British military historian J. F. C. Fuller, U.S. Army general Dwight D. Eisenhower, and even Adolf Hitler all said that the most important piece of tactical equipment in World War II—in North Africa, in the Pacific, and at Normandy—was the Higgins boat, the landing craft that took Marines, soldiers, and their equipment from ship to shore. In fact, Higgins boats put more men and equipment on the beach than did all other types of boats combined.
The term “Higgins boat” generally refers to the troop carrier known as the LCVP, for Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel. But it can also refer to the LCM, or Landing Craft, Mechanized, that carried tanks ashore. Both vessels shared a distinctive feature: a bow that dropped to become a ramp.
Their incredible success was largely due to their namesake: Andrew Jackson Higgins, a New Orleans–based lumberyard owner who had become a maker of small wooden boats. Higgins was brilliant and hot tempered, a dreamer with a disciplined mind and a cyclonic personality who had developed impatience into an art form. He had a burning patriotism rarely equaled in the business world, and he trampled anything and everything that tried to prevent him from doing his job now.
Eisenhower, a man not given to hyperbole, called Higgins “the man who won the war for us.” If Higgins hadn’t designed and built those boats, Eisenhower said, “we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”
But Higgins had invaluable help developing his boats—particularly their drop-bow design—from an unlikely source: a Marine lieutenant known as Brute Krulak. Thus part of the credit for America’s victory in the Pacific, the successful D-Day landings, and ultimately America’s triumph in World War II can, remarkably, be traced to a single junior Marine officer.
VICTOR H BRUTE” KRULAK was a man of icy intellect, unbending will, and extraordinary self-control. He had a pile-driving personality—although that wasn’t what inspired his nickname so much as his height. Krulak was only 5 feet 4 inches tall and had to be granted a physical requirements waiver to get a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps, part of the Department of the Navy. On Krulak’s first day as a plebe at the Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1931, a towering midshipman had looked down at him, smirked, and said, “Well, Brute.” Krulak was taken with the name and thenceforth introduced himself as “Brute Krulak.”
In the years leading up to the Second World War, Krulak had become fascinated with the most important issue facing the Marine Corps: how to move men from ship to shore. In 1937, the 24-year-old lieutenant was stationed in San Diego. His job was to supervise experiments with various landing craft. He was in charge of six small boats during a combined army, navy, and Marine fleet exercise early that year, FLEX 3, off San Clemente. When he saw combat-equipped Marines climbing over high gunwales and dropping into surf that was often over their heads, he knew there had to be a better way. But his involvement was cut short when he received orders transferring him to China to serve as assistant intelligence officer of the 4th Marines.
Krulak arrived in Shanghai in April 1937. A few months later, the Japanese used a minor incident at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peiping to begin, on July 7, an all-out attack on China, launching the second Sino-Japanese War—and launching an opportunity for Krulak to pursue his interest in amphibious landings.
One day Krulak received word from Lieutenant Commander Ari Nishayama, a Japanese naval attaché he had met on the social circuit: “There is going to be a landing.” Using amphibious craft, the Japanese would seek to outflank the Chinese. Krulak, in a bold and impetuous move, decided that observing the Japanese amphibious landing was part of his job. At dawn one morning in late August—with the American flag flying to signify association with a nonbelligerent nation, and accompanied by a U.S. Navy photographer and an aide to Admiral Harry Yarnell, the navy’s senior man in Shanghai—Krulak sallied forth in a navy tugboat into the middle of the Japanese landing fleet, at the mouth of the Yangtze River.
He was in dangerous waters. Japanese naval guns were firing only a few hundred yards away. When the barrage lifted and landing craft were launched, Krulak ordered the tug closer. There was something unusual about the design of the Japanese landing craft: their flat bows jutted up and out, and their sterns were pointed. Everything about the vessels showed the Japanese were years ahead of the Americans in the development of landing craft.
“That’s it! That’s it!” Krulak shouted, and his tug moved in tight among the landing craft. He clocked their speeds, took notes, and drew sketches as his photographer clicked away. Again and again, as he absorbed design details of the Japanese craft, he exclaimed, “We don’t have that.”
When the Japanese craft ran up on the beach, their large, flat bows opened and formed ramps that dropped into the sand, allowing the boats to disgorge vehicles and personnel on dry land. When the craft hit the beach, they remained firmly grounded; their sterns were not pushed around by the surf, nor did they fall off into a steep list. As soon as the Japanese troops ran onto the beach, the coxswains revved their engines, backed the landing craft off the beach, pivoted smartly, and returned to the troop ships for another load.
That was the boat the U.S. Marines needed.
On another occasion Krulak saw landing craft on the beach being repaired. Because they were upside down, he could see design features not visible earlier. The bottom of each craft had two skegs that enabled the boat to remain stable and upright when driven onto the beach. He took notes—lots of notes.
At night, Krulak worked on a report about Japanese landing operations. The 13-page report contained close-up photographs, engineering drawings, and sketches. It included detailed technical specifications, such as building materials, construction details, dimensions, troop capacity, and speed. Krulak analyzed Japanese use of the craft and the problems they encountered and recommended improvements for U.S. Navy designers.
The fighting in China had reached Shanghai by then and tensions remained high there, keeping Krulak, in his words, “busy with the war” until the spring of 1939, when he left China for a posting at the Marine Corps base at Quantico.
Shortly after his arrival at Quantico, he got permission to take a day off and go into Washington to follow up on the status of his report, impatient and curious about what was being done about his ideas for a new landing craft.
“I went up there thinking I might find someone who knew something of my report and who would tell me the status” of how it affected the design of the landing craft, he recalled. “Neither turned out to be true.” He and an officer at the navy office responsible for these matters searched for an hour before finding the study in the back of a file cabinet. On the cover sheet was a handwritten notation: “Prepared by some nut out in China.”
Krulak found out that the navy was drifting along with three different designs for landing craft—all modified versions of Atlantic fishing boats—and had not the slightest interest in the proven Japanese design. So he returned to Quantico and for the next week spent his evenings building a two-foot balsa-wood model of what he thought a proper landing craft should look like. Building the bow ramp was the most difficult part, but he solved that by using tiny wires to hold the lowered ramp steady.
When he finished the model he showed it to Brigadier General Holland Smith. Smith was in charge of the Marines’ amphibious training on the East Coast and had a mandate to refine amphibious landing doctrine and develop a landing craft suitable for hauling Marines and their equipment ashore on a hostile beach. He was also an old friend; Krulak had known his son, John Victor, at Annapolis, and Holland Smith may well have been instrumental in securing the waiver Krulak needed to receive a Marine Corps commission.
Krulak explained to Smith such details as the “tunnel stern” shaped like an inverted V to protect the propeller, the skegs that stabilized the boat when it was run up on the beach, and the bow that pivoted down and out to form a ramp. He explained how there must be sufficient horsepower to both push the heavily loaded boat onto an enemy-held beach and hold firmly as Marines stormed ashore, and then to extract the bow from the sand and pivot in the surf before returning to the offshore troop carrier.
Smith was fascinated by the model and asked Krulak to brief the commandant of the Marine Corps, General Thomas Holcomb. This may have been the only time in Marine Corps history that a mere lieutenant briefed a commandant on the most critical problem facing the Marines, and Holcomb urged Krulak to press forward with developing the landing craft. Krulak was assigned to General Smith’s 1st Marine Brigade as an assistant logistics officer. Most important, Krulak became Smith’s point man in developing amphibious landing craft.
EARLY 1941 FOUND BRUTE KRULAK in Culebra, an island off Puerto Rico, to test the ability of a new amphibious tractor—originally designed as a post-hurricane rescue vehicle, later and better known as the amtrac—to cross coral reefs. The testing coincided with a combined fleet exercise, FLEX 7, commanded by the haughty Admiral Ernest J. King—the man alleged to have said, “When trouble starts, they call for us sons of bitches.” If King did say that, he would have been the first one called. His daughter said that he was the most even-tempered man in the navy: he was always in a rage. He was also a resolute man with an aggressive mindset and one of the most brilliant naval strategists in American history.
FLEX 7 was the last combined fleet exercise before World War II and was important for several reasons. First, the exercise foreshadowed numerous inter-service problems that would arise during the war. For instance, during the exercise the navy had aerial photos of the beaches on which the Marines would be landing but would not show the pictures to General Smith. When Admiral King insisted on selecting the beach on which the Marines would land, he picked a wide, shallow beach backed by a swamp and steep mountains, a combination that would not allow the Marines to move inland. Only when Smith pointed out these problems did King reluctantly allow him to choose the beach.
But the navy had only three landing craft capable of moving tanks and artillery ashore. During FLEX 7, one of these boats capsized, and the tank it was carrying fell into the sea. Had it not settled upright, it would have been lost. After the exercise, the Marines realized that serious problems resulted from being tied to the navy during an amphibious assault. The navy wanted control of everything. The Marines had no problem with the navy running the show until the landing force was on the beach, but then the offensive was up to the Marines, and they believed that they should be in charge. At what point in an amphibious landing the U.S. Navy should relinquish control to the Marines was an issue that would plague the two services throughout the war.
Upon returning from Culebra in the spring of 1941, a group of army and navy observers gathered on the beach at New River, North Carolina, to observe tests of the latest navy–designed landing craft. Holland Smith was the senior observer, and by his side, always making his thoughts known, was Brute Krulak.
The navy landing craft stopped about 50 yards offshore, and the Marines on board jumped overboard into water over their heads. Fortunately, all made it to shore. Then came two larger landing craft, each carrying a tank. A cable broke on one of the landing craft, and the tank fell into deep water. Fortunately, the crew scrambled out and swam ashore. Disgusted, Smith turned to look for the other tank and saw a young officer some distance from shore in water up to his knees. “What are you doing out there?” Smith shouted. “Where is the tank?”
The young officer snapped to attention, saluted, and said, “Sir, I’m standing on it.”
Clearly, the navy-designed landing craft still needed work.
THE ISSUE CAME TO A HEAD a few weeks later, when top military planners told the Marines that the fall of France had raised concern that the Caribbean island of Martinique, a French territory, might be taken over by the Germans. Hitler’s troops could not be allowed to hold an island so close to the United States, and if the Germans did occupy Martinique, retaking the island would require an amphibious assault.
Smith feared the navy would give him landing craft that would result in Marines dying needlessly, so he sent Brute Krulak to New Orleans in March 1941 to meet with a boat builder already well known to the Marines, Andrew Jackson Higgins, and tell him exactly what the Marines wanted. No more dilly-dallying with the navy—it was time for the Marines to take charge.
Krulak showed Higgins the photographs of the Japanese landing craft he’d taken in 1937; Higgins was taken with the idea and agreed to build landing craft with a drop bow.
Within a stunningly short amount of time, Higgins de-signed and built several LCMs—essentially the same design used throughout the war—and put a drop bow on the Eureka, the 36-man plywood landing craft he had been building for the navy since 1939. “‘No’ or ‘It can’t be done’ or ‘Impossible’ were not in his lexicon,” Krulak said much later. “No one can overstate Higgins’s contribution to the war.”
By July 1943, Higgins had shattered every existing boat production record: he turned out more landing craft than all the other shipyards in America combined. In September 1943, when the U.S. Army landed at Salerno and General Douglas Mac-Arthur’s forces landed in New Guinea, the navy owned 14,072 vessels. Of those, 12,964, or 92 percent of the fleet, had been designed by Higgins, and almost 9,000 had been built at the Higgins plant in New Orleans. A year later, on June 6, 1944, when the largest fleet in history invaded Europe at Normandy, the boat that put the soldiers, their tanks, and their equipment on the beach was the bow-ramp Higgins boat. In World War II, the Higgins boat and the U.S. Marines reshaped modern warfare. Krulak said that Higgins boats “were our bridge to the beach”—and he was right.
It is a matter of considerable irony that the bow ramp, a design Krulak stole from the Japanese, was the key design feature of the boat that would contribute so much to the Japanese defeat. But even after Higgins perfected the design, victory was years away. And before that end was reached, the beaches of the Pacific would run red.
Robert Coram is the author of seven novels and five works of nonfiction, including Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War and American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day. While at his writing studio on the Georgia coast, he spends a great deal of time fly fishing and, because he runs his boat aground so often, practicing amphibious landings.