Due to the anticipation of a high amount of amphibious landings for US troops in World War II, the United States commissioned Andrew Higgins to design a boat capable of transporting troops from the ships moored in the bay onto to the beaches of combat zones in Europe and the Pacific Theatre. The ‘Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel’ (also known as the ‘Higgin’s boats’) looked unlike anything that had been used in modern warfare – the sides were five feet high to protect the men from enemy gunfire and bomb shrapnel, its shallow draft enabled the boat to propel itself onto the shoreline, and a semi-tunnel built into its hull protected the propeller from sand and other debris.
After joining the first marine division in 1942, Ralph was assigned to a World War I era ‘four stack destroyer’ and his company was selected to go on a month-long trial of the new landing craft vehicle personnel (LCVP) in the Caribbean Sea. Ralph’s company was to test the LCVP for any design flaws before it was used in live combat situations. The instructions from the manufacturer were simple: drive up onto the sandy beach at full speed and when the LCVP makes landfall, disembark over the sides of the boat.
On their first run Ralph sat in the rear of the LCVP as it coursed towards the shore, rocking up and down with the motion of the waves. Suddenly everyone heard and felt a deep thud. The LCVP had grounded upon the earth.
“Over the side’s men!” The driver barked at the soldiers crouched on either side of the boat.
Ralph watched as the soldiers in front of him grabbed the five foot high sides of the LCVP and hurled themselves – some of them with eighty pounds of equipment strapped to their body – over the sides of the boat.
When it came time for Ralph, he jumped over the side of the LCVP holding a machine gun, a rifle pack and a tripod. When he splashed into the water Ralph was shocked when his feet didn’t touch the ground. Weighed down by the machine gun and the rifle pack and the tripod – not to mention clothing and heavy boots – Ralph started to sink. Five feet. Ten feet. And still his feet didn’t touch solid ground. Finally, when Ralph knew it was either release the equipment he was tasked to hold, or drown, Ralph release the machine gun and rifle pack and tripod to the sapphire blue waters beneath and kicked his way to the surface.
What the driver of the boat, nor Ralph, nor any of the other soldiers knew was that the beach they had approached was surrounded by a multitude of rocky outcroppings. The LCVP boat hadn’t grounded on the sand of the beach, it had gotten stuck on a rock jutting near the surface of the water. Ralph was able to swim back to the boat but other men were not so lucky. Ralph was able to simply let go of his gear but some of the other men had jumped over the side of the LCVP with the equipment strapped to their body. Many of them drowned in the waters beneath the LCVP that day.
The initial attempt at using the LCVP had been an unmitigated disaster, but given the importance of the mission Ralph’s company couldn’t let the initial catastrophe deter them from improving upon the design of the LCVP. The experience taught the men (and the designers of the LCVP) that the soldiers shouldn’t jump over the side of the LCVP when they couldn’t gauge the depth of the water. Andrew Higgins redesigned the LCVP so that a steep ramp in the front of the boat could be lowered quickly, allowing the men to gauge the depth of the water before jumping in and also allow them to lower supplies down the ramp and onto the beach.
Ralph and his company went to nearly every Island in the Caribbean testing out the LCVP on a variety of different landing surfaces until the amphibious landing craft was perfected. During World War II more than 20,000 LCVPs were built and used for legendary amphibious landings, including Operation Overlord on D-Day, Operation Torch in North Africa, the Allied invasion of Sicily, the Battle of Iwo Jima, the Battle of Okinawa and the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Goose Chronicles Outtakes:
“Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us. 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.”
- Supreme Allied commander, Dwight D. Eisenhowe