By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David R. Krigbaum
Utah Beach, a site of intense fighting in June 1944, is now a peaceful place, with a cool breeze, the sound of waves hitting the surf, and the site of numerous memorials to those who fought 71 years ago. High on a hill overlooking the beach the Navy is remembered, along with several memories to various Army units that landed on the beach. But on June 6, 2015, room was made for another, the Higgins Boat Monument, a memorial to the little boats and their crews who made the landing and ultimately victory, possible.
1944. Germany has lost the fight for North Africa, her ally Italy has turned allegiances and the Russians have gained momentum in the East. Germany isn’t beat yet; her army is still millions strong and her weapons among the most potent, but the nation is at her breaking point. A point the Allies could exploit with a push back onto European continent.
Anticipating such an attempt as early as 1942 Hitler ordered the construction of his “Atlantikwall,” a series of armed strongpoints, bunkers and defensive measures stretching across the whole northern coast of Nazi-occupied Europe. The Allies tested it once in the disastrous Dieppe Raid on Aug. 19, 1942, which cost the lives of more than a thousand British and Canadian troops.
Two years later the Allies finally had the numbers necessary to breach the German defenses and begin the long fight to Berlin, but to do that they had to first make it to mainland Europe. Their strike would have to overwhelm the defenses at one point with greater numbers than the Germans could repulse.
The key to delivering those overwhelming numbers to the beaches was a simple, mostly wooden boat, the Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP) also known as the “Higgins Boat.”
Its origin lay in Louisiana’s swamps with Nebraskan Andrew Jackson Higgins. Higgins designed and built flat-bottomed shallow water craft that could operate in two feet of water and a propeller that wouldn’t get tangled in swamp vegetation or debris.
Andrew Jackson Higgins was born at Columbus, Neb., in 1886. Raised in Omaha, he served briefly in the Nebraska National Guard where he had his first involvement with moving troops over waterways. He moved to Alabama in 1906 and worked in the lumber and later shipping industries, ultimately starting his own boatyard. During World War II Higgins would design and build 20,000 watercraft for the military.
Higgins’ boat design impressed the U.S. Marine Corps, which ordered a version that was designated the Landing Craft Personnel (Large) or LCPL. The LCPL served in both major theaters but it had a drawback; personnel and cargo had to be off-loaded over the sides. Troops would be more vulnerable to enemy fire while attempting to get off the boat and into the water.
The solution for quicker unloading of men and equipment came from observing a future enemy’s belligerent actions in the Far East. The Empire of Japan spent the majority of the 1930s waging a ground war against its neighbor, China. Fighting in coastal cities such as Shanghai they employed Daihatsu landing craft with bow ramps that could be brought up to a hostile beach, drop their ramps and allow men to rush directly into combat. The Marines asked Higgins to incorporate this feature into a new boat for them, which he assured them he could.
The new Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP) was extremely similar to its predecessor. It remained the same size and only required about two feet of water to operate, but with its new bow ramp Soldiers and Marines could get directly onto a beach.
The new LCVP began hitting the beaches in 1942 on Guadalcanal and in Operation Torch, the American landings in North Africa. The boat’s employment was a success and the LCVP went on to land troops on Sicily, Italy and in the Pacific as the Allies pushed onward. With this proven and effective means of delivery at their disposal it would be possible for the Allies to attempt to breach the Atlantic Wall in earnest.
The time had come for the allied invasion of Europe. It was June 5, 1944, a rough storm had caused Eisenhower to delay the invasion by 24 hours in the hopes of better weather and for good reason. The Higgins is a slow craft at the mercy of both wind and waves. The better the weather, the better the chances for success.
“They’re hard to control, a big wave will come and you’re over there 20 feet,” Former U.S. Navy Sailor Joe Scida said. Scida was one of the many coxswains piloting Higgins Boats June 6, 1944. Hand gesturing, he motioned the boat being swept diagonally. Scida was on hand to see the dedication of the Higgins Boat monument on Utah Beach.
“Sometimes you hit the beach, it’s easy to get off, sometimes you hit the beach and try to get off, it takes three or four tries to get off and pray to God that you never hit a sandbar. Because you have all those poor Soldiers on there, they jump in the water and the water is up to here [chest-deep] or here [neck-deep].”
“The storm was so great that day, you didn’t land where you were told.”
Thousands of Higgins’ boats landed American, British, and Canadian armies on five beaches in the French province of Normandy that day: 1,089 were LCVPs, and many other kinds of landing craft that Higgins designed and/or built.
“Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us,” Dwight D. Eisenhower would say about the LCVP and its creator. “If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”
Among the first troops to land on D-Day was Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. As had happened with Scida’s craft, he landed well off target. Personally reconnoitering the area, Roosevelt ordered his men to press the attack at his location anyway and they were among the first to break through the German beach defenses. It was decided the Higgins Boat monument should be located at the beach exit where Roosevelt’s men first broke through. The site is adjacent to both the Utah Beach Museum and the memorial to the U.S. Navy in Europe.
The kilometer 0 marker of the Liberty Road, which traces the 1,146 kilometer route of Patton’s Third Army from Utah Beach to Bastogne was originally on the site, but was moved across the street to make way for the new monument.
“We are very proud to be able to have this memorial here, there were thousands of people who landed at this place and its an honor to honor this man [Higgins] and also to have this lasting relationship with the United States,” said museum manager Ingrid Anquetil.
The project to honor an American boat and its builder began with an unlikely source, a retired British Army officer. Last year Tim Kilvert-Jones, who is also the author of two books on Normandy, briefed the U.S. congressional delegation to the D-Day 70th anniversary and during it brought up the Higgins boats and their Nebraska-born creator. One member of the delegation was U.S. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska.
Afterwards Fortenberry told Kilvert-Jones, “You’re a very unusual Brit. First of all, you know that Nebraska exists and secondly you know Andrew Jackson Higgins was born in my state.”
This led to an invitation for Kilvert-Jones to visit Nebraska and speak to veterans associations. Seeing Columbus, Nebraska’s Andrew Jackson Higgins Monument during his tour Kilvert-Jones said, “This needs to be replicated in Normandy.”
With less than a year to execute, the city of Columbus jumped on the idea and began raising funds with the goal to have an identical monument ready and in place for the 71st D-Day anniversary. The funds were raised in under nine months and within 10 months the monument was in Le Havre, France, waiting to be shipped to Utah Beach.
“What we’ve achieved in the construction is a full exact replica of the LCVP Higgins Boat, except this is made of steel and is painted in the most expensive ship’s paint in the world, it costs a thousand dollars a pot. As a result this monument will last more than a thousand years,” said Kilvert-Jones.
It was unveiled on the 71st anniversary of D-Day with Kilvert-Jones, Anquetil, Columbus Mayor Michael Moser and Congressman Fortenberry on hand. A statue of Andrew Jackson Higgins was also unveiled inside the Utah Beach Museum beside the museum’s original World War II Higgins Boat.
Now secure in its historic setting where thousands of these small craft once made a difference, the last Higgins Boat has hit Utah Beach.