In mortal dread of the storm they knew was coming, soldiers of Hitler’s Wehrmacht waited in reinforced concrete bunkers on the bluffs above Omaha Beach. This was the long-anticipated D-Day, the 6th of June 1944. They looked anxiously for signs of something moving.
Occasionally, a soldier thought he saw that something, but through the night there was nothing there but the dark, boiling sea. Then, at 5:20 a.m., Maj. Werner Muskat, commander of an artillery battery, stepped up to the slit, and the color drained from his face. “It’s the invasion,” he said softly. “There must be 10,000 ships out there.”
Another officer shook his head. “The enemy doesn’t have 10,000 ships.” The major stepped aside. “Come up here and see for yourself then, the 10,000 ships you say are not there.”
Gathered before him in the first light of dawn was a spectacle not likely ever to be seen again, the greatest invasion force of history: 5,000 allied ships (exaggeration was understandable), a line of cruisers and destroyers and behind them the battlewagons Arkansas, Texas and Nevada, and hundreds of transport ships with decks covered with the 2,727 wooden landing boats. Over the next 24 hours, the boats would take 156,000 American, British and Free French soldiers to the bloody work of liberating Europe.
The landing boats were the work of a New Orleans boat-builder, a profane, hard-drinking, hard-driving, stubborn, impatient red-haired Irishman named Andrew Jackson Higgins. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded the invasion and would become the 33rd president of the United States, called Higgins “the man who won the war for us.”
Getting these 2,727 boats to the beach was what the mighty armada was about, with 36 soldiers in each boat. Each man carried 70 pounds of gear, including seven sticks of chewing gum, K-rations, a tin of canned heat, chewing tobacco, cigarettes, 12 seasick pills and two vomit bags. The Navy called the Higgins boat, 60 feet long and 11 feet wide, an LCVP, for landing craft, vehicles and personnel, and gave them numbers, not names. The men who rode them to Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword (and later to the beaches of the South Pacific) never called them anything but “Higgins boats.”
The boat was driven by a 225-horsepower Gray Diesel engine, and the unique design enabled it to operate fully loaded, with up to four tons of cargo, in water as shallow as 18 inches deep. This gave it freedom of movement no other landing boat could match. The genius of design was a hull shaped like an inverted-V at the bow, with a concave hull amidships that pushed away logs and driftwood and the foamy water that stalled a propeller. A solid block of oak or hickory at the bow, called “the head log,” enabled it to run at full speed over floating obstacles and sandbars.
The hull was fashioned of three-quarter-inch pine plywood crafted over a skeleton of Philippine mahogany. Higgins, who never went to college and taught himself marine design, had been building boats for fishermen, timber men and oil prospectors to maneuver through the sluggish bayous and marshes of southern Louisiana. He built swift boats for rumrunners during Prohibition and swifter boats for the Coast Guard to chase them, and then still faster boats for the rumrunners to outrun the Coast Guard.
He fought Navy admirals to get them to accept his design. In sea trials, many conducted on Lake Pontchartrain above New Orleans, the admirals’ boats sank, and the Higgins boats didn’t. Not until he made common cause with the Marines did his boat win out, and just in time.
The boats for D-Day were built in seven boatyards in New Orleans. Gen. Eisenhower, having scoured the South Pacific unsuccessfully to collect spare boats from the Marines, delayed D-Day, planned for May, to give the boatyards time to build enough boats for the invasion.
Higgins organized a school in New Orleans at his own expense to teach the Coast Guardsmen to get the most out of his boats. On the morning of June 6, the landing boats were organized in 12 boats off the bow of a mother ship, 12 to starboard and 12 astern, with a matching configuration on the opposite side of the mother ship.
They raced to the beaches in tight formations at top speed under fire from German batteries, communicating without radios, cellphones or beepers — neither Twitter nor Facebook — nothing to guide but navigation flags of the accompanying control boats obscured in the mist of the morning and the smoke of battle.
By 10:30 on the night of June 6, immortalized as “the longest day,” the beachheads were secure. Higgins had taken 30,000 men ashore with their machines, and in the hours following thousands more would join them.
Higgins, who had fought his own bitter war in Washington for his design, was in Chicago when thousands of civilians rushed into Michigan Avenue to snap up extras of the Chicago newspapers announcing the liberation of Europe was at hand. Higgins dispatched a telegram to be read to the workers in his boatyards: “This is the day for which we have been waiting,” he said. “Now the work of our hands, our hearts and our heads is being put to the test. We may all be inspired by the news that the first landings on the Continent were made by the Allies in our boats.”
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times. He is writing a book about Andrew Higgins and the Marines.