June 6, 2021 is the 77th Anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy in Operation Overlord during World War II codenamed Operation Neptune and better known as D-Day.
The Normandy landings were the largest seaborne invasion in history, with nearly 5,000 landing and assault craft, 289 escort vessels, and 277 minesweepers participating. Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on D-Day, with 875,000 men disembarking by the end of June.
The operation began the liberation of France (and later western Europe) and laid the foundations of the Allied victory on the Western Front.
Few people today are aware this operation considered one of the decisive battles of the 20th Century, would never have come to fruition without the famous Higgins Boat made of Philippine Mahogany.
Our colleague, eminent author and researcher Ms. Marie Vallejo commented that “It was the Higgins Boats that were made of Philippine Mahogany” and provided us with a link to the online article “The Higgins Boats” where the “extraordinary role” Philippine Mahogany played in the Allies ultimate victory over the Axis was discussed.
As US President Dwight D. Eisenhower remarked in a 1964 interview with author Stephen E. Ambrose, “Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us. If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle & Personnel), we never would have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”
Adds Col. Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret): “The Higgins Boats broke the gridlock on the ship-to-shore movement. It is impossible to overstate the tactical advantages this craft gave US amphibious commanders in World War II.”
And pray where does Philippine Mahogany come in on all these? Here’s where it gets interesting.
The Higgins Boat
Designed by the fiery tempered, whiskey chugging Irishman Andrew Jackson Higgins, the half-wood/half-steel LCVP assault boats would land troops and material on invasion beachheads.
A self-taught genius of small boat design, Higgins was born on 28 August 1886 in Columbus, Nebraska, the youngest child of John Gonegle Higgins and Annie Long (O’Conor) Higgins.
Higgins was raised in Omaha and completed three years at Creighton Prep High School before being expelled for brawling. He served in the Nebraska Army National Guard, attaining the rank of first lieutenant, first in the Infantry, and later in the Engineers. He gained his first experience with boat building and moving troops on the water during militia maneuvers on the Platte River.
He left Omaha in 1906 to enter the lumber business in Mobile, Alabama, and worked at a variety of jobs in the lumber, shipping and boat building industries in an effort to gain experience for starting his own company.
In 1910 he became manager of a German-owned lumber-importing firm in New Orleans. By 1922, he formed his own company, the Higgins Lumber and Export Co., importing hardwood from the Philippines, Central America and Africa, and exporting bald cypress and pine.
He acquired a fleet of sailing ships, said to have been the largest under American registry at that time. To service this fleet, he established a shipyard which built and repaired his cargomen as well as the tugs and barges needed to support them.
As part of his work in boat building and design Higgins completed a program in naval architecture through the National University of Sciences in Chicago, an unaccredited correspondence school, which awarded him a bachelor of science degree.
In 1926 he designed the Eureka boat, a shallow-draft craft for use by oil drillers and trappers in operations along the Gulf coast and in lower Mississippi River. With a propeller recessed into a semi-tunnel in the hull, the boat could be operated in shallow waters where flotsam and submerged obstacles could foul the usual types of propellers.
He designed a “spoonbill” bow for his craft, allowing it to be run onto riverbanks and then to back off with ease. His boats proved to be record-beaters; and within a decade he had improved the design to attain high speed in shallow water and turn nearly in its own length.
Stiff competition, declining world trade, and the employment of tramp steamers to carry lumber cargoes combined to put Higgins’ Lumber and Export Co. out of business.
He kept his boatbuilding firm (established in 1930 as Higgins Industries) in business, constructing motorboats, tugs and barges, for the private market as well as the United States Coast Guard.
The 1939 Philippine Mahogany Crop
Higgins foresaw and prepared for the coming war better than most. As a mark of his prescience, he bought the entire 1939 production of Philippine Mahogany, and stored it at personal expense at his boatyard. He knew it would be desperately needed soon, and it was. One of his first wartime contracts was to build PT Boats, all of which required mahogany as the primary deck material.
As author Mike Whaley described what followed next: “In a common movement of eccentricity, Higgins bought the entire 1939 crop of Mahogany from the Philippines and stored it on his own.”
Two years later, the US Navy ordered production of Higgins’ iconic LCVP built with that 1939 Mahogany which helped win World War II.
Higgins’ innovative spirit enabled a series of breakthroughs that led to the eventual design that became his namesake boat. First was the spoonbill bow that curled up near the ramp, forcing water underneath and enabling the craft to push up on to the shore and then back away after offloading. A ridge was later added to the keel, which improved stability. Then, a V-shaped keel was created and that allowed the boat to ride higher in the water.
Higgins started making landing craft for the Navy when World War II began. He built a 30-footer, the Landing Craft Personnel (LCP), based on government specifications but he insisted a larger boat would perform better. The Navy relented and he came up with a 36-foot version, the Landing Craft Personnel Large (LCPL), that would become the standard for the rest of the war.
The Boat that won World War II
That landing craft, often referred to as “the boat that won World War II,” could quickly carry up to 36 men from transport ships to the beaches. It also could haul a Willys Jeep, small truck or other equipment with fewer troops. Higgins’ earlier modifications along with an ingenious protected propeller system built into the hull enabled the boats to maneuver in only 10 inches of water.
This version became the basis for a variety of designs and different configurations during World War II. LCA (Landing Craft Assault), LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized), LCU (Landing Craft Utility), LCT (Landing Craft Tank) and other models followed the same fundamental style, all built by Higgins or under license with his company, Higgins Industries. Higgins was named on 18 patents, most of which were for his boats or different design adaptations to the vessels.
Prior to the LCVP, large-scale seaborne invasions were more difficult to mount. They usually required the bombardment and capture of large ports and harbors, which were often heavily fortified and well-defended. But thanks to the availability of small landing craft like the Higgins boat, whole armies could instead be deposited on any stretch of shoreline with relative speed.
To meet the threat of an invasion that could fall anywhere, enemy commanders suddenly needed to be spread their forces out across entire coastlines and fortify vast stretches of shore.
Others simply called the Higgins boat “the bridge to the beach.” Even Hitler was grudgingly impressed. After D-Day, he demanded to know how the Allies managed to land so many troops at Normandy in a single day. His generals reported the mammoth number of Higgins’ landing craft that were involved in the operation. “Truly this man is the new Noah,” the Fuhrer reportedly remarked.
The Higgins boat was used for many amphibious landings, including Operation Overlord on D-Day in Nazi Germany occupied Normandy, Operation Torch in North Africa, the Allied Invasion of Sicily, Operation Shingle and Operation Avalanche in Italy, and in over 100 amphibious operations in the Pacific Theatre.
“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.”
Along with the help of other American factories, Higgins produced 20,094 boats-of which 14,800 were LCVPs– during the War -and they proved to be one of the most rugged and versatile boats ever created.
They deposited troops, vehicles, and equipment on every type of beach imaginable: shores made of sand, volcanic ash, and rocks; on coral atolls, islands, and continents; in locations ranging from the tropics to the Arctic; and on beaches sometimes free of opposition and obstacles and at other times heavily defended.
Although the coral reef at Tarawa laid bare the LCVP’s glaring weaknesses—its inability to traverse obstacles in the water or operate on land, the little craft is remembered along with the Jeep, the C-47 aircraft, and the deuce-and-a-half ton truck as one of the transport systems that powered the Allied victory in World War II.
And thanks in no small measure to that 1939 crop of Philippine Mahogany that made the Higgins Boats available in numbers that made the ultimate Allied victory a reality.