Every American who went ashore in World War II, whether it was North Africa, Italy, France or the Pacific Islands, went ashore on a boat built by Andrew Higgins in New Orleans.
"If Andy Higgins had not developed and then produced those Higgins boats, we never could have gone in over an open beach," says historian Stephen Ambrose. "We'd have had to change the whole strategy of the war. So he's the man who won the war for us. The moment I heard Eisenhower say that, I was determined that we would have something in New Orleans to honor this great man."
So Ambrose began creation of the national D-Day Museum, scheduled to open next year in New Orleans: the home of Andrew Jackson Higgins and the humble little boat that helped win the war.
Coast Guard Lt. Jimmy Duckworth was in charge of finding an authentic World War II Higgins boat for the museum, but he discovered that the years had taken their toll.
"After the war they'd been surplussed," says Duckworth. "They didn't hold up well in the water through years of use and one by one they all went to the bottom."
Even though 21,000 were built, not one could be found. Then one day an old veteran paid Duckworth a visit. "He sat on my desk and looked me in the eye and said, 'If I was half your age, I'd get off my butt and build one'," Duckworth remembers.
But where do you start if you're trying to make something so accurate and true that it deserves to be in a museum? You start with someone who was there.
Graham Haddock went to work for Andrew Higgins back in the 1930s. "He had a terrific imagination," says Haddock. "When I was a draftsman, he would come in and say, 'I had a dream last night, and I want you to put it on paper'."
One of those ideas was a shallow draft skiff used by lumbermen, fur trappers, and oil explorers in the bayous of Louisiana. It could pass over obstacles in the water, and run onto a riverbank and then push itself off.
They called it a Eureka, which is what the Marines said when they saw it. The Marines asked Higgins to modify the bow with a ramp so that men in battle, weighed down with gear, could get off fast. Higgins ran with the idea.
The orders for these landing crafts poured in, and Higgins' company exploded from 50 employees to 20,000. At one point, the business grew so fast that the city closed streets around the factories so workers could build boats in the streets.
"At that time, everybody who worked had an attitude that they were doing their bit for the war effort," says Haddock. "I mean, from Mr. Higgins on don to the lowest sweeper had that attitude. There was a purpose to what they were doing." The boats were coming off the line to go into action so fast that Higgins employees rode the freight trains with them to paint them.
Building this last Higgins boat, however, is a community effort.
"New Orleans just poured forth with support," says Duckworth.
The first thing they needed was building plans. Years ago, Jerry Strahan and Graham Haddock had saved the original drawings, which were on their way to the garbage, and put them in the archives at the University of New Orleans for safekeeping.
The next challenge was to find fittings and hardware. To meet this goal, they raised a Higgins boat that sank nearby in Irish Bayou. "We got invaluable construction details that were missing from the plans from this wreck," says Duckworth. "The shapes of screws, the types of hardware used."
The most significant find was an original Higgins armored-steel ramp. This was the feature that made the Higgins boat unique.
"I've been told by the men who rode these boats into battle that it was pretty powerful to be hunkered down behind one of these things with the bullets pinging off the door, knowing that at any moment, while you'd feel the boat ride up on the beach, that your only protection in the world is about to disappear," Duckworth continues.
That moment was captured in the D-Day movie Saving Private Ryan, as was the nightmare of a Higgins boat dropping the ramp too soon, throwing men strapped with 80 pounds of gear into deep water. To prevent such disasters, Andrew Higgins ran a training course.
At his own expense, Higgins made 30,000 soldiers into boat drivers. Richard McDerby was the chief instructor. "I'd get on these guysÂ…and raise real trouble with them," McDerby remembers. "They had to do it right. Well, I know some of them thought I was a pretty mean guy, but I know when they got their troops ashore they found out that McDerby meant what he was saying."
Roy Redler was a 17-year-old Marine when he rode a Higgins boat to Iwo Jima. "They would line them up like race horses, and then they would give the signal to head to the beach, and then after they got to the shore, they would have another wave going in," says Redler. "The boat I was on began to sink before we got in, and it was too close to do anything about it, so they just kept driving, just lunging into the waves."
The Higgins Boat is a labor of love and respect. For the men who fought the war, and for the people who worked at Higgins, it will stand as a symbol of the war effort on the beaches and the home front.
"This is a legacy to the men of D-Day," Ambrose continues. "To the men who went in at North Africa, the men that went in at Sicily, the men wh went in Normandy, who went at Iwo Jima, and Okinawa and the other place. This is their memory. This is their legacy. It's what they did that we are honoring."