Built For War

Built For War
By Melanie Torbett

If you have a chance to visit the newly opened D-Day Museum in New Orleans, take a close look at the big gray boat in the cavernous, sunlit Louisiana Pavilion on the first floor.

It’s a duplicate of the World War II era LCVP or Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel boat, commonly referred to by soldiers as the Higgins boat. Down to its 1944 marine diesel engine, it’s a carefully constructed clone of the famous boats that effectively delivered men and machines to the beaches of Normandy, other European shores and the Pacific Islands. Renowned for their ability to quickly and reliably get in and out of beachheads, the Higgins ramped boats were credited by military men as having a direct effect on the Allies winning World War II and ending Hitler’s march across Europe.

Interestingly, trees from Louisiana forests – specifically old-growth, long leaf yellow pine – were an important ingredient in these boats that made successful amphibious military operations possible. Prized for its strength and durability, yellow pine was coupled with oak, mahogany and steel to build the boxy, unlovely boats that were churned out by the thousands in Higgins Industries’ New Orleans plants during the war years.

The company, led by a colorful entrepreneur and former timber businessman named Andrew Jackson Higgins, once employed more than 20,000 and built a total of 20,094 boats for the Allied cause. By 1943, nine out of every 10 U.S. Navy vessels had been designed by Higgins. In
addition to the LCVP craft, the company built various other landing craft as well as high-speed PT boats, antisubmarine boats, dispatch boats, supply vessels and other specialized patrol craft.
The landing craft, for which Higgins is best known, were used in transporting fully armed troops, light tanks, field artillery and other mechanized equipment and supplies essential to amphibious operations, explains the author of Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II (LSU Press). “Without Higgins’ uniquely designed craft,” writes Kenner, La. based author Jerry Strahan, “there could not have been a mass landing of troops and material on European shores or the beaches of the Pacific islands, at least not without a tremendously higher rate of Allied casualties. During July 1943, Higgins’ plants produced more landing craft than all the other shipyards in the nation combined.”

The Higgins Industries 36 foot LCVP design evolved from a rugged, shallow draft workboat, the “Eureka,” which Higgins produced in the 1930s for use by trappers and oil companies in the swamps and marshes of south Louisiana. The boat “could operate in only 18 inches of water, running through vegetation and over logs and debris without fouling its propeller. It could also run right up on shore and extract itself without damage.” Higgins often had the boats run up on the Lake Pontchartrain seawall to demonstrate their capabilities.

The reproduction of the Higgins boat that visitors to the D-Day Museum can now view was built in New Orleans with volunteer labor and donated materials over a two-year period. The reproduction project was headed by Lt. Jimmy Duckworth, a Metairie, La. businessman and Coast Guard reservist, who was asked by museum organizers to find an original Higgins boat for display.

Bill Phelps, who worked for Higgins Industries, came one day to Duckworth’s office and challenged him to build a Higgins boat from scratch. Duckworth gives Phelps credit for getting the project started. “I never would have kicked that rock down the mountain if he hadn’t sat on my desk and told me to do it. He made me mad.”

Duckworth eventually assembled a crew of volunteers that included World War II veterans, former Higgins employees and other naval enthusiasts who worked on weekends to construct an authentic Higgins landing craft. The boat, which is seaworthy, is valued for insurance purposes at more than $11.2 million, and is owned by the University of New Orleans Foundations. (During World War II, each Higgins ramp boat cost the government $12,000 – $13,000.)
In 1998, project volunteers salvaged an old Higgins boat from the brackish waters of Irish Bayou south of New Orleans and used it as the model. Though blackened by age and years of being submerged, the boat’s pine components “fared very well,” Duckworth says. Workers were able to reassemble the old boat’s pine members, examine the cuts and duplicate them for the new boat.

Though Duckworth and his compatriots were working with Higgins’ boat plans (which were almost trashed by a successor company now-defunct Higgins Industries, and are now safely stored at the University of New Orleans) “no one really knows how accurate the plans were “because of modifications made on the construction floor at the time. Thus, the salvaged 1940’s-era boat was a precious find. “We couldn’t have done it without that old wreck,” says Duckworth. Southern yellow pine was used in several areas of the boat, most importantly as the head log, the main member that ties the boat’s bow together. This solid block of pine at the bow was the strongest part of the boat, enabling it to run at full speed over floating obstacles, sandbars and right up onto the beach without damaging the hull. Also called the transverse member, “it gives a blunt, skiff-type appearance to the boat. It takes the brunt of anything the boat’s going to hit,” explains Duckworth. In the LCVP, the head log is located just underneath the hinged bow ramp.

Pine also went into manufacture of the Higgins boats’ forward and aft keels, skegs, bow posts, stemposts, shear and chine (spine) longitudinals. For the reproduction vessel, the requisite “big pieces” of wellaged pine were donated by Albany Woodworks near Hammond, La.
One of Higgins long-time key employees, Graham Haddock, worked on many of the boat designs for the company, beginning in 1937. Pine was specified for many of the boats’ components, he says, because “it’s the best boat-building lumber there is. Long leaf pine will last forever.” Still living in New Orleans, he remembers that Mr. Higgins employed a couple of timber cruisers who would walk timber tracts to personally select pine trees of the particular size and curvature required for keels in the PT boats the company was building.
Haddock worked on the new Higgins boat at the D-Day Museum, and calls it an “exact reproduction” of the original Higgins landing craft he helped design 60 years ago. The only deviations from the old specifications were to use treated lumber in some components, new wiring and substituting two joined pieces of pine for one 40 ft. long member.

Though it’s assumed that many Louisiana sawmills supplied Higgins with lumber during the company’s wartime building frenzy, there is apparently little documentation left. A handful of old correspondence and requisition forms have been found that describe the commerce between one central Louisiana lumber operation and Higgins.

Henry Taves, site manager at the Southern Forest Heritage Museum in Long Leaf near Alexandria, recently discovered original files related to business between Higgins and the Crowell Long Leaf Lumber Co., which operated from 1892 until 1969. Crowell mills at both Long Leaf and Alco cut pine to specification for Higgins boats, and shipped to New Orleans.

“As you well know, the Higgins Industries have always preferred the use of Crowell Long Leaf Yellow Pine. In fact, we find that with your lumber, it helps us to cut down our handling and reworking time, and increase production,” states a May 17, 1943 letter from Nelson P. Brown, Jr., lumber purchasing agent for Higgins Industries, to R.D. Crowell, Jr. A letter from Crowell to the federal Office of Price Administration in 1942 makes the point that the Higgins’ orders were atypical for the sawmill, “…not only the various restrictions placed on these timbers but most of the sizes are not practical to manufacture and we only produce these grades for the Higgins Industries as a patriotic measure…”

An October 1942 letter from Crowell to several of his superintendents instructed them to begin saving high-grade lumber for later use in anticipated orders from Higgins. One October 1942 requisition sheet from Higgins to Crowell specifies 300 pieces of 12 in. x 12 in. x 8 ft. timbers for use as head logs.

“The ramp boats required very high grades of timber, often Select #1 with 90% or higher heart content. This material was found in original growth virgin trees, though not in unlimited quantity. The sawmill workers squeezed all high-grade lumber they could out of each log, sometimes sacrificing a greater volume of a lower grade… “ notes an article in the Southern Forest Heritage Museum newsletter.

“We’re fortunate that not only did the Crowells preserve this mill, but also we have all these old documents. It’s just fascinating,” says Taves.

Historical documents and artifacts at the forestry museum and the D-Day Museum help preserve and honor World War II memories. They are reminders of how Louisiana’s people and products – including the celebrated Higgins boat-helped determine the war’s outcome.

This article appeared in the Third Quarter 2000 issue of Forests and People, a publication of Louisiana Forestry Assn.