A ‘Eureka’ moment: How Andrew Higgins landed himself on the U.S. Navy’s radar
In 1939, the U.S. Navy awarded the relentless Andrew Higgins with a contract to build his Eureka boats for the military. Despite his now-famous contribution to the U.S. effort in World War II — most notably his Higgins landing craft, a later version of the Eureka boat — the path to this contract was bumpy and difficult, something that only someone as determined as Higgins could overcome. Although the New Orleans boat builder had successfully sold his boats to the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers, the Navy was more interested in developing its own technology than testing the boats of a small-time company from the South. Higgins tried for four years to convince the Navy of hits boat’s superiority before officials finally granted him a test run in 1938. Despite his objections to some of their constraints (the Navy wanted a 30-foot vessel, and he thought this was too short), he built a boat that was lighter, sturdier and more maneuverable than the competition. Higgins finally had his foot in the door.
That first boat designed by Higgins Industries for the Navy evolved into multiple boats used in all parts of the war effort. Higgins Industries developed amphibious boats such as the LCTs, LCPLs and the LCMs, as well as PT boats and supply vessels. New Orleans has not forgotten Higgins and his crucial role in the war effort. The entrance to the National World War II Museum faces Andrew Higgins Drive. In addition, a reproduction of the original Higgins boat — built by volunteers — is on display in the museum’s Louisiana Memorial Pavilion.
- Andrew Higgins’ initial Navy contract helped his New Orleans business grow exponentially. In 1938, he employed 75 workers in a solitary boatyard. By the end of 1943, Higgins owned seven plants where 25,000 workers were employed. By the end of the war, his facilities had produced more than 20,000 boats.
- Andrew Higgins was a character. He was outspoken and unafraid to speak his mind. Although he was trusted with a number of top-secret contracts, he was also the first to call a press conference once any confidentiality orders were lifted.
- Higgins first got into boat design in an effort to solve a problem facing his lumber business after he had purchased land that was difficult to log due to shallow waterways. He wanted a boat that could more easily navigate the land and also produce enough power to pull out the logs, but no such boat existed. His solution: to enroll in a correspondence course in boat design and invent the necessary vessel. The resulting design worked to an extent, but it more importantly got him started in the boat business.
- The Navy sought effective landing boats that were light enough to handle well when beached, as well as to be lifted easily into merchant vessels. The boat also needed to be strong enough to withstand the elements, powerful enough to reach high speeds, and be maneuverable enough to be able to retract from the shore. Higgins knew his Eureka was perfect for the job and told the Navy’s Bureau of Construction and Repair, “We know that we have designed, perfected, and are building the very type of boat best fitted for this purpose.”
- In the 1930s, his Eureka boats were reportedly popular with liquor smugglers, as well as with the US Coast Guard. It is said, in fact, that Higgins went back and forth between the two, selling his boats as they became faster — and upping the price each time.
- Higgins was known to employ a diverse workforce. The World War II museum credits Higgins as the first New Orleans employer to racially integrate the workplace. Higgins also employed women, seniors and people with disabilities.
- In addition to his boat-building, one of Higgins’ New Orleans facilities also built components for the top-secret Manhattan Project, through which the United States developed the first nuclear weapons.
New Orleans is known for its colorful characters, and Andrew Higgins is no exception. His determination to prove he had the best boat for the job won him not only a huge Navy contract that allowed him to employ more than 25,000 New Orleanians, but it also contributed to America’s military success in World War II. President Eisenhower called Higgins “the man who won the war for us” thanks to his namesake landing craft, which were used in every major U.S. amphibious operation of the war, including the game-changing D-Day invasion of Normandy. Higgins lives on as New Orleans’ own contribution to victory in World War II.