Going to Work for Higgins Industries

Building LCVPs and PT Boats

Landing Craft

Doing His Part

Marvin Perrett and Testing Boats

Employees and Building Materials

Employees, Family, and Layoffs

Conclusion

Annotation

George Kearney was living on Magazine Street [Annotator's Note: in New Orleans, Louisiana] when he went to work for Higgins [Annotator's Note: Higgins Industries]. At the time, he was a student at Delgado [Annotator's Note: Delgado Trade School, now Delgado Community College] and only had about two weeks left to go before he graduated. On his way home from school one day, Kearney decided to stop at the Higgins plant on St. Charles Avenue to see if they were hiring. When he first went in he was run out by a guy who told him that they were not hiring. He walked around the block and entered the building though another entrance. He met a man inside who spoke to the superintendent about hiring him. Kearney told the superintendent that he only had two weeks left of his carpentry course at Delgado. Kearney was told to report back to the building the following morning. Kearney went home and told his mother that he had gotten a job. His father was not happy about it. Kearney's father had not wanted him to go to Delgado. He wanted him to go to a full college but Kearney did not have any interest in that. Kearney went to work for Higgins making 30 cents per hour. They worked nine hours per day except on Sundays. He started working for Higgins in 1937 and worked there for 21 years. Many people in Kearney's immediate area were out of work. His mother was surprised that with everyone out of work he was able to get a job. Things were very bad. Kearney's father worked for the railroad and, although he did not make much, he was able to keep working throughout the depression years. In early 1940 Kearney was laid off from Higgins but was called back three months later when Higgins started getting government contracts. In the early 1940s the old man [Annotator's Note: Andrew J. Higgins] was interested in acquiring a building on City Park Avenue right next to Delgado. The building was a wooden structure with an overhead crane in it. When they built boats they would build them upside down. When they were completed, the overhead crane would pick them up and put them on a belt that would carry them out. The building was right next to a set of train tracks. There, they would load the boats onto train cars that took them to the bayou in City Park. Once in the bayou they could be driven out into the lake [Annotator's Note: Lake Pontchartrain] for testing.

Annotation

[Annotator's Note: George Kearney grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and was an employee of Higgins Industries from 1937 to 1958.] Before the war, they were building boats for the Army engineers [Annotator's Note: US Army Corps of Engineers], Wildlife and Fisheries and other government groups. They built shallow draft landing boats which were their bread and butter. The shallow growth boats were built for use in the swamps of south Louisiana. They also built swamp buggies which were used for picking up sunken logs in the swamps. That line was run by Ed Higgins. Ed Higgins was the oldest Higgins boy. Once the war began Higgins was a great place to work. There were a lot of very good people working there, including a lot of women in every department. Kearney had about 25 in his department of 125. They built all of the parts except the bow stems for the landing craft. They also built all of the transoms. At first the boats had a round back. That was later changed to a V back. Kearney worked on the parts for the landing boats and for the torpedo boats. When it got to be too much for Kearney, the production of the torpedo boats was moved and another person took over the job of overseeing the production. The facility they worked in had a full production line on the ground floor and another one on the second floor of the building. They could turn out 20 landing boats per day and three torpedo boats per week.

Annotation

[Annotator's Note: George Kearney grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and was an employee of Higgins Industries from 1937 to 1958.] The landing boat at the museum [Annotator's Note: The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana] looks just like the boats Kearney used to make. A guy named Duckworth had a lot to do with the boat. Kearney was at Duckworth's auto repair business with his car one day when he heard Duckworth mention Higgins. He told Duckworth that he used to work for Higgins and Duckworth told him that they were building a replica landing craft and asked Kearney for his help. Kearney was taking care of his sick wife at the time and was not able to help out but he gave Duckworth the name of another former Higgins employee named Bill Phelps. Duckworth contacted Phelps but he was not able to work on it either. He was, however, able to help out with the project quite a bit. Graham Haddock was a draftsman for Higgins. He worked under a guy named George Hewitt who was a marine engineer. Hewitt was a bright guy. Kearney believes that Hewitt is the one who designed the ramp on the landing craft [Annotator's Note: the ramp on the Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel, or LCVP]. Higgins also built the landing craft used prior to the ramped boats. Those boats were referred to as LCP(L)s [Annotator's Note: Landing Craft Personnel, Large]. The LCP(L) was based off of an existing Higgins boat design called a Eureka boat. Making the transition from constructing LCP(L)s to LCVPs was not a difficult one. They had the original building on St. Charles Avenue and later set up a production facility in City Park [Annotator's Note: New Orleans City Park]. Kearney worked with a guy who was a real thinker. He was never given credit for what he was worth. The Higgins family did not think much of him but without him they would have been in a fix. Kearney, his friend and a couple other guys made jigs for building the landing boats. The jigs were meant to be temporary but ended up being used throughout the entire war. One day, the old man [Annotator's Note: Andrew J. Higgins] brought in two guys to build a set a jigs. When the new jigs were used for the first time the frames did not line up. Kearney was called into the boss’s office and was chewed out. Once he explained that it was not his fault and that the jigs were to blame the two new guys were fired.

Annotation

[Annotator's Note: George Kearney grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and was an employee of Higgins Industries from 1937 to 1958.] In 1941, the Higgins plant began running 24 hours a day. For about three years the plant ran for 24 hours. They even worked on holidays. They usually worked eight hours a day but sometimes went to 12 hour shifts. Kearney felt that he was doing his part for the war effort by producing the landing craft. At times he was glad that he was not the one operating the boats that he was building. A lot of people had trouble after they came home from the war. Kearney's sister's husband landed on Omaha Beach. When he left his landing craft he went into water that was over his head. He managed to make his way ashore and ended up going through the rest of the war without a scratch. With everyone going overseas to fight, Higgins was forced to bus workers in from other parts of the state. He would send busses down to Houma, Thibodaux, Grand Isle and numerous other locations. Some of the workers had to leave home at three in the morning and many would not get home until nine at night. Kearney had a good crew that he could depend on. Many of the men were older than Kearney and resented that fact that they had kids his age who were in the service. At the time Kearney was in his 20s. Going out at night during the war was difficult. When he and his girlfriend would go out there were always people looking to start a fight with him by making a remark to him about being in civilian clothes. Kearney did try to join the Navy to do ship repair. He went to a place on Canal Street with two guys from his crew. When he tried to enlist he was turned down because of his eyesight. One of the guys was turned down because he was too young. The one guy who had not wanted to go in the first place was taken in. The one who was taken in ended up spending the duration of the war in Algiers [Annotator's Note: at the Navy base in Algiers, Louisiana].

Annotation

[Annotator's Note: George Kearney grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and was an employee of Higgins Industries from 1937 to 1958.] The landing craft in the museum [Annotator's Note: The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana] is marked with the numbers of the boat a Coast Guard coxswain named Marvin Perrett [Annotator's Note: Marvin Perrett's oral history is also available on the Digital Collections of the National WWII Museum website] piloted during the Normandy invasion. During a test drive out on the lake [Annotator's Note: Lake Pontchartrain] the pilot of the boat made a mistake and sunk the boat. A number of the men aboard the landing craft drowned. Kearney never rode in any of the boats his company manufactured even though he really wanted to ride on a PT boat. The big thing with the Eureka boats was that they could run right up on the sea wall. During an exhibition out on the lake the pilot of a Eureka boat rode up onto the sea wall and when he did he got Higgins [Annotator's Note: Andrew J. Higgins] all wet. The guy then backed off the sea wall and took off. As he was backing off Higgins was yelling for someone to fire the man. It turned out that the guy piloting the boat was Higgins's oldest son. Kearney did go out on one of the pleasure boats. It was a 17 foot boat that was being piloted by the superintendent. They were taking it out to clock it [Annotator's Note: test the speed of the boat]. The 17 foot boat could go 60 miles per hour. At some point, Kearney told the superintendent to slow the boat down. Kinney was told to go sit on the back of the boat and when he did the superintendent swung the boat around causing a big wave to crash over the stern of the boat, soaking Kearney.

Annotation

George Kearney really enjoyed working for Higgins Industries. Durbins [Annotator's Note: unsure of spelling] was in charge of hiring and he was very particular about who he hired. As a kid, Kearney could ask any of the men he worked with for advice or help and it was always given freely. At the height of production it is estimated that Higgins had 20,000 men and women working for him. There were three plants. One on the Industrial Canal, one down in Houma and the one in City Park [Annotator's Note: New Orleans City Park]. When Kearney first started working for Higgins there were 35 people, including the metal workers who were building the metal boats. Higgins built landing boats, torpedo boats and steel boats that handled tanks and trucks [Annotator's Note: Kearney is most likely referring to the Landing Craft Mechanized, or LCM]. After the war, the plant was moved from City Park to Michoud where they planned to build pleasure boats. In 1947 a hurricane hit. The day before the hurricane hit Higgins fired everyone. That evening the superintendent called Kearney and told him that they were planning to form a committee to approach Higgins to ask why they were being fired. After the hurricane they were rehired and went out to the Michoud plant to inspect the damage. There was four feet of water in the plant. Equipment and debris was scattered everywhere and there were snakes all over the place. Kearney does not know how the business recovered from that but it did and lasted another 11 years. IPIK [Annotator's Note: the IPIK Door Company] out in Kenner made the round sterns for the boats. Kearney does not recall who made the plywood sides for the boats. The plywood was all mahogany. The bow, keel, stern, stern frames, skeg and chines were all pine. Everything was secured with bronze screws and galvanized and brass bolts. The boats were well made. When they finished building a boat it had to be spotless. Durbins would get up in the newly completed boats and would look down in the bilge for dust and if he found any he wanted to know who had cleaned it. The materials for the landing craft would come in by rail. The material was always tested for moisture as soon as it arrived although Kearney does not know why because the boats were not made to last. The frame used to lift the boats was made of white oak on a galvanized frame. The government inspectors would reject a boat if that frame was made of red oak. They would also reject a keel if it had a strip of sap on it. That is just the way it was. There were government inspectors at the facility that inspected every piece of material that came into the plant. Kearney does not know how many landing craft they built during the war.

Annotation

One of George Kearney's friends, who lives not far from him, was a ban saw operator who cut the notches for the keel and the chine. There were three ban saw operators there who were very good at what they did. The women who worked there were very good at what they did too. Many of the women who worked there had husbands who were away in the service. The women working in Kearney's shop assembled boat frames. They did a good job but he does not know how much they were paid. They were paid less than the men even though they were doing the same work. Kearney's wife had three brothers. One of them was in the Marines, another was a Navy diver, and the third was in submarines. The brother who was in the Marine Corps, Joe, had been at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bombed it then made several invasions after that. He was never the same after the war. Mike was the Navy diver. He used to dive a lot out in the river on the boats that the German torpedo boats had sunk. Kearney is not sure about what the one who served on submarines did. The day after the war ended, Higgins Industries downsized. The plant was closed and the superintendent called all of the foremen in for a meeting where he asked each one how many men he had under him. If a foreman replied that he had 50 men the superintendent told him he could keep three of them. Kearney had 120 under him and was told that he could keep four. Kearney had to write out layoff slips for all of the others. A lot of people were out of work but they survived.

Annotation

It is George Kearney's opinion that the exhibits at the museum [Annotator's Note: The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana] accurately depict the conditions of the world during World War 2. Kearney visited the museum with a friend and the friend’s son who was four years old. Kearney was surprised by how interested in the museum the four year old was. There were many men who came back after the war who had problems that did not show which caused them to die younger than they should. From the day the war began until the day it ended, production at the Higgins plants was in high gear. Kearney often wonders what was done with all of the boats that were half built. The first three or four torpedo boats were built on Columbia Street. Higgins purchased three houses across the street from the plant. He knocked the houses down and built a big metal shed and that is where they made the torpedo boats. When the first boat was finished they put it out on the lake [Annotator's Note: Lake Pontchartrain] to test it. The lake gets very rough and when the boat was brought back they found that every frame in the engine room was broken. From that point on, the frames were laminated and strengthened with braces and that is how the boats went out. Many men lost their lives in the torpedo boats and landing craft but those vessels also saved a lot of lives. After the war they built two laminated wheels that were 20 feet in diameter. They were 12 inches wide and nine inches thick. Then they made a shaft out of oak to go with the wheels. The wheels were also made of oak. The shaft was 100 feet long and the shaft was 12 inches in diameter. The wheels were spoked like a bicycle and there were also some bronze parts on them. Kearney never found out what the thing was for. He had heard that the thing was going to have sensors attached to it and would be drug along the ocean floor to collect readings for something or another. Kearney figured that the thing was drug for about a block, got hung up on something, and was cut loose and is still out there today.

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