The Man Who Saved the World by Thinking Small: A D-Day Tribute

lcvp-higgins 200cIf you’re a Small Church pastor who feels like your church has been devalued because of your size, you’re in good company. One of the the unsung heroes of World War II faced the same problem.

Andrew Jackson Higgins was a New Orleans boat builder who saw the importance of something very small, that no one else saw.

Because of Higgins’ foresight, his hard work and, quite frankly, his stubborn persistence to push back against the very people who couldn’t see how much they needed his help, he literally helped save the world.

This is his story.


The Day “The Greatest Generation” Came of Age

There are a handful of “hinge” days in world history. Days on which everything changes for good or for ill. Most of the time, we aren’t aware of the importance of those days until many years later.

June 6, 1944 was one of those days. But everyone knew exactly how important that day was, even before it occurred. On that day hung the balance of power in World War II – and the fate of the world.

The stories of heroism and sacrifice on D-Day will never be fully known. But it was that day, more than any other, that earned their generation the right to be known as “The Greatest Generation.”

One of the mostly unknown heroes of that day was a man who never set foot on a Normandy beach, never commanded a single troop and never wore a military uniform.


Andrew Jackson Higgins: “The Man Who Won the War for Us”

Stephen Ambrose, in his wonderful book, D-Day: The Climactic Battle of World War II, relates a conversation he had with Dwight Eisenhower in 1964. Ambrose was about to travel to New Orleans, so Ike asked Ambrose if he’d met Andrew Higgins.

Ambrose said he hadn’t met Higgins, who had recently passed away. “That’s too bad,” Eisenhower responded. “He is the man who won the war for us.”

Ambrose was stunned to hear so high a praise from such a source, so Eisenhower explained that 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, Eisenhower told Ambrose, “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.


He Saw What Others Couldn’t See

According to Ambrose’s painstaking research, in WWII the Navy was only interested in larger vessels. They wanted more aircraft carriers, 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 craft (pictured above) 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. Higgins was a hothead, so even when the Navy finally relented and saw the need for smaller landing craft, they didn’t want anything to do with Higgins or his boat design. The Navy was determined to design their own landing craft.

But Higgins had an idea, and he insisted on seeing it through. For over two years, he pushed and prodded until the Navy reluctantly allowed his design to be entered into the contract bidding. When they saw his design, the contest was over. Higgins’ design was superior in every way.

Immediately, Higgins converted all his assembly lines into building LCVPs, at one time employing over 30,000 people of both genders and, even in the deep south of New Orleans, all races.


We Can’t Afford to Leave Anyone Out

When D-Day came, the amount of resources, both human and mechanical, that went into the battle is staggering.

But, as far as boats were concerned, the counts were simple to understand. The smaller the vessel, the more of them that were needed.

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.

So which vessels could the Allied forces have done without? Did they really need all those Higgins Boats? After all, they couldn’t even get themselves across the English Channel – they had to be carried aboard larger cargo ships. Or maybe the battleships were unnecessary? After all, they were so large they had to anchor a mile or more off shore.

The answer is obvious.

We need everyone.

If the vessel is smaller, we need more of them – and we need the strength of the larger vessels to support them.

If the vessel is larger, they may not be able to do many of the up close tasks, so they rely on the work of the lighter, more agile vessels.


It’s Not About Bigger or Smaller – It’s About Bigger AND Smaller

I hope the parallels to the church from this true parable are obvious.

No member of the body of Christ is unnecessary.

We need everyone working hard and functioning at their best in a spirit of mutual cooperation to reach this generation for Jesus.

Big churches can’t do it alone. There are too many smaller places in the world where they just won’t fit.

Small Churches can’t get there by themselves either. There are often huge tasks that need the immediate deployment of massive numbers of people and resources under unified leadership.

We don’t need fewer big churches or fewer Small Churches. We need more healthy, active, passionate churches of all sizes, working together.


You’re Not As Alone As You Feel

One of the stories Ambrose tells about D-Day is how the troops on the beach, who underwent a hell on earth that none of us can fathom, had no idea about the help they were receiving from battleships and destroyers who sat offshore.

While young men pushed forward inch-by-bloody-inch on the beach, the larger offshore ships were lofting a barrage of weaponry over their heads, destroying inland German fortifications. When the boots-on-the-beach troops finally did push past the initial, massive defenses, they found very little resistance inland because of how their compatriots on the larger, offshore ships had paved the way for them.

On D-Day, small and large worked together. Each did the task they were best suited for. Together they won the day. And because of their cooperation that day, they won the war and assured our freedom.

Meanwhile, one man named Andrew Jackson Higgins was listening to the radio from thousands of miles away in New Orleans for news of the D-Day assault. He had also done what he was called to do. Even when no one else could see it.

If you’re a Small Church pastor, pilot your Higgins Boat well. With God’s help, face the onslaught. At times it may mean bucking the odds. At other times you may be receiving help you’re not even aware of yet.

But don’t give up. We can’t do it without you.


So what do you think? Are you piloting your Higgins Boat well?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Higgins Boat photo from

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9 thoughts on “The Man Who Saved the World by Thinking Small: A D-Day Tribute”

  1. Karl, only someone with your heart and mind could have made this correlation! Thanks for the encouragement as always.

    1. Thanks, Scott. But it was actually Jeff Juhala, a friend of mine and a member of my church, who loaned me his copy of Ambrose’s book and gave me the original idea for this post. I gladly give credit where credit is due.

  2. Shelley Vaters

    This is one of the best articles – EVER – on why and how small and large churches need each other as well as giving much needed due credit to our military on that fateful day.

  3. Having just been invited to be on the Small Church Leadership Team for the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church this posting is very timely. Our mission is to help revitalize the small churches in VA and this will be a great posting to use. Thanks Karl for your insight and encouragement it is so needed and valuable. Blessings.

  4. Having just been invited to be on the Small Church Leadership Team for the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church this posting is very timely. Our mission is to help revitalize the small churches in VA and this will be a great posting to use. Thanks Karl for your insight and encouragement it is so needed and valuable. Blessings.

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