Re-creating the boat that won the war

by Ron Swoboda

Perhaps you can imagine the giddy sense of wonder that drew me, a history buff, through the open bay door into a fenced-in corner of the huge Orleans Levee District warehouse on Franklin Avenue.  That is where a bunch of true believers are constructing a full-sized, working model of the famous Higgins LCVP (landing craft vehicle, personnel) and breathing some life into the legend of Andrew Higgins.

The landing crafts, which were used in France on D-Day as well as in the Pacific and other places, solved the problem of how to get invading troops onto the beaches from the ships that carried them.  The crafts, which were created, tested and built in New Orleans by Higgins Industries, gave the American side an advantage in the art of invading.

Re-creating an LCVP was an effort organized under Jimmy Duckworth Jr., a lieutenant in the Coast Guard Reserve and a small-boat specialist who, with his dad, sells tires for a living. Inside the Levee Board's warehouse the "Sawdust Gang," Duckworth's term of endearment for his regular group of volunteers, is humming along.  The World War II-era signs along the fence, "LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS" and "HE WHO RELAXES IS HELPING THE AXIS" - serious messages in their time - prompt a little grin today.

There's a reconditioned, like-new Gray marine-diesel engine sitting on blocks ready for use. While I'm there, they install some mahogany planks on the boat's bottom and finish cutting out the heavy wooden skeg that protects the landing craft's propeller.

On any Saturday for the last year you might find one of the volunteers - a group that includes a refrigeration mechanic, a neurologist, an IRS guy and a cabinetmaker - cutting, sanding, gluing and fitting together the pieces of their dream.  Working under the overturned hull is Janine Bowman.  Standing up on the amazing Higgins hull is David Bowman.  Both are Coast Guard lieutenants.  They are wedded to one another and to this effort to build one more Higgins boat. The job is less about gender equity and more about sweat equity, and Noah couldn't have gotten a better bunch to build his ark.

"Money and materials?" Duckworth ponders.  "We have on the order of a quarter of a million dollars.  Resource hours [formerly called man hours]?  I don't know."  But in the heat and humidity of the warehouse, it might be some of the hardest fun these people have had in their lives.

Duckworth organizes and spearheads the effort, but on this particular Saturday, Graham Haddock was in the building with a presence you could feel.  Haddock is in his early 80s and is the guru for the Sawdust Gang, which has nary a boat builder among them.  During the war years, Haddock saw thousands of LCVPs roll off the line.  This last one means a lot.  "It brings back so many memories," he says, looking at the hull taking form in front of him.  "We are doing our darnedest to make it an exact duplicate."

Haddock recalls his initial response when Duckworth connected with him:  "I said, 'What do you want?  Do you want some papier-mache thing like a Mardi Gras float or do you want a real boat?'"  Says Duckworth, "I could see where a Fiberglas replica might whip up a little interest...but it just wouldn't [cause excitement] like the idea would to try to go back to the 1940s and re-create a working model to scale and to plans."

In the early '40s, Haddock, who was in his 20s, was a draftsman standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Andrew Higgins.  Higgins had a common-sense brilliance and a powerful faith in the collective insight of his engineers, and together they created the Eureka LCPs (landing craft, personnel) - agile, shallow-water landing crafts that could beach themselves and, more importantly, unbeach themselves.

Haddock was there in 1941 for the next step, when they sawed the prow off their Eureka boat and fitted it with a large bow ramp.  The front-ramp idea had worked its way to Higgins from Marine Capt. Victor Krulak, who had witnessed Japanese troops landing in 1937 at the Yangtze River using barges with bow ramps in their war against China.  Haddock would eventually help design and supervise the construction of the Higgins LCM (landing craft, mechanized) all-steel tank lighter, a big brother to the LCVPs.

Haddock recalls the hurried circumstances under which the first bow ramp was installed, "We did no real details of it - they did that work in the shop.  Then after they had completed it, the draftsmen went out there and made a drawing of what they did."

Those original plans from Higgins' seat-of-the-pants engineering have survived to guide the construction of this last LCVP with no small thanks to Haddock and one other fellow. Haddock's name once came to the attention of Jerry Strahan, who at the time was writing a biography of Higgins.  After talking to Haddock, Strahan learned that the original Higgins boat plans were sitting in a back room of the Equitable Ship Yard - the old Higgins yard on the Industrial Canal.  It was the early '70s, and Equitable was doing some housecleaning.  Strahan found out that the Higgins plans had a not-too-distant date with a dumpster.  So he hurried there and salvaged nearly 100 pages of Higgins blueprints, without which we wouldn't be telling this story.

The newest friend of the Higgins project is Ronald Montelepre, who is also a friend of mine. We met when I came to New Orleans in 1981.  He was the chief photographer at WVUE-TV/Channel 8.  In WWII, Montelepre served for about two-and-a-half years as a Navy corpsman attached to the U.S. Marines who were island-hopping in the Pacific. Opening a picture album from those times, Montelepre shared the memories of some pretty frightening rides with the first wave of Marines aboard a Higgins LCVP.  "It was taking you someplace you didn't really want to go," he says.  "You always felt like somebody had you lined up in their sights."

Someone probably did, as Montelepre accompanied assaults to such storied places as Okinawa, Kwajalein and the worst of all, Peleliu.  As he explained, a coral reef protected the shoreline at Peleliu, and it was there that the Marines in LCVPs had to transfer to the "Amtraks" (not a passenger train but an open-air, tank-like device designed to carry troops across reefs) for the final assault on the beach.  The reef was where the Japanese had zeroed in their mortars.  "We made the mistake of transferring to the Amtraks too close to the reef."  The wooden boats and their more-fragile human cargo took a beating there.

Like the whomp, whomp, whomp of the chopper blades in Vietnam, the sound that Montelepre most associates with those terrible times in WWII is the whine of the marine-diesel engine that powered the LCVPs.  "The coxswains never wanted to put the boat so far up on the beach that he couldn't get out," Montelepre recalls.  "If he had to get off after the troops were out, he'd throw that thing into reverse and those engines would just scream."

When the LCVPs had ferried in all the men and material, it was Montelepre's job to tend to the wounded and put them back aboard the boats for a return trip to the mother ship.

When the island was secure and the assault ships had left, the LCVPs remained behind; their job was not over.  As Haddock recalls, "One of these boats off one of these ships made a handful of landings as assaults, and the rest of its life was spent as a pickup truck (shuttling supplies to the troops).  The boat's diversified use was a secret weapon for the whole military effort."

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, once described Higgins to his biographer, Stephen Ambrose of the University of New Orleans, as "the man who won the war for us."  Strahan points out in his book that in 1943, about 92 percent of the U.S. Navy fleet consisted of ships and boats designed and/or built by Higgins Industries.

Graham Haddock stands in the open bay door of the Orleans Levee District warehouse, his eyes brightening as he gazes at what surely is the world's most carefully made LCVP.  It is a look grandfathers reserve for their grandchildren.  And while the Sawdust Gang is making more glorious sawdust, Jimmy Duckworth is talking anxiously about the boat's sea trials scheduled for April or May of 1999.  Carrying a serial number in sequence with the last factory Higgins boat, this final LCVP - this floating labor of love - will be launched into Lake Ponchartrain. And these folks who have worked so hard to make history come real will take the ride of their lives and maybe even take the helm.  When they crank up that Gray marine-diesel engine, Ronald Montelepre will be there, and he will remember very well where he's heard that sound before. 

Reproduced, with permission, from the November 1998 issue of New Orleans Magazine.

Copyright © 1998 New Orleans Magazine.

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