On the morning of June 6th, the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion will be commemorated on the historic beaches of France. It will also be commemorated here in New Orleans at the National D-Day Museum, opened in 2000.
While the connection might puzzle some, there is a tie between the invasion of Normandy and the beaches of Lake Pontchartrain. It is also the basis for historian Stephen Ambrose’s efforts to create the museum here in New Orleans. As President Dwight Eisenhower’s biographer, Ambrose learned about a New Orleanian named Andrew Jackson Higgins. Eisenhower had asked if Ambrose, then at the University of New Orleans, knew Higgins. Ambrose had never met him. Then Eisenhower explained that Higgins had enabled the Allies to win the war.
Higgins was a ship builder, but only after a long series of less successful ventures in his native Nebraska and Mobile, AL. It was an industry he took up after trying to make a living logging timber in the swamps. The swamps were difficult to work until Higgins designed a flat-bottomed boat that could maneuver up on the banks and then off again under their own power. He called them Eureka boats. Higgins used them for logging but also started selling them to other interests, including the Coast Guard, oil companies and smugglers.
As World War II neared, the Marine Corps was looking for a troop landing boat. In sea trials, the Higgins boat outclassed the competition. Production went into high gear at his New Orleans factories. More than 30,000 people worked at his plants, and it was one of the first major local employers to open up to a diverse workforce, including Rosie the Riveter and African Americans. Because he kept so many employed during the tail end of the Depression, even when he didn’t have the money to do so, Higgins was loved and admired throughout the city. Eventually, Higgins’ factories supplied more than 12,000 landing crafts and a total of more than 20,000 boats to the military.
The boats were crucial to the war effort. Landing troops on beaches was essentially a new type of warfare. Previously, invasions focused on harbors because that made it easier for ships to land troops and equipment once they got a foothold. But harbors are easy to defend and that meant heavy casualties. In World War II, the United States started assaulting beaches with the Higgins crafts. They were successful in North Africa, crucial at Normandy and effective in the South Pacific.
Ambrose spent much of his later career writing about the war and interviewing thousands of veterans. As they gave him their artifacts, like medals, patches and helmets, his office filled up. And he got the idea to bring together the war history and the personal accounts of the war. Though it was a long time in the making, the project heated up and fundraising was propelled by movies like Saving Private Ryan and its Hollywood heavyweights, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Both contributed generously to the project. Focusing on the Higgins boats, the new beach warfare and all of the veterans who landed via the boats, Ambrose found widespread support for the museum. It opened in June of 2000 with the fanfare of visiting heads of state and the largest military parade since the end of the war. It was also one of the largest meetings of World War II veterans, who were honored again in the victory parade.
The state of the art museum tells the story of the war both in overview and with video and audio installations with stories from veterans. Inside the opening Louisiana Pavilion, the museum has vintage military vehicles, including airplanes and the last Higgins boat. In preparation for opening the museum, a crew of military veterans, former Higgins factory workers, historians and volunteers built the boat from the original plans to the original specifications. They even held a test trial on Lake Pontchartrain where the military used to train personnel to steer the boats. Local veterans are also on hand everyday to talk about the boats and their experiences in the war.
The 60th anniversary celebration is slated for June 5-6. Events include a living history encampment in front of the museum, firepower demonstrations, tactical briefings at appropriate times on how the actual Normandy invasion progressed, a reception Saturday night, a sunrise service early Sunday morning, plus all sorts of special exhibits and walk throughs.