Get a cup of coffee, this will be a long newsletter! First of all, my thanks
go to Kirt Garcia for the great job he did writing the last newsletter. Frankly,
I was just too busy to write, and Kirt took it upon himself to keep up the
"chatter". I reviewed all of the events that have taken place since I last
wrote, and WHEW, what a couple of months we had there at project's end! Here
is a synopsis of what happened:
|Boat completed at Orleans Levee Board Warehouse - 04 September
|Boat loaded on trailer for transit to the USCG - 04 September 1999
|Boat moved to USCG BASE ISC New Orleans - 05 September 1999
|B.J. Roberts passes away - 06 September 1999
|Boat placed in the water for the first time - 1200HRS on 11 September
|Ran the engine in the water for the first time - 1300HRS on 11 September
|First time underway - Don Summers in charge - 18 September 1999
|Took the boat to the Paris Rd. Bridge, SHAKEDOWN - 25 September 1999
|Underway, SHAKEDOWN, and Jackie Clarkson visit - 02 October 1999
|Underway to Lake Pontchartrain and Orleans Marina - 03 October 1999
|Beach recon (Lincoln Beach) with the USCG small boat - 11 October 1999
|Hit the beach (Lincoln Beach) first time - 16 October 1999
|Hit the beach (LPBS film crew and Richard McDerby, USCG WX !) - 30 October
|Underway to Lake Pontchartrain - RADM PLUTA and party onboard - 31 October
|Christening prep at Trinity Halter - 01 November 1999
|Underway with Steve Ambrose & the D-Day folks, All TV Stations present
- 02 Nov1999
|Christening prep at Trinity Halter - 03 November 1999
|Christening prep at Trinity Halter, USCGC Harriet Lane arrives - 04 November
|Christening prep at Trinity Halter, Builders Dinner at SYC - 05 November
|Christen and Commission PA33-21 at Trinity Halter Shipyard - 06 November
|PA 33-21 is removed from active service, vessel placed ashore at USCG
|New Orleans at 1700 HRS on 06 November 1999.
|Lloyd Lovitt passes away at Ochsner Hospital - 06 November 1999 at 1900HRS
|PA33-21 trailered and transited back to the Levee Board Warehouse - 05
|Now, that was a busy couple of months !
|I'll take you through it step by step, and let you know how it all looked
through my eyes:
|Rush, rush, rush ! The last week of construction was the culmination
of lots of hard pushing. We were behind schedule by about a month, and all
of us knew it. Getting the bow ramp fit up had taken much more time than
any of us had realized. Then there were the hundreds of details yet to be
seen to. Of course, Jim Weller, Roy Redler, Brad Booth and the weekday gang
were out at the workshop seeing to final fit up and painting right down to
the wire. We had ordered a lowboy trailer (a lowboy is a very low 18 wheeler
type flat bed trailer with a height above the ground of about 36") and a
tractor to pull it from Sheriff Foti for Sunday, September 5th. That meant
that we HAD to have the boat DONE by that day.
At about 1200HRS on the 4th, I called everyone together at the
boat. Ed Daroca and Al Haydel were putting the finishing touches on the after
deck coaming. I wanted to be polite, and wait for them to finish, but they
refused to stop working. Higgins Industries seemed to have another labor
dispute ! Those two guys had grown attached to the last 5 feet of the boat,
and they just wouldn't let it go. We all got a good laugh out of it. Literally,
they had just put the finishing touches on the construction of the PA33-21.
We broke for lunch, and then we hooked up the forklift to the boat's cradle
(using our neat tow bar). We then GENTLY pulled the boat out of the workshop,
clearing the gate by an inch and a half. The big casters on the cradle were
working GREAT ! Just as we got the boat out of the workshop...the forklift
ran out of gas.
Well, we formed up with about 10 of us on each side of the boat and we rolled
her along just fine with PEOPLE power ! We can spot that 30,000 pound boat/cradle
anywhere with about 20 people - amazing. That Leary and Dunn designed
cradle and caster system is great. You have to remember that the whole concept
of being able to move that boat around like that on a multi-purpose cradle
was unproven until that moment !
Now for the tricky part...
We spotted the boat/cradle and began the process of jacking up the whole
rig. We had to get the underside of the cradle 37 inches off of the ground.
The deck of the lowboy was 36 inches high, and we needed that one extra inch
to enable the trailer to back in under the cradle/boat. Our crew began hauling
and stacking the dozens of 12" X 24" X 3" thick oak boards that we had purchased
for the jacking and blocking operation. Using four 30 ton hydraulic jacks,
the boat/cradle inched its way upward. Our four teams (one at each corner)
jacked and blocked slowly and in concert with each other for safety and to
minimize wracking stresses on the steel cradle. We got the boat to the required
37" height very quickly. We hadn't done this before, and we weren't completely
sure what to expect (what else is new?), but the whole operation took only
about 45 minutes.
The truck arrived with the lo boy, and the driver expertly backed the trailer
under the boat. When the trailer was properly spotted, we lowered the boat
down onto its deck. Once there, we chained the cradle to the deck of the
lowboy - making EVERY effort to fasten it securely to prevent the possibility
of losing the load (read B O A T !) the next morning. We were loaded and
ready to depart the birthplace of the PA33-21.
Everyone was very mindful of the fact that we had started here with nothing,
and after 2 years of hard labor - the last Higgins boat was about to undergo
sea trials which would determine whether or not it was worthy of the name,
and whether or not WE would live up to the reputation of those great
New Orleans Higgins workers who had preceded us.
"Will it fit under that overpass?"
|Our crew arrived at the Levee Board warehouse around 0900 HRS on the
morning of the 5th of September to double check our important
load, and to triple check our list of "gotta haves" that we would need for
the next few weeks. Our deck box went into someone's truck. All of the boat
gear went too. Life jackets, mooring lines, anchor, anchor light, fire
extinguishers, lifering, fenders, etc. In short, it was a truckload of GEAR
! All of it necessary for the next phase of the project - getting underway
with the boat.
We actually rolled out of the warehouse, into the glorious sunshine at about
1100HRS. We departed through the big overhead door in the Southeast corner
of the warehouse - which Bruce, George and I had so carefully measured for
this very event over two years ago. The boat inched out of the door at a
slow walking pace, and the big tractor spotted the boat at the end of the
Levee Board driveway. We had decided that the procession would begin at noon.
Well, there was quite a crowd. A Harley Davidson motorcycle escort from Sheriff
Foti (I had forbid Japanese motorcycles for this honor...it just wouldnt
be right.). Cameras. Video. Press. Some pretty happy tears too. I got the
biggest kick out of the vets. People were BEAMING. The vets were so damn
proud. Especially B.J. Roberts.
I was worried about the load. It was BIG. It was TALL. It was WIDE. Most
importantly, I had never moved an LCVP across town before. We had previously
driven the exact route that we would take with a stick of proper height to
make certain that the boat would clear under power lines and that worrisome
overpass at Franklin Avenue and Press Drive. We actually had to load the
boat on the trailer backwards which put the bow (highest point) in the rear
of the trailer. Doing this gave us an extra couple of inches of clearance
under the overpass as the tractor pulled up the grade. We had taken every
possible precaution to make certain that our trip across town would be safe.
I rode shotgun in the tractor, and the Higgins procession formed up behind
the boat. There were about 50 cars in a procession about a mile long. We
were on our way to the water at 1200HRS.
The transit to the USCG Base was totally uneventful. We scraped a branch
or two, and of course we got lots of stares but NO problems. Those Harleys
were great ! We rolled up to the Base and stopped at the guard shack. The
OD (Officer of the day) was...well...what he saw just wasn't in any of the
USCG training manuals. One very imposing Higgins landing craft and a tremendous
host of people at the front gate !
We proceeded in the gate and met CWO Ken Mitchell, the Coast Guard's Group
Engineer. Ken used the travel lift (a large 4 wheeled mobile crane used
specifically for lifting and launching boats) to off load the boat. We spotted
the PA33-21 in two parking places (special note to whoever owned those parking
places: I apologize and I thank you for the loan), and then Joey climbed
aboard to drop the ramp. Down it went, and all onlookers present got a great
view of the inside of the boat. Some people actually climbed up the ramp
and got inside the cargo bay. B.J. Roberts was absolutely determined that
he was going to get up that ramp. He did, with Harold Buchler Jr. helping
him with his oxygen. That was one very happy Marine standing in the cargo
bay of that boat.
B.J. wouldn't get underway with us though, because he died the next morning.
His death made me realize again that we really did embark on this project
at the eleventh hour. To me, B.J. Roberts had been an inspiration. Though
he was very sick, he rarely missed an opportunity to be with us as we worked
on the boat. Semper Fi, B.J. We tarped over the boat, and stored our deck
box and equipment in a garage at the base and departed. We all agreed to
meet at the base the following Saturday to put her in the water for the first
"Hey Bruce, where's all of this water coming from?"
|Ken Mitchell cranked up the travel lift and warmed it up while we began
attaching the nylon slings which would cradle the boat while it rolled slowly
toward the water. It was 11 September 1999. Everyone was gathered around
while Ken gently lowered away, until she was floating on her own in the
Industrial Canal. Applause broke out, as the onlookers realized we had reached
a new milestone. The waterline attitude of the boat looked GREAT ! The boat
just looked like it was ready for some action.
Bruce, George and Al hopped aboard to inspect for dreaded leaks. They pulled
up all of the deck plates as they searched intently - and you could have
heard a pin drop as everyone waited for "The Word". Then I heard George say
"Hey, where's all this water coming from?" As it turned out, we had three
separate leaks forward from misplaced pilot holes which had been drilled
to fasten the oak scuffing planking.
The installation of that layer of oak was tricky. The screws were counter
sunk, but not plugged over - as called for in the plans. The oak was supposed
to be easily replaced as it WORE out from many beach landings. Our leaks
were caused by pilot holes which missed the frames on the inside of the boat.
In our rush to completion, we had frankly forgotten about those holes. Water
was gently trickling into the cargo bay bilge, and as far as I was concerned
NO BIG DEAL. That was it. Three tiny leaks. The rest of the boat was tight.
Now, it was time to get that engine running!
Joey set the throttle and clutch to the start position and started cranking.
The engine came to life in short order! We carefully watched for overboard
discharge at the exhaust which would indicate to us that the engine's water
pump was drawing water through the engine thereby keeping that great Graymarine
cool. The engine sounded fantastic. Pardon me, but I am an engine guy. I'd
buy a tape of the sound of that engine. You just had to be there. It sounds
like business. It sounds like it will get you there. It sounds like you can
COUNT on it.
No vibration to be concerned with. The valves sounded just right. The throttle
felt smooth, and the engine was instantaneously responsive to a "snap"
acceleration. Engine temperature was coming up nice and slow. The generator
Well, that made two discrepancies.
You can imagine the urge to get in and go ! All we had to do was just get
in and cast off.
I was the "bad guy" and I wouldn't allow it. I wanted the engine thoroughly
run in. The generator had to work properly. Are we SURE about those minor
leaks? The deck box with all of our equipment wasn't in yet. So, in an abundance
of caution we just ran the engine for an hour or so and then we hoisted the
boat ashore for the day. After two years of careful construction, we could
wait a week and do it right. We took care of the minor hull leaks, and then
we loaded the deck box in the cargo bay. All of our gear was then stowed
in the box. Perfect! Every piece of our gear fit in that box, and it also
would later become a great place for passengers to step aboard and then scuttle
down to the cargo bay deck. Great work Aubrey Adams. The box was just right
Stewart and Stevenson wound up removing, checking and repairing our generator
and charging system. Again, minor repair. If you recall, Stewart and Stevenson
provided AND rebuilt our original 64HN9 Graymarine 6 cylinder diesel engine.
Thanks again Mr. Cole !
In summary, our first day in the water was a HUGE success. It was unimaginable
to me that we would have just two minor discrepancies! Our crew had done
a phenomenal job of building the last Higgins boat.
I had never seen work of this quality come out of a commercial shipyard !
"She works fine. I'm headin' back to the dock to get the rest of ya!"
|Don Summers got the honor of taking her out for her first run. It seemed
fitting. Don was a WW II LCVP coxswain and had made combat beach landings
in Higgins boats. Don was also a licensed mariner and one of our very dedicated
builders. In my mind, there was no question whatsoever as to who should get
It was 18 September 1999 at about 1000HRS when the PA33-21 left the dock
with a small crew aboard for her first run up the Industrial Canal. I wasn't
able to attend the great occasion. My orders to the crew were to proceed
down the Canal and to thoroughly test the boat's marine engineering and steering
systems. All deck plates were up, and the crew was looking intently for any
additional hull leaks. The rest of our crew waited impatiently on the dock,
peering up the Canal to try and get a glimpse of the boat. Everyone was filled
with anticipation, waiting for a report from Captain Don. Standing on the
dock was David Bowman, his ear glued to his VHF hand held radio. I was at
my shop in Metairie also listening to MY VHF radio. Nothing. More
Then I heard that unmistakable "Mississippi River" drawl of Captain Don Summers:
"She works fine. I'm headin' back to the dock to get the rest of you."
Best news I'd had all day.
The rest of the crew piled in, and then they got underway for a couple more
hours in the Industrial Canal and turning basin. Lots of smiles and pride.
The boat was working flawlessly.
During this time, my thoughts were centered on leadership and training issues.
We had accomplished everything we had set out to do. We had BUILT the boat.
Now, I had to decide WHO our key people were to be. While under construction
for two years we knew who our "team leaders" were. Now, under a totally different
set of circumstances it was time to reassess. Who was a "qualified coxswain?"
Who was a "qualified motor mac?" Who was "qualified crewmember?" We needed
a well trained boat crew.
Heck, I didn't know who could tie a bowline !
The danger in all of this was very obvious. The Industrial Canal in New Orleans
is a very dangerous waterway. In my years of experience as a Marine Investigator,
I had responded to many accidents in the Canal. There wouldn't be any room
for an error in judgement.
One hard and fast rule would be that only a licensed USCG captain would be
serving as our coxswain. In our crew, that meant Captain Don Summers - or
me. Now, Captain Don hadn't run an LCVP for over 50 years. I had never run
one. Both of us needed a tune up !
Great people always make the difference. As usual, the leaders rose to meet
the challenge. Joey Madere became one heck of a motor mac, and boat handler.
David Bowman became a heck of a coxswain. Ray Asprion, Dan Gay, Harold Buchler
Jr, Larry Berron, Al Haydel, Kirt Garcia, Karen Reisch and Charisse Grant
were top notch crewmen. Well, our crew shaped up FAST. Considering our varied
backgrounds and experience it was really miraculous. As a skipper, it was
important to me that our folks looked SHARP running that boat. Our crew looked
SHARP every single time we got underway. Not bad for a group consisting of
a UPS guy, a retired banker, a lawyer, a refrigeration guy, a couple of domestic
engineers...well, you get the picture. Just great. We had a kick butt crew
At day's end, we hoisted the boat ashore and washed it down (incidentally,
we ALWAYS hoisted the boat ashore at day's end - AND washed it down !). Everyone
was very satisfied that the boat was performing beyond all expectations.
The looming question was: "Could this boat hit the beach? Could it get
off the beach?" It was a fair question. Everyone wanted to know what
the answer would be.
"Works just like she's supposed to!"
|We continued to shake the boat down on the 25th of September.
We proceeded through the Florida Avenue Bridge and headed for Paris Road.
It was a bluebird day, and most of our crew was aboard for the trip. Graham
ran the boat for the first time, and was ecstatic about her performance.
Everyone had an opportunity to run the boat. I was insistent that all hands
should run her. More proud faces. I was very pleased to watch Roy Redler
and Jim Weller at the helm.
The marine engineering worked flawlessly. The engine runs almost TOO cool.
The generator charged as it should. The GROCO sea water strainer worked
perfectly. The tachometer indicated 1800 RPMs at full ahead, a tad less than
we expected - but it was never my goal to win any races. The boat felt like
it was doing about 10 knots with a load of 25 people. The continuously running
bilge system worked as designed. I never got used to it. Every now and then
there would be a strange noise, and I would stop and listen intently. Joey
would chime in "Bilge!" Oh yeah. That bilge system kept the boat DRY !
We were consuming about 7 gallons of #2 diesel per hour of running. The bow
ramp gasket fit TIGHT. There was essentially no leak around that ramp. All
of the trouble we went to on bow ramp fit up seemed well worth it ! Many
people think that the waterline of the Higgins boat is such that the ramp
is underwater. This is NOT true. When you see a Higgins boat in the water
- there is a bunch of hull UNDERWATER ! The bottom edge of that steel ramp
is ABOVE the waterline even with a full load ! The ramp gaskets job
is to keep wake and wave surge out of the boat. Any water that leaks in is
quickly pumped overboard by the bilge system.
It was very interesting to SEE the boat work. It was even better to drive
that boat. It handled very well for a boat of its size. It is frankly the
biggest 36 foot boat I've ever run. Big and wide and tall. That's a Higgins
boat! The shifter/throttle is one great piece of gear. Its design is a stroke
I found the boat to be very powerful. It leapt very quickly from dead in
the water to sea speed. You could easily feel the power. In addition to having
a tough reputation, this boat had JUICE!!! I know some veteran coxswains
reading this are smiling as they remember running the boat, but most Americans
haven't had the opportunity. In short, when you're holding the helm and throttle
of a Higgins boat, you feel like you've GOT something !
The boat "sails" badly in the wind when it is empty or light. I don't care
how good a boat handler you are...if you aren't careful you are going to
drift wherever the wind is blowing. A good boat handler is always mindful
of the wind. It's especially important on an LCVP.
We headed out to Lake Pontchartrain on 03 OCTOBER 1999. It had been many
years since a Higgins boat had been on the Lake. Richard McDerby and his
wartime crew had trained and tested thousands here. I'm very sure that no
one ever expected to see another LCVP underway on the Lake. As we proceeded
down Lakeshore Drive, we caused quite a stir. People waved and pointed, and
police cars flashed their lights. Everyone seemed to approve !
We entered the yacht basin amidst cheers and clapping. One man called out
that he hadn't seen a Higgins boat since he landed at Anzio. People were
running to tell others. We tied the boat up, and all took a short hike to
have lunch at Sidmar's restaurant. We had a great time eating together, and
then it was time to get underway for home. The USCG Base is an hour or so
run from the yacht harbor on the Lake. As we left the harbor, Bruce Harris
was standing on the point. As we got up on step, I was aware that there was
one very proud master carpenter on that point watching his boat head for
"Which beach should we hit?"
|We had to hit the beach with this boat. It hardly seemed worthy of the
name "Higgins" if it didn't work exactly as it should, and if it didn't put
in on the beach.
The question was "Which beach should we hit?"
The New Orleans lakefront area essentially has no beach. During the 1930's,
a stepped "seawall" was built around the edge of the Lake. Where there is
no seawall, piles of concrete have been dumped to protect against erosion.
I wasn't interested in putting the boat up on a pile of concrete OR on the
There are two real beaches in the Greater New Orleans area. One is at
"Pontchartrain Beach" and the other is in Eastern New Orleans at "Lincoln
Beach". I had to decide where we were going to "invade" !
I asked U.S. Coast Guard Station New Orleans (my old Station) to help us
with our Recon and their CO, CWO Jim Krezinski readily agreed. The Station
provided a small boat and crew for us on 11 October 1999. Ray Asprion and
Charisse Grant came along and we headed off for Pontchartrain Beach first.
The beach looked ideal, and it was definitely a very convenient beach. The
site is right in the middle of Lakeshore Drive (the Lake Road in town) and
is very near the University of New Orleans.
Bad news. The beach was silted out for at least two blocks. I'm very sure
that we could have landed there, but I was looking for a more suitable beach
with a faster rate of drop off.
Off we went to Lincoln Beach. It was deserted. It was the site of a long
closed public beach. It was overgrown with trees and vegetation. It was crescent
shaped. It was perfect.
I got out of the small boat and splashed around in water up to my chest looking
for "beach obstacles". My biggest worry was running over those feared urban
beach obstacles known as "der Refrigerator" or "der Engine block" or even
worse "der Maytag". I pulled a few old concrete blocks out of the sand, and
made a mental note of the height of tide and that old freezer door over there
on the beach. Bottom line: This was the beach on which we should test the
boat. Depending on favorable weather and tidal conditions, we were ready
to do it the following weekend.
I had been spending a good bit of time talking with Richard McDerby about
beaching a Higgins boat. Mac (who has DEFINITELY put more Higgins boats on
beaches than anyone else ever has...) tended to lose patience with me. He
kept saying that we "Weren't going to damage the boat." Mac used to run Higgins
boats up the SEAWALL I told you about. I have seen film and pictures of Mac
sliding boats up that forbidding stepped wall.
I knew the boats were tough, but my thought was "Mac, if you busted up a
boat - they just sent you over another one. If WE bust up THIS boat, it's
back to the drawing board!"
Looking back on it, my fears were completely unfounded. Mac's advice was
"That's what we built it for"
|We got underway from the Coast Guard base early on the morning of 16
October 1999. Most of our crew was onboard. We also had C.J. Roberts and
his wife along for the trip. C.J. is from the D-Day Museum, so he was getting
a great opportunity to see the museum's star attraction ...IN ACTION !
We rounded the Lakefront Airport and set the Magnesyn compass "lubbers line"
up for our heading to the beach. The Magnesyn was working perfectly, and
was within a couple degrees from being dead on. As usual, everyone took turns
at the helm. As we neared the beach, I took the helm. If we ran over something
and damaged the boat, it was my responsibility - so I wanted to KNOW what
it felt like to bang up a boat that we had sweated over for so long.
Again, none of us had the opportunity to attend the "Higgins Boat School"
so we were a tad behind the learning curve. I did have the opportunity to
view a Higgins training film which starred Richard McDerby. I remember that
Mac had told me that most coxswains first reaction to "feeling the beach"
under them was to back off the throttle and bring the engine to neutral.
In the Coast Guard I came up in, grounding a boat usually meant a sit down
with the Chief and loss of your quals. Running aground was a very bad thing.
The beach was looming, and I didn't particularly like it.
We went hard aground with the throttle at 1/3 ahead. The boat stopped dead
in the water. We were about 25 yards away from the beach. I left the engine
ahead, and looked at the guys. I'm not sure what the screw was chewing up,
but it didn't sound good. It kinda sounded like I had dropped a brick in
my wife's blender. The crew looked worried. Two months ago, I was worrying
over brush marks or dirt in the paint. Two months ago the crew was patiently
sanding away imperfections in the hull.
Now, I was tearing up the boat on a beach in East New Orleans.
I looked at all of those dead pan faces (sort of a cross between "He's tearing
up the boat." and "Maybe we don't have to do this..."). I asked out loud
"Do you people really want to do this?" Al Haydel snorted "That's what
we built it for !"
Well, a cheer went up from the crew, hell yes we were gonna put the boat
on the beach !
With the engine half astern, the boat just sat there - stuck. I throttled
up a bit and let off a few times...and man, you could feel the boat pull
free of the sand bar. As soon as I had sternway on, I came ahead and hit
the bar in the same spot. SCCCCCRUUUNCH !
But, this time we were a half boat length CLOSER to the beach.
When that engine is astern, the water level ahead of the boat (toward the
beach) RISES and I swear it looks like a giant blender is whipping the heck
out of that water. Essentially what is going on, is that the shape of the
hull is directing the full force of the reverse screw wash ON the bar we
were aground on. The wash was water jetting the bar away ! After about
3 times, the boat slid all the way to the beach. We called all clear the
ramp, and Joey stood by the winch. Then DOWN the ramp went like a ton of
bricks. But, something was WRONG !
Roy Redler went down with the ramp! All I knew was Roy was down and guys
were trying to get him up. Roy's life jacket got snagged on the ramp, and
he was along for the ride. Jim Weller said that Redler wanted to be the first
man on the beach.
Chalk up one wet Marine, and one memorable landing !
"The comeback kid does it again."
|I wonder how many 89 year olds have gone to the doctor to get cortisone
shots in their knees so they could drive a Higgins boat up on a beach?
I'm talking about one of my heroes - Richard McDerby.
Mac's day to return to the beach was the 30th of October 1999.
Diana Baker and her LPBS film crew were aboard to record this event.
So was our usual crew, but this day belonged to the vets.
A hell of a day it was too. Cold. Windy. Rain. Big time rain.
We were running out of time.
We knew the Christening was a week away, and with the onset of winter the
fair weather days were behind us. If we were going to do one more beach landing
- it would be on this day regardless of weather conditions. The film crew
REALLY wanted those shots.
It looked like it was just gonna be one of those days. I KNEW it was going
to be a lousy day when the L & N Railroad Bridge got stuck, and we floated
around in the Industrial Canal for an hour getting soaked.
Being soaked is much more bearable when you are going somewhere. We weren't.
Then the bridge opened, and we were on our way to Lincoln Beach.
Mac had his shot at the beach, and Diana Baker got some great footage of
him at the helm while our vets poured (great word choice for this wet day...)
out of the boat.
Great stuff !
Everyone was looking a little hypothermic, and the weather was deteriorating
even more. Graham headed us back out in the Lake, and we took a course for
home. That reliable Magnesyn was showing us the way.
The PA33-21 had been on the beach several times, and now Mac had been there
too. For as nasty as it all felt and sounded, the only "damage" we did to
the boat was to completely remove all of the paint from the center of the
oak scuffing planking forward and also from the underside of the entire skeg.
The underside of the rudder shoe was as shiny as a Marine's belt buckle.
Oh yeah, we also managed to tear the copper scour plate off of the hull over
the screw. But that was our fault. The plans called for brass, and we couldn't
get it in time...so we used copper. Bad choice. Copper is softer, and definitely
NOT up to Higgins standards. The boat rejected the copper guard !
The proper brass guard has been ordered. It will be installed per the
We will not repaint the hull. Our scrapes will always testify to the fact
that we thoroughly tested this LCVP.
The next day we got underway for Lake Pontchartrain and the USCG Station
New Orleans at the New Basin Canal. We were to meet RADM Paul Pluta and his
party for a boat ride. I was very interested in having RADM get underway
with us, as he had worked on the boat with our crew (ever see an Admiral
PAINT???) and he had never missed an opportunity to assist our project. We
exchanged our "crew" for the Admiral's party. The weather was poor, and the
Lake was shrouded in mist. It was drizzling too.
Great Coast Guard weather ! Everyone drove the boat and had an opportunity
to put the her through her paces. We had more rank in that boat than you'll
find on an aircraft carrier. It was a blast !
After an hour or so, we tied up at the Station and had some lunch. We headed
back to the Base at 1500HRS and had the boat back ashore by 1630HRS.
It was a wet and cold but very interesting and enjoyable weekend.
|In preparation for the work that I knew we had to do at the Christening
site, I had made arrangements to have the use of a mobile home office trailer.
Trinity Halter Shipyard was the former home of one of Mr. Higgins' shipyards.
Here, many wartime vessels were built and commissioned for the U.S. Navy
and Army. This was THE place to have our ceremony. I had written the yard
owner, John Dane III, 18 months earlier and asked for permission to use the
yard. John rolled out the red carpet for us.
So, just how do you turn a working shipyard into a site for a grand ceremony?
The answer to that is "HARD WORK"!!! Our great crew kicked in and began whipping
that place into shape fast. We moved steel. We brought in truckloads of crushed
gravel. We cleaned a deck barge and prepped it for use as a mooring for the
USCGC HARRIET LANE (a 270' Cutter arriving from Portsmouth, VA for this
ceremony...), we hammered angle iron in the ground and strung up lines to
mark our boundary, we built a wall upon which to hang photos, we spotted
lots of port-a-potties, we erected tenting, put out signs, established parking
areas, put up barricades, put out folding chairs (1700 of them), just to
name a few chores.
The mobile home came in handy. Karen's crew (the gals) took one end of the
trailer and my crew (the guys) took the other end. We had the coffee and
doughnuts in our end though. While Ray Asprion, Jim Weller, Roy Redler, Larry
Berron, Jerry Fortier, George Benedetto, Spencer McIlvaine, Bill Cassady,
Don Summers and Ferdie Voss and James Woodward saw to the site preparation,
Karen Reisch, Trudy Heier and Charisse Grant were working on all manner of
important ceremonial details. We were very busy.
Sheriff Foti's crew was right there pitching with us. John Daniel had this
magic cellphone with him. Every single time I needed something, John made
a phone call and great things happened. Everyone who has been reading these
newsletters since 1997 KNOWS where Sheriff Foti's heart is. We can never
say "THANKS" enough !
On 02 November 1999 the National D-Day Museum board of directors came to
the USCG Base to have their ride on the boat. I was happy to give those folks
a ride, because they had been very supportive of the entire project. The
museum would also be the eventual home of the boat. I was ecstatic to be
able to get underway with Ambrose. As far as I am concerned, ALL of this...the
Museum, the boat project...all of it...had its genesis with Doc Ambrose.
He had the guts to get it all going, and it started because Eisenhower had
asked him about Mr.Higgins. Now, we had one of those boats that Ike thought
so much of, and Steve Ambrose was gonna drive it. We had given the teacher
quite an apple. Well, so much for a nice private boat ride. Geez. The press
showed up. I mean a CRUSH of press showed up. I did what any great leader
should do...I let David Bowman run the boat. Everything turned out just fine.
The crew handled the boat well, and all of the D-Day people got to run the
boat. Lots of photo ops. More good stuff. All of our vets got interviewed.
Ambrose had a blast (he really liked running the boat in circles - very
interesting...you know, all of those Coast Guard Captains liked doing the
The next day brought more work at the shipyard and drew us closer to "C"
Day. We were making progress big time. The folks at Halter were incredibly
helpful. All of our folks were wearing red hard hats stenciled with the "Higgins"
logo. One yard old timer walked up to one of our gang with a serious look
on his face and said "Higgins, ....ya'll are back?"
Yeah, we were back !!!
On Friday November 5th, we still had a long way to go. Everything just
wasn't going to get done. I left the yard at 5:00 PM with Joey Madere
on my heels. We had 90 minutes to get to the builders dinner, and we were
honorees! Coveralls off...Service Dress Blues on!
"If he pulls out a cigar...RUN"
|We had planned the "Builder's Dinner" in late 1998. Karen Reisch had
decided that the Southern Yacht Club was THE place to have the dinner. For
the benefit of those of you who don't know, the club is the oldest yacht
club in the South - and it was a favorite haunt of Mr. Higgins. The room
we were to have our dinner in overlooks the Lake (and my favorite Coast Guard
Station) - it was the proper place to wrap it all up.
I envisioned a very private dinner, with just the builders of the Higgins
boat present. I wanted our builders to feel comfortable at the dinner. I
wanted it to be just like lunch at the workshop - except with tablecloths.
I wanted all of us to feel like we were with family, not "on stage" as we
would be the next day at the christening - and as we had been so many times
before when VIPs and "the press" were prowling about.
Early in the planning process, Karen called to ask me what I wanted to eat.
At the time I think I was somewhere between strut problems and a missing
box car full of Higgins parts AND an office full of people. I was probably
a bit short, and I told her "I'll eat anything. Spam will be fine." Don't
get short with Karen. It'll come back to haunt you.
EVERYBODY was there. Wow, you ought to see how well we all clean up.
Thank God for name tags. Mac, Graham, Bill Phelps, Jerry Strahan, just everyone.
The room looked great. I had brought a poster sized picture of Mr.Higgins
and Graham Haddock at a dinner in the 1940's. The "Old Man" just had to be
Charisse Grant had name tags for the crew, complete with a small Higgins
boat attached thereon. Neat. Charisse also had flower arrangements which
were exact duplicates of the arrangement which was in the big picture we
had of Mr. Higgins and Graham. Nice touch too. Doc Ambrose stopped by to
offer a toast to our crew. That was very nice. The tables were set up like
a big "E" with RADM and Mrs Pluta, Karen and Erston Reisch, Graham, and Bruce
Harris and I with our spouses. Karen did the invocation.
I was the first served - you guessed it...a healthy portion of SPAM
with all of the fixins!
You got me Karen.
RADM Pluta said a few words, and we handed out everyone's Plank Owners
Certificates and a GREAT gift to each of the builders from Gayle and Merrick
Jones (a beautiful sterling silver picture frame with a cast silver Higgins
Boat at the bottom center).
Harold Buchler Jr. then handed out some hilarious "mementos" of the project
to each builder. All of the gifts were really memorable. Harold's comment
to Janine about the cigar was......well, you just had to be there !
Larry Beron gave me a nice WW II G.I. helmet with CG markings (to go with
my "General Patton Award"), and Graham, Bruce and Jim Weller ("Thanks sir,
I never hugged an Admiral before...") all put in their two cents worth. I
wrapped it up, letting everyone know how I felt about things. We were all
just worn out. I really felt badly about it because here we were at the end
of the project, and it was our CREW who was to be honored, but it was our
CREW who had to do all of the work. Again, that was the hallmark of the project.
Unselfish giving of time and dedication to the task. We were all so busy
working, that we almost didn't have enough time to relax and enjoy the moment.
At least we didn't have to wash the dishes. The SYC was great. Richard McDerby
told me he hates dinners that last only one hour, but he loved ours
It was hard to believe that the Christening / Commissioning in the morning
could possibly top that dinner.
Hold on to your socks....
"No more planning. We roll with what we've got."
|Most of us arrived at the shipyard for dawn. More work in coveralls,
the fancy clothes were in a bag. Everything just wasn't going to get done.
I wrote those words on the big dry board. Signs weren't out yet. More plants,
ribbons, flags and such. Heck, nobody will know the difference. All of a
sudden we realized that PEOPLE were arriving, and we were still working !
The reception on the Cutter was well underway when I finally changed into
my Service Dress Blues. LT Glynn Smith (the emcee), Gayle Jones (our sponsor),
RADM Pluta, Karen Reisch and myself met in the wardroom of the USCGC HARRIET
LANE to go over the script for the ceremony. This was our first opportunity
to go over it.
We were at zero hour.
The ceremony was to begin in 15 minutes. Piece of cake.
Everyone trooped through the CROWD and we all lined up behind the PA33-21
which was blocked up ashore to the immediate right of the stage. The boat
looked great. There were thousands of people. Flags. Bunting. Red White and
Blue everywhere. The HARRIET LANE and her big orange racing stripe was in
the background. And Coast Guard uniforms. From the beginning, when the boat
was a swept clean slab of concrete...the Coast Guard supported us. Vets in
their VFW covers and vests with their ribbons and medals. The USMC Band was
there. It was fantastic. If you weren't proud, then you just weren't an American.
RIGHT before the ceremony, there was an impromptu gathering of all the boat
builders for photographs. Ronald Montelepre took the best shot. It's on my
mantle piece, I guarantee you !
There were also two Venezuelan Navy Officers present in their service dress
blues. I had met them that week in the shipyard, as they were there overseeing
the construction of some patrol boats for their Navy and I had asked them
to come. I took note that they were watching all of us very intently. I was
happy that they were there, and I hope they learned something about our brand
of patriotism, and the way we honor our heroes - even 50 plus years later.
The USMC posted the colors, followed by the Veterans who posted their colors.
Then the Marine Band played the National Anthem.
Archbishop Philip M. Hannan gave the invocation. The Archbishop was going
to bless the boat with water from the beaches of Normandy (Glynn Smith got
the water from the French Consulate), but he forgot his special fancy holy
water slinger (I hope Sister Mary Marcella doesn't read that). No big deal
- he used a COKE CUP ! I loved it. Archbishop Hannan is really something,
and his ability to adapt and overcome is still very much intact !
Next, Mr. Richard McCreary from Friede Goldman Halter (the owners of the
shipyard) welcomed us aboard. He was sure to let us know that the current
owners of the yard were very cognizant of the fact that their yard was hallowed
Gayle Higgins Jones (Mr. Higgins' granddaughter) gave us a wonderful speech
about her family. Her speech added a very personal touch to the ceremony,
reminding all of us that Mr. Higgins was a family man - and that he had a
Steve Ambrose took the podium, and in that great Ambrose style let us all
know exactly where Higgins Industries - and our boat, fit into American history.
Can you imagine following Steven Ambrose to the podium? Well, RADM Pluta
did, and he gave the most moving speech I have ever heard. RADM spoke about
the men who ran the Higgins boats in harm's way. "Heroes in wooden boats."
It was an absolutely wonderful speech. I don't think there was a dry eye
out there in that sea of people. Next, RADM Pluta presented Dawn Higgins
Murphy and her sister Andree Higgins Stefferud (Andrew Higgins' only surviving
children) the U.S. Coast Guard Distinguished Public Service Award. This award
is the highest honor the Coast Guard can confer upon a civilian. It was a
very emotional moment, with Mrs. Murphy saying "I can honestly say that
I don't feel as though my father is a forgotten man any longer."
Gayle Higgins Jones then walked off the stage like a lady with a mission.
It was her job to Christen the PA33-21. Suspended from a red white and blue
ribbon was a bottle of Old Grand Dad bourbon. My research indicated that
Mr. Higgins liked "red Irish drinkin' whisky", so Old Grand Dad it was. Gayle
took the mike, and the bottle and said "I christen thee U.S.Coast Guard
PA33-21, in honor of all the men who saw combat in one of your 20,000
predecessors" then she SWUNG that bottle hard against the bow ramp. SMASH
Then the most wonderful thing happened.
There was a stir of reaction from everyone as this incredible aroma of bourbon
splashed across the crowd like a wave. The bottle of whisky was planned.
That incredible aroma of bourbon that no one will ever forget was not. We
were definitely toasting the memory of those gone on before us.
MajGen Livingston leaned over and told me that the Marines would be on that
puddle of booze with straws in a minute.
Well, that bourbon thing really started the ball rolling because the ceremony
started to just go its own way from then on. The biggest crane you ever saw
started hoisting away. The Marine band was playing. Since there was a cover
over the stage, and since the boat was WAY up in the air...none of the "stage
folks" could see the boat. We all walked off the stage. The crowd
left their seats and just followed the boat - mesmerized at the sight (literally)
of the "flying" Higgins boat. I was out there in the mud just praying that
the lifting sling would hold up a while longer. It was an amazing sight.
A guy in the audience who was familiar with how the ceremony was SUPPOSED
to go walked up to me and said "Jimmy, you're losing the ceremony...they're
all leaving their seats!" All I could think to reply was "So, what?"
We were having too much fun to worry about following a script ! As the boat
settled in the water, all heck broke loose. An Air Force jet flew over. Every
police car around had their siren going. The band was playing as LOUDLY as
they could. The ship's horn on the HARRIET LANE was blaring. Everyone was
clapping. We were bringing the boat to life. RADM Pluta walked up to me and
said "I guess we should announce that the ceremony has concluded." I said
"Yes Sir" and I walked over to the emcee to let him know. But he was GONE
too! LT Smith was somewhere in the crowd too. This was hilarious. When I
returned to the RADM to ask him if he wanted ME to conclude the event, he
said "Yes". But, Maj Gen Livingston intervened and asked me not to conclude
until I had spoken. Problem was, there was no one seated to listen ! Maj
Gen said "Just start, they'll come."
Well, I took the podium and began. Everyone took their seats, and I spoke
about the people who had built the boat. As I concluded, I asked Maj Gen
Livingston and Dr. Nick Mueller of the D-Day Museum to approach the podium.
I asked those two men, as representatives of the museum, to accept the boat
as part of their collection. Done deal.
We concluded the ceremony, and everyone crowded around the Canal bank to
watch our proud crew get aboard the boat and take a victory lap or two.
I got a kick out of watching our crew standing in the boat signing AUTOGRAPHS
Sheriff Foti provided jambalaya and Coca Cola provided the refreshments for
the crowd. It was very nice to chat with everyone, and just enjoy the moment.
Gradually, the crowd thinned and it was time to bring the boat back up the
Industrial Canal to the Coast Guard Base. Several of us got aboard for the
last trip on the PA33-21. We arrived at the Base at about 1645HRS, and we
hoisted the boat ashore at 1700HRS. At that time, the last Higgins boat was
taken out of service.
|A few days after the ceremony, someone from the D-Day Museum called to
ask if I knew that Lloyd Lovitt had died. No ! I hadn't heard. I immediately
called Mrs. Lovitt to express my sorrow for his passing. For those readers
who don't know, Mr. Lovitt was a U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships Inspector assigned
to Higgins Industries during the war. Mr. Lovitt's job was to make certain
that the boats he inspected were in all respects ready for service in the
U.S. Navy. Mr. Lovitt was from Tennessee, and he had traveled here just for
the ceremony. A year or so ago, he came to New Orleans to inspect our boat.
I had watched him study every aspect of construction with Graham, and I was
very interested in his comments. Mr. Lovitt walked up to me and said "That
boat is in every way representative of the quality of construction that I
saw at Higgins Industries during WW II."
Mr. Lovitt actually fell ill during the ceremony, and he was moved to the
shade of the Marine Band tent. Later at his hotel, he felt worse and was
taken to the hospital.
He died of heart failure at 1900HRS the evening of the christening.
His death was the 3rd of our number since the project began. God rest the
souls of Pat Lambert, B.J. Roberts and Lloyd Lovitt. A soldier, a Marine,
and a sailor.
We had a complete and total project stand down between 06 November and 04
December. On the morning of 05 December 1999, we all met and moved the boat
back to our workshop at the Orleans Levee Board Warehouse. The boat was safely
stowed in the shop, with all deck plates up to facilitate drying, by 1300HRS.
We'll soon be preparing the boat for storage in the National D-Day Museum.
Bruce Harris has a list of things to do. Joey Madere will be heading up our
machinery issues. I've been asked to have the boat ready for white glove
inspection by the end of May, 2000. The National D-Day Museum is slated to
open on June 6th, 2000. The boat will be there. I know our crew
has enjoyed the lay off, but I suspect that they're all ready to go to work
again. Eventually, I hope most of our crew will join the ranks of the Museum's
volunteer staff. I KNOW they can answer lots of questions about that BIG
GRAY BOAT !
As for the Higgins Boat Project, it is over. Done. Finished. The cover page
of this newsletter is the last you'll ever see of that letterhead.
There IS a Higgins Boat Committee, which will be tasked with the long term
care and maintenance of the boat. The members of the committee haven't been
announced, but they will all be names very familiar to each of you. I'll
probably sit on that committee (under orders from Gordon Grant).
We will keep a close eye on the boat through the years. It is a wooden boat,
and as you may know they do require some upkeep. I toured the Museum with
Graham the other day, and we got to march around in the mud as construction
workers were prepping for the slab. Somewhere on our web page, Dan Gay has
an artist's rendering of what the "Boat House" will look like. The building's
official name is the "Louisiana Memorial Pavillion," but to me it's the boat
house. There will be an immense glass and steel wall fronting the street,
and the boat will be just inside. It'll be lit at night, and you'll even
be able to see it from the expressway. It is going to be one darn, fine sight.
Quite a bit different from that storefront at the old Higgins Place on St.Charles
Avenue with that flashing neon sign shaped like the helm of an old cruiser.
I've been told that the powers that be still want to display the boat with
the bow ramp open, so people can board. Like the display designer said to
me "People have just got to get in this boat." I hope they do.
|I wondered for a long time how I'd wrap this up, and (as usual) Karen
Reisch was able to help. This is her prayer which she delivered at the end
of the Builder's Dinner. It is perfect.
Eternal Father, Lord of Hosts
Watch o'er all those who guard our coasts,
We thank you for your guidance here
and completion of this task, so dear
With "Semper Paratus" as our guide
Our project team has worked with pride
Eternal Father, we also ask
With honor, respect and devotion to duty
With Jimmy's vision, and Higgins plans
Graham's history and Bruce's hands,
Bless all who've helped to get her done
Lord, look kindly on those gathered here
And all of those we hold so dear -
Our family, friends and Coast Guard mates -
Watch over all and keep us safe
Protect them from the raging seas
And give them life, and light and peace
Grant them from thy great throne above
The shield and shelter of Thy love.
Fair winds and following seas...