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The man behind the Higgins boats that made D-Day possible also proposed rolling onto beaches in monster swamp buggies

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos by Roy Trahan, via National World War II Museum, unless noted otherwise.

Seventy-five years ago today, thousands of troops came ashore in the Normandy landings via LCVP Higgins boats, built from a design that originated in the Louisiana bayou with a brawling, hard-drinking industrialist who fought the Navy every step of the way to get his design approved. At the same time he was churning out the boats, however, he also envisioned something totally unconventional: using giant swamp buggies as literal all-terrain vehicles capable of rolling up to and over pretty much any beach.

Andrew Jackson Higgins, according to Dwight Eisenhower “won the war for us” thanks to his Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel boats. A native Nebraskan who got kicked out of school for fighting, he eventually made his way to New Orleans to start a lumber company, a venture that eventually transformed into Higgins Industries in 1930, after he invented the Eureka boat.

Though Higgins initially envisioned the Eureka boat as a means of moving through water choked with logs and other flotsam, he soon found a niche selling the shallow-draft boats with their propellers encased in a tube within the hull to oil explorers and trappers along the Gulf coast. One benefit to the design, he discovered, was that it not only allowed the boat to operate in shallow waters, it also made beach landings possible without any need for a dock.

While some sources claim Higgins also found a niche selling his Eureka boats to bootleggers during Prohibition, he also spent the latter half of the Thirties pestering the Navy to get it to use his boats. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, he succeeded in getting the Marine Corps on his side, but Navy officials were intent on developing their own designs. Only with backing from the USMC did Higgins get a chance to demonstrate his Eureka boats in trials – and even then at his own expense.

The Eureka boat held its own in those trials while the Navy designs all failed, but it still needed work. As Higgins designed it, the Eurkea boat required loading and unloading by going over the sides of the boat – fine for leisurely trapping in the swamp, deadly for troops invading a beach. So, based on a description of a Japanese landing craft with a retractable ramp incorporated into its bow, Higgins revamped the Eureka into what the Navy called the LCVP and what others have called the Higgins boat.

Higgins boat on D-Day. Photo via National Archives.

While the Higgins boat proved itself in prior and subsequent battles, the 840 or so LCVPs deployed during Operation Overlord helped the Allied forces overwhelm the Germans at Normandy (leading to Eisenhower’s compliment) and contributed to an overall change in military strategy. With beach landings, no longer were ports the only means of transferring troops or supplies from ship to shore, which meant that defending armies would now have to spread themselves thinner across entire coasts.

The boat also meant a massive change in fortunes for Higgins. To build the more than 20,000 Higgins boats during the war (among other materiel), Higgins expanded his (racially integrated, coed) workforce from 75 to 25,000 and bought or built several nearby plants. The success of the Higgins boat also gave him the chance to explore other amphibious vehicle and landing craft designs.

Perhaps inspired by Donald Roebling’s Alligator, an amphibian tractor designed for rescue work in the Florida Everglades, Higgins next went to work on what he called the Swamp Cat, a massive six-wheeled vehicle described as an “amphibious tank.” Its wheels appeared to be little more than massive hollow drums with steel treads that would provide both flotation and propulsion in the water and traction on land; all six were chain driven, apparently from the center axle. Unlike the Higgins boats and other beachable watercraft that Higgins designed during the war, the Swamp Cat appeared unable to transport vehicles, only personnel. Testing took place in May 1943, but little else is known about the Swamp Cat.

It did, however, lead to further developments on the amphibious vehicle/wheeled boat theme. Later in 1943, he added a prow to one end of the Swamp Cat and removed the wheels from the far end to make it a four-wheeled vehicle.

Then in 1944, Higgins revamped the Swamp Cat into the Beachmaster, another four-wheeled chain-driven amphibious vehicle, though with some significant changes. First, the hull now more resembled a boat than a tank and it included an LCVP-style retractable loading ramp. Second, the wheeled drive system was now accompanied by a pair of propellers and, a year later, a full tank-like track system.

The next iteration on the design, the Mudhopper, came along in 1945 and moved the chain drive within the wheels, presumably for protection but also so Higgins could install long steel outriggers to the wheels themselves to act as feet, aiding the Mudhopper’s climb onto difficult shores.

Photo via Crismon.

After the end of the war and with the end of his various military contracts, Higgins shut down or sold off many of his plants, though he continued to build prototypes for oil explorers and for military evaluation. According to Crismon, the Swamp Skipper Model 5, above, came about in 1948, pitched to the U.S. Army as a sort of rescue vehicle. Like the Mudhopper, it used tucked-in chain drive and detachable outriggers. One source called the outriggers “steppers,” but Crismon claimed the outriggers were more for use as paddles than as feet.

The roof was 10 feet, 6 inches off of the ground, the overall length was 15 feet, 4 inches, and it was 12 feet wide without the paddles. A self-recovery winch was mounted between the front wheels, and the operator had to climb past the winch and enter the front porch to gain access to the enclosed cab. It was powered by a 31 horsepower air-cooled engine which could move it along at 4 to 8 miles per hour on land and 2.5 miles per hour in water. It was not acceptable as a rescue vehicle due to lack of load space, dismal speed and steering qualities, and instability when pulling a load or climbing a slope.

Photo via Crismon.

Higgins himself died in 1952, but his sons continued the business through the Fifties and, apparently, continued to pitch the U.S. armed forces on amphibious vehicles. Rebranded the Swampmaster, a version of the Beachmaster made it into USMC testing in 1954. In addition, Crismon called the one above the Higgins Transporter and wrote that Higgins the company demonstrated it for the Navy in 1955 or so. Similar to the second version of the Beachmaster, the Transporter used a combination of wheels and tracks; the Transporter, however, lifted its pneumatic tires three feet to put the tracks on the ground, similar to the (much smaller) Pankotan amphibian.

The speed on land while on the tires was nine miles per hour, and 2.75 miles per hour on the roller chain-type tracks. The speed in the water was 6.8 miles per hour, propelled by two electric outboard units at the stern. The Higgins Transporter was extremely heavy at 200,000 pounds net, and was 57 feet, 6 inches long; 26 feet, 11 inches wide, and 15 feet high when up on its wheels.

The Higgins family sold off Higgins Industries in 1959. While about 200 Higgins boats are known to still exist, the whereabouts of the Swamp Cat, Beachmaster, and other Higgins amphibious vehicle prototypes are unknown.