By Major Van Harl USAF Ret
Wisconsin –-(Ammoland.com)- For those of you who have seen the movie Saving Private Ryan ( http://tiny.cc/ui4tgx ) you will recall the opening minutes where the army troops are in a 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 ( http://tiny.cc/pg4tgx ) 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 lead 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 crafts for their Pacific island hopping campaign. It was decided early 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 torpedo patrol boats, what were know 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 so few survived the war. The PT boats were lashed together and set on fire at the end of the war. It would appear 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 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 every landing craft was ready to head to shore. The signal was given and the Higgins Boats rush their cargo of men and equipment in a well choreographed operation, into battle.
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. Retire Colonel Buddy Dugan of Altus, remembers well his involvement in Higgins Boat operations as a young Marine during the Vietnam War. 6 June 2014 is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing on the beaches of France.
An assault landing only made possible by the Higgins Boats.
Major Van Harl USAF Ret.
About Major Van Harl USAF Ret.:Major Van E. Harl USAF Ret., a career Police Officer in the U.S. Air Force was born in Burlington, Iowa, USA, in 1955. He was the Deputy Chief of police at two Air Force Bases and the Commander of Law Enforcement Operations at another. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Infantry School. A retired Colorado Ranger and currently is an Auxiliary Police Officer with the Cudahy PD in Milwaukee County, WI. His efforts now are directed at church campus safely and security training. He believes “evil hates organization.” [email protected]