A boat builder named Andrew Jackson Higgins bridged racial gaps during World War II. His seven New Orleans factories were the first to be integrated in the city. By the end of the war, the Higgins workforce churned out 20,000 boats.
There was a remarkable connection between the Higgins Boats and the LSTs. More than 160 of the warships were built at the Evansville shipyard.
“You were sea sick, you were throwing up,” said LST 325 Board of Directors member Chris Donahue, “and then you where running across a thousand feet of machine gun fire like at Normandy. So the reputation of the boat was fine but you knew where it was taking you. It was taking you to Hell pretty much. Hell on Earth.”
The Higgins Boats were designed to get 36 troops to shore where their fate awaited them. They were paired with the Evansville built LSTs including the LST 325.
“We had two davits on our vessel,” said Donahue. “Two Higgins Boats, but there were those that had four or even six.”
Made of mostly of wood, the story behind how these landing marvels were built for action with the much bigger LSTs is a testament to Andrew Jackson Higgins who desperately needed workers to build what would be a contingent of more than 23,000 boats bearing his name.
He looked past the color of his workers skin. African Americans made up a significant regiment of the labor force. The same was true in Evansville’s war machine effort.
“You had the women, and you had the black people,” said Donahue, “anybody who could pitched in and got jobs. As far as I know, they were all paid the same wage. Higgins was the first company, the first enterprise, in New Orleans to fully integrate too.”
The clock was ticking, and time was so precious. The Higgins Boats could get closer to shore during key invasions including Normandy and Sicily.
Waiting for them were the German forces with their guns and cannons standing by to fire. For the troops who were on board these vessels made from mahogany and other wood, death was a distinct possibility.
“If you are in the first wave,” said Donahue, “you knew if you were at Omaha Beach, you’re toast really. You were probably not coming back.”
Like many of our troops that fought in World War II, many of the Higgins Boats would not return home. Many are now laying at the bottom of the ocean rotting away. It is undeniable that they changed the world and the people who built them made that happen.
(This story was originally published on Feb. 5, 2018)