created the Higgins Boat, was from Columbus. As a young man he moved to Louisiana and got into the lumber business, which eventually led to the manufacturing of wooden boats.

The British had been in WWII since 1939 and were already realizing the need for a shallow draft boat that could drive right up onto a beach and off load combat soldiers. The problem was they were using boats that the troops had to climb over the sides of and drop down into the water. With all the heavy gear a combat soldier carries, many Brits were drowning under the weight of the very equipment that was suppose to keep them alive.

The Japanese had a landing barge that used a ramp which lowered down to allow the troops to walk off the front of the boat onto the beach. Andrew Higgins already had a flat bottom boat he manufactured for the fishing industry. After studying the Japanese loading ramp concept he modified one of his fishing boats and offered it to the US military.

The US Marines were going to need thousands of landing craft for their Pacific island hopping campaign. It was decided early on in WW II that a massive beach invasion was going to have to be staged in order to get Allied troops in sufficient numbers onto French soil. Again, there was the need for landing craft to move the troops into combat.

Over 20,000 of the thirty six foot Higgins Boats were made. Higgins also made larger 56 and 70 foot landing crafts. Many of the motorized patrol torpedo boats, what were known as PT boats, used in WW II were also made by Higgins. The fact that the PT boats were made of wood was the reason that so few survived the war.

The PT boats were lashed together and set on fire at the end of the war. It would appear that it was easier to destroy the PT boats than haul them back to the US.

The Higgins Boats faired better than the PT boats. At the Memorial in Columbus, Nebraska I told my wife they got the weapons wrong on one of the soldier/statues. He was caring a Vietnam era M-60 machinegun, something that was not around in WW II.

But Columbus did get it correct. The Higgins Boats were used in the Korean War and later used patrolling the rivers of Vietnam. My father, the Navy Master Chief, was stationed on the USS Oglethorpe, an attack cargo ship. This ship had fifteen Higgins Boats that were used to carry combat troops and supplies onto the hostile beaches.

I once got to go on a dependent's cruise on the USS Oglethorpe and observe an operation called "away all boats." This is where they launch all the boats, which circle around in the water until ever landing craft was ready to head to shore. It was just like in the 1956 classic movie "Away All Boats. The signal is given and the Higgins Boats rush their cargo of men and equipment in a well choreographed operation into battle.

The USS Oglethorpe was in Korea during the famous invasion of Inchon. For six days is supported the 1st Marine Division.

When General MacArthur was ordered out of the Philippines by President Roosevelt, MacArthur stated "I shall return." That is just what he did, he returned in a Coast Guard Higgins Boat. He made a number of practice landings so he could get his wading onto shore scene just right for the camera crews.

In the beginning of the war the Navy had very little experience with small boats like the Higgins, but the Coast Guard had been using small water craft to rescue people ever since motorized boats came into service. Because of this experience Coast Guard crew members were called into action driving landing craft during the early invasions of Pacific islands.

The only Coast Guard member to ever receive the Medal of Honor was Signalman First Class Douglas Munro. He was killed steering his Higgins Boat while evacuating Marines from Guadalcanal.

General Eisenhower once proclaimed that Andrew Higgins was the man who won WW II, because of his boat. There are less that 130 Higgins Boats in service in the Navy, but they still get used. The Navy is developing a new generation of landing craft. There will always be a need to get the troops onto a hostile beach.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, while helping to clean up, troops from the Mississippi National Guard found a Higgins Boat in a pile of debris. They located the owner who had bought it from the Department of Defense fourteen years earlier for $1200. He told the Guardsmen they could have the boat. It is now at Camp Shelby, MS with plans to be restored.

Higgins Boats are in the hands of the public. When I was stationed in Alaska I saw two Higgins Boats hauled up on shore and cut in half. The owner then added new extended middle sections to the boats so they could carry more cargo. The boats were used to get supplies into remote locations where there were no piers. You just drive the modified Higgins Boats up on the shore, shooed the bears away and off loaded the gear. Higgins Boats served in war and continues to serve in peace. They also give you a new respect for the wonders of plywood.

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Copyright 2006, 2016 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.