By Brinkley, Douglas
American Heritage , Vol. 51, No. 3
THE NEGLECTED EPIC OF ANDREW JACKSON HIGGINS
UNTIL THE NATIONAL D-DAY MUSEUM GOT under way in New Orleans, the name of Andrew Jackson Higgins had largely faded in American memory. Long ago this master boatbuilder and industrialist had been dismissed by his city's social elite as a crude, hard-drinking outsider lacking Old South manners and French Quarter charm. In the Crescent City there are no schools or streets named for the Nebraska-born Irishman. But his truly Herculean feat of building 20,094 boats for the Allied cause during World War II is not forgotten by military historians--or by the veterans who stormed Normandy, liberated Sicily, fought on flyspeck Pacific Islands, or invaded North Africa.
The history of World War II often tends to focus on the leaders--admirals such as King and Nimitz, field generals such as Patton and Clark, strategists such as Marshall and Eisenhower. But World War II was not won only on the battlefield. Victory was made possible by industrial might and mobilization on the home front. Much has been written about the airplanes built in Henry Ford's eighty-acre Willow Run Creek plant near Detroit, which Charles Lindbergh called the "Grand Canyon of the mechanized world." But it takes troops on the ground to win a war, and it was Higgins Industries in New Orleans that designed and produced the landing craft--LCP, LCPL, LCVP, LCM--that got them there.
To put Higgins's accomplishment in perspective, 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. "Higgins's assembly line for small boats broke precedents," FDR's former adviser Raymond Moley wrote in Newsweek in 1943. "But it is Higgins himself who takes your breath away as much as his remarkable products and his fantastic ability to multiply his products at headlong speed. 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."
Who was this master builder? Born in 1886, and tossed out of school for brawling, Higgins managed to complete three years at Creighton High Prep School before dropping out to join the National Guard. Drifting around the Gulf Coast states, he eventually landed a job in New Orleans in 1910 managing a lumber-exporting firm. Before long he organized his own business, the A. J. Higgins Lumber and Export Company, which sold pine planks and cypress blocks around the world. He also imported hardwoods from Central America, Africa, and the Philippines.
The roots of Higgins's wartime success lay in the fleet of schooners and brigantines he built to carry his lumber. In 1937 Higgins owned one little New Orleans boatyard where fifty or so people worked. By the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, he was designing prototype landing craft in a warehouse behind his St. Charles Avenue showroom and owned a massive boat-manufacturing plant in New Orleans. A perfectionist obsessed with good workmanship, he was also positioned to rapidly accelerate his shipyard production to produce shallow watercraft, or even aircraft--whatever was needed. "The sad state of war," he said, "has made it my duty to build."
And build he did. Higgins Industries expanded into eight citywide plants, employing more than twenty thousand workers able to produce seven hundred boats a month. With a labor pool diminished by the young men drafted to fight, Higgins became an equal-opportunity employer by default, hiring women, blacks, the elderly, the handicapped--anyone he could find to build boats. …