A Gadfly and the Navy

From the Mississippi to Normandy: The National WWII Museum of the USA is in New Orleans—because of a certain Mr. Higgins, “the man who won the war for us.”

The following travel dispatch by Martin Amanshauser appeared in the July 14, 2017, edition of Die Presse, a Vienna-based, German-language newspaper. Museum Senior Historian Robert M. Citino did the German-to-English translation, which appears here with the publication’s permission. 

Andrew Jackson Higgins (1886–1952) came to New Orleans from Nebraska as a 24-year-old to work for a German lumber-importing firm. Twelve years later, he founded the Higgins Lumber and Export Company, a worldwide lumber importer and exporter. He needed ships for that, not to mention docks, all of which he formed into Higgins Industries in 1930. By then he had already designed his characteristic ship-type, a boat that could navigate swamps and the Mississippi River. The ship’s screw was largely hidden in a groove in the hull, so that there was hardly any draft. The artfully constructed bow could land on flat stretches of riverbank, and the vessel was so powerful that it could drop off its cargo without getting stuck.

By the start of the war, the Bourbon-drinking, fiery Irishman had long since left the lumber business, hired 75 employees, and sold his landing craft design to the government. The Navy remained uninterested. Five years later, as large parts of the US fleet had shown itself unsuited to combat, that changed. Eventually, 20,000 employees of Higgins Industries, working in seven factories, would produce 92 percent of all US naval vessels: troop transports, armored freighters, torpedo ships, submarines, and the LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel), known in military jargon as the “Higgins boat”—with its extremely broad ramp, a further development of his original river prototype—which would give the Americans a decisive military advantage in landing their troops on the beaches of northwestern Europe. Higgins's invention transformed the sleepy New Orleans into one of the most important industrial centers of World War II. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was later said to have called the company owner “the man who won the war for us.” 

Because of Mr. Higgins’s achievement, The National WWII Museum exists today in New Orleans. Since then, his name has almost vanished from American memory. His success couldn’t be explained without discussing the mistakes of the Navy, and in the post-victory decades, self-criticism was unpopular. Also, the southern city was not exactly eager to promote the reputation of the gadfly from Nebraska, a man who made enemies of influential people, who paid women and nonwhites equal wages (a revolutionary thing),  and who saw his company liquidated after the war as a result of a lawsuit.

In the year 2000, on the 56th anniversary of D-Day, The National D-Day Museum opened in a former brewery. The growth of the collection as well as the museum’s expansion made the new title (into The National WWII Museum) logical. The name received approval from the highest authorities in Congress, commanding an emphasis on military history of an official nature. The main emphasis remains Normandy, and the exhibits include one of Higgins’s amphibious craft. But anyone expecting a rush of patriotism errs strongly. Texts and visual materials breathe balance. The didactic presentation offers contemporary elements of style, as well as the careers of individual soldiers whom visitors can follow. The attempt to show the everyday experience of war through individuals, and to speak of men and women equally, gives the exhibits their character—though it is not all that interactive. Rather, one is buffeted by dozens of short films in staccato order, all of which are technically interesting, elevating, and gruesome at the same time. 

"Only a little more than half of the exhibition deals with events in the European theater of operations, to use the revealing artistic metaphor. The emphasis on the conflict with Japan receives almost equal weight, representing the fatal simultaneity that allowed the war to span the globe."

Martin Amanshauser, Die Presse

Visitors, often American parents, look on with stoic approval as their little ones watch badly wounded and dead soldiers (referred to as “casualties”) carried off on stretchers or shot from multiple directions. Austria figures only peripherally in New Orleans. In one of the videos, a red swastika shimmers, with its central point southwest of Vienna, near Mariazell.  The map is large enough that the symbol could easily be moved to Braunau.  

The American victory, as represented here, is something of a heroic fairy tale, told with sympathetic understatement. The main enemy is known to be so evil that it isn’t necessary to go into detail. Schooled in elevated Hollywood filmmaking techniques, the exhibit designers don’t ruin the worth of the enemy through unnecessary demonization. They are counting on other locations (school, television, home) to carry the educational burden. The result is a presentation that is objective almost to the point of madness. Again and again a kind of sporting fundamental respect for the enemy shines through. Sometimes the reigning integrative objectivity is almost sad, and at other times, it is unavoidable. In  fragmented Europe, replete with nations who lost the war, such a nonjudgmental approach could lead to misunderstanding and give rise to accusations of trivializing the war. German Messerschmitt pilots stand on the same level as their heroic American opponents. The effect and the aim are clear: the higher we assess the German achievement, the more superhuman is the victory over it. 

Only a little more than half of the exhibition deals with events in the European theater of operations, to use the revealing artistic metaphor. The emphasis on the conflict with Japan receives almost equal weight, representing the fatal simultaneity that allowed the war to span the globe. For the Americans, it was a matter of every single island in the Pacific, represented by the bitter battle for Guadalcanal. Japanese visual propaganda, which depicts President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a monster, is placed unabashedly next to Allied propaganda employing racist animal motifs to label the Japanese as subhuman.

Where we (Europeans) would perform contextual research and write histories of memory, the only place to find these in New Orleans is in the oral history accounts. The Americans focus on military events, reflecting their healthy sense of self-confidence. The superiority of their troops over the foe is evident from the death statistics. But also noticeable is the considerable comprehensive investment of the USA in this two-front war. Its defeats in the first years, with a military not much larger than Germany’s or England’s, were substantial—in the Atlantic, for instance, where German U-boats sank supply vessels before countermeasures could be devised. The conquest of Guadalcanal, likewise, helped to secure the supply routes to Australia.

Facing the “world conflagration,” it soon becomes evident that, for the USA, the war was a critical test that proved to Americans, “We are the Champions”—a logistical-military challenge that they accepted, an epic struggle that stamped their view of the world: New Orleans presents the one and only Olympic Games of war. It is understandable how the USA formed a compulsion to intervene and to become what it still is today—the world policeman—and why it still feels the need to intervene everywhere.

While the tone toward the American side usually doesn’t attempt to whitewash anything, the atomic bomb appears here in the end as a kind of scary horror story, an unpleasant world tragedy, in which everyone shares the blame, or perhaps even the entire epoch. The fact that the Japanese refused to surrender seems in this view to be a mere false chess move. The atomic bomb gallery appears as a sort of messy epilogue with a guilty conscience—which it probably is.

The 35-minute film Beyond All Boundaries (2009, producer and narrative voice Tom Hanks) goes one step further than anything conceivable in terms of memory culture. After the forced closure and renovation of the Museum as a result of Hurricane Katrina, the film was created for the newly built $60 million Solomon Victory Theater. It runs exclusively there and radiates a holistic WWII theme park feeling, with vibrating seats and "advanced special effects” such as snowflakes trickling from the ceiling during the Ardennes offensive. The film is a great success in terms of popular education, but the impressive and comprehensive presentation does transform the horror of the war into a consumer experience. The film clearly interweaves archival footage and original documents, although one wishes for the more understated pathos of the videos in the galleries

There, the exhibits sometimes resemble an affectionately crafted fictional reality. Upon their entry into the Mediterranean, American GIs capture a German flag and inscribe “Gidbalter” on it—their version of “Gibraltar.”

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