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The Man Who Saved the World by Thinking Small

There are a handful of "hinge" moments in world history. June 6, 1944, or D-Day, was one of those moments. On that day hung the balance of power in World War II—and the fate of the world. One of the mostly unknown heroes of D-Day was a man who never set foot on a Normandy beach, never commanded a single troop and never wore a uniform—Andrew Jackson Higgins.

Higgins was the man responsible for designing and building the LCVP, the small landing boats that brought the troops onto the beaches on D-Day. If Higgins hadn't had the foresight to see the need for them, then design and build them, former President Dwight Eisenhower said, "the whole strategy of the war would have been different."

And what's even more amazing is that Higgins did it all without any request from the military—in fact he did so by pushing against the wishes of the US Navy. At the time, the Navy was only interested in larger vessels like destroyers and battleships. They had no interest in smaller vessels, especially not the LCVPs that Higgins had in mind.

If you've ever seen a D-Day movie, you know what an LCVP is. They're the small landing vessels with flat bottoms and high sides that ushered the troops up to the beach, then dropped their flat bows into the water to let the troops exit straight ahead, into horrifying barrages of gunfire. The Navy didn't want LCVPs, which later became known to soldiers and the world as "Higgins Boats," because their small size and flat bottoms meant they couldn't navigate across the English Channel.

But Higgins saw what the Navy couldn't see. That, after crossing the channel, the larger ships would not be able to get troops close enough to the shore. The assault on the beaches of Normandy involved dozens of battleships, scores of destroyers, and thousands of Higgins Boats. The larger vessels transported personnel and equipment across the English Channel under the cover of darkness. Then, as tens of thousands of troops boarded thousands of Higgins Boats, the destroyers and battleships barraged the coastline from a distance to prepare it for the landing troops.

No wonder, then, that twenty years after D-Day, President Dwight Eisenhower casually told the writer Stephen Ambrose, "[Higgins] is the man who won the war for us."

Editor's Note: This story is also retold in Stephen Ambrose's book D-Day: The Climactic Battle of World War II.

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