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Jewish World Review March 8, 2001 / 13 Adar, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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D-Day in New Orleans

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IT'S the small things that bring it all back. Not the landing craft and Sherman tank and Opel and Mercedes staff cars in the otherwise empty atrium here at the D-Day Museum in New Orleans.

No, it's the small things. A canteen in a shape I hadn't seen in more than 50 years. Wartime posters with caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo -- who always reminded a small boy of the Three Stooges. Ration cards. Victory gardens. And most of all, the canvas-and-metal smell of a tarp stretched over a jeep. The dusty odor was to me what Proust's little cookie was to him; it was enough to set off a remembrance of things past.

I see myself as if at the end of a long, bright, narrowing tunnel. Again I'm a chubby 6-year-old in a little soldier suit -- Iughts of whom she could fix them up with.

They were Jewish boys from the air base -- it was the Army Air Corps then -- and they exerted the fascination that young men have for little boys. They knew how to do things, how to joke and smile and shave and play catch and comb their hair just right, like the people in the ads and on the billboards. They let you tag along and took you to free movies at Barksdale, where, instead of everything being White and Colored, it was Officers and Enlisted.

They'd go to services at the synagogue Saturday morning in order to court the girls at night. My big sister married one, and I remember the wartime wedding in the living room of the house on Forrest Avenue. Big doings. The groom wore corporal's stripes, and the house was full of his buddies. I was most impressed by the navigators, whose art seemed the most mysterious of all, and next the turret gunners on B-17s. That looked like fun.

It all came back to me here in New Orleans, as I fanned through a pack of aircraft-identification cards like the kind every boy had to have -- in case a Zero or Messerschmitt came in low over the Red River to strafe Creswell grammar school.

But what's a D-Day Museum doing in New Orleans? Because that's where Andrew Jackson Higgins was. Who was he? "He was the man who won the war for us,'' according to someone with experience at winning wars -- Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force before he stepped down to the American presidency.

Andrew Higgins was the man who turned out all those Higgins boats, aka LCVPs -- which in Army parlance stood for Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel.

"If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs,'' Ike recollected after the war, "we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.''

Yes, the Navy had troop transports that were like ocean liners, and just as impossible to use as assault craft. It had LSTs, those huge, lumbering craft that could carry tanks and trucks in their vast belly and disgorge them smoothly in shallow water -- if the seas were calm and the weather good and the shoreline not too steep and all was quiet and you weren't in a war.

But how to get a vast invasion army ashore in choppy waters under intense fire on uneven beaches, and have enough troops survive to assault an entrenched enemy dug into bunkers and atop cliffs? Not with LSTs. Those who had to sail them always insisted that LST stood for Long Slow Target.

That's where a short-tempered, hard-drinking South Louisiana Irishman named Higgins came in. He'd been building shallow-draft boats for the oil industry, which needed them to explore the swamps and bayous. But back in the '30s he could see the war coming, and he knew the "U.S. Navy doesn't know one damn thing about small boats.'' He would have to teach it.

The hardest part wasn't designing the perfect landing craft, or even turning them out by the thousands. The man was a natural at design and production. The hardest part was selling the Navy on his boat. It took Higgins a couple of years to get its attention, but he finally won out over the Navy's petrified paper-shufflers.

Here was the perfect landing craft: not a big target, but a small, light, wooden boat with a protected propeller and diesel engine capable of carrying 36 men ashore, or a dozen men and a jeep. It could land a whole army a platoon at a time. Easy in, easy out, and then back again.

Once A.J. Higgins got his contract, everything hummed. At the height of production, some 30,000 workers all over New Orleans were turning out Higgins boats, some from "factories'' that were nothing but canvas-covered assembly lines along the hot, humid docks. He assembled what was probably the first completely integrated workforce in New Orleans -- black, white, men, women -- and paid them all top dollar. Together they beat the clock. A huge banner over the main plant said it all: "The Man Who Relaxes Is Helping the Axis.''

By war's end, A.J. Higgins and hardworking company had turned out some 20,000 LCVPs, and they would carry troops ashore from Normandy to Okinawa, Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima -- in the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean. To quote one historian: "More American fighting men went ashore in Higgins boats than in all other types of landing craft combined.''

The historian was Stephen E. Ambrose, and he's the other reason there's a D-Day Museum in New Orleans. A professor at the University of New Orleans, the director of its Eisenhower Center and a marvelously clear writer and chronicler, he found it intolerable that Andrew Higgins had disappeared from history.

To quote a footnote from Professor Ambrose's thorough and lucid book, "D-Day: The Climactic Battle'': "After the war, Higgins was beset by problems, some of his own making. He was not a good businessman. He could not bring himself to cut back because he hated to put his workforce in unemployment. He fought the labor unions and lost. ... He was brilliant at design but lousy at marketing, a master of production but a terrible bookkeeper. He went bust. Higgins Industries went under. But he was the man who won the war for us, and it is a shame that he has been forgotten by the nation and by the city of New Orleans.''

That omission now has been rectified by Stephen Ambrose, the City of New Orleans and all those responsible for turning an abandoned old brewery into a testament to what Americans can do when we're all on the same team. Visit the D-Day Museum and the small things will bring it all back.

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