Washington, D.C. December 8, 1941

“His genius was problem-solving,” it was said of Andrew Jackson Higgins (1886–1952). “Higgins applied it to every­thing in life: pol­i­tics, dealing with [trade] unions, acquiring workers, pro­ducing fan­tas­ti­cal things or huge amounts of things.” Among the “fan­tas­ti­cal things” he pro­duced in quan­tity were the very amphib­ious landing boats linked to his name. Con­structed mainly from wood, Higgins landing boats came in all shapes and sizes, most famously the 36‑ft, 36‑man LCVP, short for Landing Craft, Vehi­cle, Per­son­nel. On this date in 1941, one day after the Japa­nese sur­prise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the 55‑year-old entre­pre­neur and wealthy boat builder filed a U.S. patent for his name­sake boat, the legen­dary Higgins boat. Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, whom U.S. President Frank­lin D. Roose­velt selected to lib­er­ate West­ern Europe from Nazi tyran­ny, paid tribute to Higgins’ crea­tions, which had so drama­tic an impact on the out­come of the 1944 Normandy landings (Oper­a­tion Over­lord). “Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us,” he said in a 1964 inter­view. “If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.” Certainly with­out Higgins, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s classic Pacific island-hopping campaigns would not have been possible.

Many factors worked in Higgins’ favor, as well as in the favor of two other excep­tional Amer­i­cans who played over­sized roles in this nation besting its enemies—William S. Knud­sen (1879–1948) and Henry J. Kaiser (1882–1967). It was a com­bi­na­tion of Amer­i­can patri­ot­ism and cap­i­ta­lism opera­ting in a coun­try of abun­dant natural resources, wealth, and paid man­power. All came to­geth­er to pro­duce an “arse­nal of demo­cracy.” By the end of the war Amer­ica’s fac­tories were pro­ducing two-thirds of all Allied mili­tary equip­ment: tanks (86,000), war­planes (286,000), naval ves­sels (8,800), mer­chant ships (5,600), and trucks (2.5 million), to list five key con­stit­u­ents. As Knud­sen said, “We won [the war] because we smothered the enemy in an ava­lanche of pro­duc­tion, the like of which he had never seen nor dreamed possible.

Roosevelt appointed Knudsen to head the four-member Office of Pro­duc­tion Manage­ment, or OPM. First at Ford and then at GM, the Danish immi­grant enjoyed a long auto­mo­tive career, distin­guished as a skilled manager of resources and a leading expert in mass prod­uc­tion, cham­pioning the crit­i­cal role of inter­change­able parts, con­tin­uous work­flow and a moving assem­bly line for enhanced eff­iciency and pro­duc­tivity, and simpli­fied design. For a dollar a year Knud­sen applied his skills to U.S. war production.

Henry J. Kaiser was a brilliant industrialist and capi­tal­ist who became known as the father of modern Amer­i­can ship­building. He owned seven major ship­building yards in Cali­for­nia (4), Ore­gon (2), and Wash­ing­ton (1) states. “Pro­blems are only oppor­tu­ni­ties in work clothes,” he was fond of saying. Putting into prac­tice inno­va­tive methods of ship­building, his yards out­pro­duced simi­lar facil­i­ties, building 27 per­cent of U.S. mari­time con­struc­tion in World War II. On aver­age his Liberty and larger Vic­tory cargo ships were famously com­pleted in two-thirds the time and at one-quarter the cost of his competitors.

Like hundreds of thousands of other Amer­i­can em­ployers, Higgins and Kai­ser recruited labor­ers in a rela­tively free mar­ket econ­o­my from across the coun­try of 132 mil­lion people (1940), paid them justly, and expanded hiring to women, minor­i­ties, the elderly, and the handi­capped. Con­versely, in Nazi Germany, Amer­i­ca’s chief war­time oppo­nent (popu­la­tion 65 mil­lion), over 20 mil­lion foreign civil­ian workers, con­cen­tra­tion camp pri­soners, and pri­soners of war from German-occu­pied coun­tries were required to per­form forced labor in Germany during the war. In the face of nearly all German males serving in the Wehr­macht (armed forces), foreign labor con­stit­uted over a quar­ter and in some fac­to­ries up to 60 per­cent of the work­force. Repres­sion, dis­crim­i­na­tion, depri­va­tion, humil­i­ation, and for Jews, Sinti, and Roma exter­mi­na­tion through labor (Ver­nich­tung durch Arbeit) were nota­ble underpinnings of Nazi Germany’s wartime economy.

Three Examples of American Entrepreneurial Spirit and Capitalism Deployed to Defeat the Axis Enemy

American capitalism in World War II: William S. Knudsen (1879–1948)American capitalism in World War II: Andrew Jackson Higgins (1886–1952)American capitalism in World War II: Henry J. Kaiser (1882–1967)

Left: Accepting Roosevelt’s 1940 invita­tion to come to Wash­in­gton, D.C., to lead Amer­i­ca’s war mate­riel pro­duc­tion efforts, “Big” Bill Knud­sen drafted a plan that har­nessed the prin­ci­ples of Amer­i­can cap­ital­ism and a power­ful free market eco­nomy, in the pro­cess turning the nation into the global sup­plier of war mate­riel needed to defeat Nazi Germany and its prin­ci­pal allies, Italy and Japan. His plan mobi­lized retooled fac­to­ries, busi­ness and Wall St. capi­tal, and free labor at top speed so that by 1943 and 1944 Amer­i­ca’s. econ­omy was oper­a­ting at peak pro­duc­tion. At Roose­velt’s sug­gestion the U.S. Army com­mis­sioned Knud­sen in January 1942 as a lieu­ten­ant gene­ral, the only civil­ian ever to enter the army at such high rank. In 1944 and again in 1945 the U.S. Army awarded Knudsen the Distinguished Service Medal.

Middle: World War II was a two-ocean fight: The Atlan­tic and Med­i­ter­ra­nean and the Paci­fic. None of the thea­ters of war could have taken deli­very of the humon­gous num­ber of needed troops, vehi­cles, equip­ment, and sup­plies but for Andrew Higgins’ flat-bottomed, trans­port ship-to-shore boats. By 1943 New Orleans-based Higgins Indus­tries em­ployed over 20,000 workers of both sexes (some right off the farm) and every shade of color (up from 75 people working in a small work­shop in 1938), all paid equal wages according to their job. The work­force, even­tually num­bering over 85,000 across 7 plants, responded by pro­ducing 20,094 ves­sels—12,500 of them LCVPs—for the Allied war effort. Ves­sels included the ico­nic armored steel ramp-bowed Higgins landing boats with their inno­va­tive V‑shaped keel as well as PT (patrol tor­pe­do) boats—proto­types the pio­neering entre­pre­neur financed out of his own pocket. “There was no task Higgins couldn’t do,” said an admirer. “He would find a way to do some­thing, then find a way to do it better.” (Higgins held roughly 30 pat­ents per­ti­nent to amphib­ious landing craft and vehi­cles.) Like West Coast ship­builder Henry J. Kaiser (below), Higgins applied Henry Ford’s assembly-line tech­niques to boat-building. By the end of the war, Higgins Indus­tries had built a whopping majority of U.S. naval ships.

Right: Burly, bald “Hurry Up Henry” J. Kaiser was a self-made indus­trial tycoon who con­structed the great Boulder (Hoover), Bonne­ville, and Grand Cou­lee Dams in the West. Around 1939 he estab­lished his West Coast ship­building com­pany to help meet con­struc­tion goals set by the United States Mari­time Com­mis­sion for mer­chant shipping. Another man ahead of his time, Kaiser was a pro­duc­tion genius. For in­stance, to hasten the pace of ship­building, Kaiser turned his atten­tion to welding, not riveting, steel. Welding was advan­ta­geous because it took less strength to do and it was easier to teach to thou­sands of new em­ployees, who were mostly unskilled laborers and many women. Kaiser also adopted the use of sub­as­sem­blies in ship con­struc­tion. When the U.S. actively entered World War II, Kaiser Ship­yards was awarded major con­tracts for con­struc­tion of the Liberty ships, freighters that could be built rapidly at low cost. His ship­yards had an aver­age con­struc­tion time of 45 days per ship com­pared to the national aver­age of 65 days per ship. His ships were also deli­vered for less than half the cost of his com­pet­i­tors. As the war pro­gressed, his ship­yards built many of the Casa­blanca and suc­ces­sor class escort carriers (CVEs) and the larger, speedier Victory-class cargo ships. Con­struc­tion records established by Kaiser Shipyards continue to stand.

Offloading soldiers into a Higgins boat, June 6, 1944E Company tragically wading waist-deep "into the Jaws of Death," Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944

Left: A transport ship offloads upwards of 36 fully armed U.S. soldiers into a Higgins boat on D‑Day, June 6, 1944. Standing at the rear is the cox­swain, typ­i­cally a U.S. Coast Guards­man, who steered the landing craft to one of five Normandy inva­sion beaches. Builder of all sorts of rugged amphib­ious landing craft (the “LC” in LCVP, LCPL, LCM, LCT), Higgins devel­oped a repu­ta­tion for being able to do the impos­sible. The U.S. Navy prac­ti­cally dared Higgins to come up with plans for a new boat design in 3 days. “Hell,” he replied, “I can build the boat in 3 days,” which is exactly what he did—build over 20,000 purpose-built vessels by war’s conclusion.

Right: “Into the Jaws of Death” is the description of this colorized image taken by Chief Photo­grapher’s Mate Robert Sargent of the United States Coast Guard. Taken at 7:40 on the morning of June 6, it is one of the most widely repro­duced photo­graphs of the D‑Day landings. It depicts heavily laden troops of Com­pany E, 16th Infan­try Regi­ment, 1st Infan­try Divi­sion—the Big Red One—departing their LCVP and wading through waist-deep water and under no cover toward the heavily fortified “Easy Red” sector of Omaha Beach. Two-thirds of Com­pany E were among D‑Day’s casual­ties as they ad­vanced up Omaha Beach through mine­fields into 4 bat­te­ries of artil­lery, 18 anti­tank guns, 6 mor­tar pits, 35 roc­ket launcher sites, 8 con­crete bun­kers, 35 pill­boxes, and 85 machine-gun nests.

Liberty ship construction, Kaiser shipyardLiberty ship USS "Livingston," San Francisco Bay, 1945

Left: Machinery and cargo-handling equipment being installed in a group of Liberty ships at the fitting-out dock of a Kaiser ship­yard in this photo released in March 1942 by the U.S. Office of War Infor­ma­tion. Kaiser hit on the break­through notion that ship­yards could prefab­ri­cate large com­po­nents as big as deck­houses and then use cranes to place them on top of nearly com­pleted ships. Kaiser’s com­mer­cial ship hulls also became Amer­i­ca’s smaller, more numer­ous (over 100) 498‑ft, 6,730‑ton “escort car­riers” (CVEs), nick­named “baby flat­tops,” “jeep car­riers,” and “Kaiser car­riers,” employed in both the Pacific and the Atlantic thea­ters. The con­cepts Kaiser devel­oped for the mass pro­duc­tion of World War II mer­chant and naval ves­sels are still in use at shipyards around the world.

Right: USS Livingston (AK-222) in Califor­nia’s San Fran­cisco Bay. Of seven Kaiser ship­yards, four were in San Fran­cisco’s East Bay region at Rich­mond. The Rich­mond yards built 747 Liberty and Vic­tory ships for the war effort, more than any other site in the U.S.  The Rich­mond yards broke many ship­building records and even built a Liberty ship, the SS Robert E. Peary, in a record 4 days, 15½ hours in a com­peti­tion with rival ship­yards. On average Kaiser’s yards could pro­duce a ves­sel in 30 days. All together Kaiser’s yards built 1,490 ships, or 27 percent of total U.S. Mari­time Com­mis­sion con­struc­tion. Kaiser ranked 20th among U.S. corporations in the value of wartime production contracts.

Higgins Boats Documentary. The Boats that Won World War II

Continue Reading