NEW ORLEANS – Andrew Higgins just wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Stuck in a bind in May 1941, the Nebraskan behind Higgins Industries – makers of some of the most iconic American ships used during World War II – was under pressure to deliver 10 tank-landing vessels to the Navy in just two weeks. But there was one problem: the only place he could find bronze tubing needed for a propeller shaft was at an oil field depot in Texas, and its owner refused to sell it.
“He sent a truck, some of his men and some wire cutters to Texas, and in the dark of night they cut through the fence and stole the shafting, and brought it back to New Orleans,” Jerry Strahan, author of the book “Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats That Won World War II,” told Fox News.
“Mr. Higgins sent him a check the next day,” Strahan said, noting that the gutsy move allowed the ships to be built on time. “That was typical Higgins.”
Higgins Industries, established in New Orleans in 1930, specialized in the creation of amphibious boats aimed at getting U.S. soldiers, vehicles and equipment safely from ship to shore, and were used in every major operation in the European and Pacific theaters, according to the National World War II Museum.
In addition to patrol-torpedo boats – one of which, PT-305, has been restored by the Museum – the New Orleans-based company churned out thousands of Land Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP) boats. Those iconic vessels were photographed unloading American troops onto the shores of France during D-Day in 1944.
Higgins’ superior boat designs landed him government contracts that turned his operation into an economic juggernaut.
“He got the Army behind him and he got the Marines behind him,” Strahan told Fox News. “Those were the two branches that had to land men on the beaches and they wanted to use the Higgins boats. They believed and trusted Higgins.”
Higgins was born on August 28, 1886 in Columbus, Nebraska. He became interested in boats at a young age, building his first at age 12 in his parent’s basement, although there was initially no way to test it outside.
“When he went to take it out he realized the boat was too large to go out through the basement doors or windows,” Strahan said. “So while his mother went to town, he knocked a portion out between two windows and he and his friend took the boat out.”
After joining the Nebraska National Guard and working in the timber industry, Higgins’ big break came when he moved to the south in his early 20s. He could only afford to obtain wood from the swamps, so he designed and built what he called the “Eureka” boat, which had a protected propeller that would enable it to pull up on river banks without getting damaged or stuck.
Once people saw the boat, they wanted their own – and Higgins Industries was born, Strahan said. The Eureka model would later prove influential in the designs of his other landing crafts.
In 1938, Higgins Industries’ only boatyard employed less than 75 workers. Five years later, his company grew to more than 25,000 workers making ships and other equipment at seven plants. Higgins was the first in New Orleans to have a racially integrated workforce, as whites and blacks, seniors and people with disabilities all worked alongside each other and were paid equally according to their duties, the museum said.
“They had a production line that moved on with boats, like Ford did with cars,” Gayle Higgins Jones, the 77-year-old granddaughter of Andrew Higgins, told Fox News.
Higgins Jones said outside of work, her grandfather would invite her and the extended family over to his house every Sunday for dinner, where he loved to tell stories to the children.
“He would hold court at the dining room table for a very long time,” she said. “It was great growing up.”
Inside the plants, Higgins was known by his workers as a boss who would listen to any idea.
“His workers respected him…because he knew he understood their problems and he was always open to suggestions from them,” Strahan said. “He had the ability to talk to everyone on the plant level, but he was also articulate enough to walk in and sit down with Franklin Roosevelt.”
By the end of the war, Higgins Industries had built more than 20,000 boats, with 12,500 of them being LCVPs.
Higgins died at 66 on August 1, 1952 and was buried in New Orleans. A national memorial was erected in his hometown, which features a replica LCVP laid on top of sand and statues of soldiers running out of it – similar to the scenes during D-Day. An identical monument in his honor has also been placed at Utah Beach in France.
Following World War II, Higgins didn’t downsize his workforce fast enough and a hurricane that damaged one of his under-insured plants contributed to the demise of the company, Strahan said.
But his contributions didn’t go unnoticed. The boats had such an impact, that General Dwight Eisenhower said following the war, that Higgins’ creations “won the war for us,” according to the museum.
“Forceful is such a lame word compared to what he was,” Higgins Jones said. “He knew what he wanted to do and he did it.”
“He was sort of like what you could make a movie out of.”