|When Great Things Happen|
2: Higgins Industries
By Capt. Ken Kreisler — June 2001
At the height of production, Higgins Industries operated eight plants in New Orleans, employing some 20,000 workers toiling round-the-clock. They produced a staggering 700 boats per month, with a total output to the Allies of 20,094 vessels. Banners hung from the ceilings of the cavernous facilities, proclaiming "The Guy Who Relaxes Is Helping the Axis!" and "Loose Lips Sink Ships." The ever-present Higgins oversaw the entire operation.
To appreciate the scope of Higgins' accomplishment, consider this: In September 1943 the total number of ships in the U.S. Navy was 14,072. Of that, 12,964 were Higgins LCVPs, 8,865 of which were built by Higgins Industries. It was aboard one of those boats that Scanlon and 35 comrades landed on Utah Beach.
"The first thing I thought about when that ramp went down was to get the hell out of there," Scanlon recalls. "Bullets were flying every which way, and guys were falling. Some were dead; others were not but would be. I had to cut this guy's arm off with a scissors--just some sinew holding it on. He asked me to get a ring off his finger. I shoved it into his pocket."
Scanlon is 81 years old now, wears a perfectly trimmed snow-white beard, and sports a pair of hearing aids, courtesy of a German 88 that took off the roof of a farmhouse he'd taken refuge in during the fight for Ste. Mere Eglise. Holder of the Bronze Star, he stands ramrod-straight. It had rained earlier, and the clouds now hang gray and heavy with the promise of more to come. "It's a little different today," he recalls. "Back then the water was every which way. Everybody was sick but me." A shaft of sunlight appears through a break in the clouds, hitting the dark Atlantic. Off in the distance there's a muffled rumble of thunder. "I guess that's what the big guns sounded like," I offer. "No, nothing like that," Scanlon mutters. As he drifts into reverie, I reflect on how I got here.
My idea for retracing the invasion route with a Higgins-landing veteran started in the spring of 1999. More than a year later, the journey took me to Southampton, England, a major staging area for the invasion, where Scanlon and I boarded the private charter yacht Bounty, herself a veteran of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation.
We passed the Isle of Wight's rolling green hills and massive chalky-white cliffs and into the open, calm Atlantic, sitting on Bounty's bow in quiet thought as her captain nosed her into the gentle swell. At 8 knots, it would take us most of the day to cross. We made landfall at Cherbourg and the next day visited the various war museums in Caen before arriving at the American Cemetery and Omaha Beach.
Scanlon points out the steep cliffs that afforded the German gun emplacements total control of the death zone that Allied forces attempted to breach that morning. To grasp the magnitude of the slaughter, I wander among the many grave markers in the nearby cemetery--thousands of them, brothers in arms now resting side by side. After pointing out several of his comrades, Scanlon falls silent as he walks among the dead. I look around and see men older than Scanlon visiting the cemetery, men whose eyes had also seen the terrible things that occurred that day.
The next morning we visit Utah Beach. "This is where I saw my first German soldier," Scanlon says. "He was dead. By the time we fought our way up to here, the bodies were everywhere. Ours and theirs."
We're at the first dunes leading to the road. Spartina grass bends in the freshening breeze, and I notice worn wooden boards driven deep into the strand, connected by rusted and broken barbed wire stretching up and over the sandy hills. The sun disappears, and it begins to rain in earnest.
The time has come for me to leave, but Scanlon will stay in France for a few extra days to see friends. We stop and face each other, and for a moment I do not know what to say. He grabs my hand firmly with both of his. "It was an honor to meet you Ken," he says. "No, Tom," I struggle for the words. "The honor is mine." He smiles. Still holding onto my hand, he says, "Hey, you take care now." "Sure, Tom. You, too." As I approach my car, I turn and see him walking ramrod-straight across the parking lot in the rain.
This article originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.