Philippine history

How the Philippine mahogany helped win D-Day

Mike Baños
How the Philippine mahogany helped win D-Day

RECREATION. A full-scale recreation of a Higgins boat at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

The National WWII Museum

Even today, few people are aware of the role that the Philippine mahogany played in the allied invasion on June 6, 1944 (June 7 in the Philippines), and the Allies' ultimate victory over the Axis powers

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines – As Europe commemorates the 78th anniversary of D-Day, Filipinos everywhere can take pride in knowing that the Philippine mahogany played a vital role in the success of the allied campaign.

Even today, few people are aware of the role that the Philippine mahogany played in the allied invasion on June 6, 1944 (June 7 in the Philippines), and the Allies’ ultimate victory over the Axis powers.

Wood from the Philippine mahogany, locally known as tanguile, was crucial in the development of the Landing Craft, Vehicle, and Personnel (LCVP) created by American inventor and industrialist Andrew Jackson Higgins, which made the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944, possible.

NAVAL BOMBARDMENT. US Coast Guard LCVPs or Higgins’ boats line the waters of Lingayen Gulf, after a naval bombardment of Japanese shore positions in Luzon, Philippines, on January 9, 1945. The LCVPs were one of the most rugged and versatile boats ever designed. – US National Archives and Records Administration
Higgins’ boat

Designed by Higgins, the half-wood, half-steel LCVP assault boats landed troops and material on invasion beachheads.

A self-taught genius of small boat design, Higgins was raised in Omaha and served in the Nebraska Army National Guard, where he gained his first experience with boat building and moving troops on the water during militia maneuvers on the Platte River.

In 1910, he became manager of a German-owned lumber-importing firm in New Orleans, and later formed his own company, the Higgins Lumber, and Export Company, importing hardwood from the Philippines, Central America, and Africa, and exporting bald cypress and pine.

As part of his work in boat building and design, Higgins completed a program in naval architecture through the National University of Sciences in Chicago, which awarded him a bachelor of science degree.

The 1939 crop

Higgins foresaw and prepared for the coming war better than most. As author Mike Whaley described it: “In a common movement of eccentricity, Higgins bought the entire 1939 crop of mahogany from the Philippines and stored it at his boatyard. He knew it would be desperately needed soon, and it was. One of his first wartime contracts was to build PT Boats, all of which required mahogany as the primary deck material.”

The Philippine mahogany is the trade name of seven native lauan species belonging to the dipterocarp family, said Raoul Geollegue, former Department and Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) director for Northern Mindanao. 

“They are not the common plantation mahogany belonging to the family Meliaceae originating from South America,” he said.

Two years later, the US Navy ordered the production of Higgins’ iconic LCVPs which helped win World War II.

Higgins’ innovative spirit enabled a series of breakthroughs that eventually became his namesake boat.

Its spoonbill bow curled up near the ramp, forcing water underneath, and enabling the craft to push up onto the shore and reverse after offloading.

A ridge added to the keel improved its stability. The V-shaped keel was later created, allowing the boat to ride higher in the water.

Higgins started making landing craft for the Navy when World War II began and came up with a 36-foot version – the Landing Craft Personnel Large (LCPL) that would become the standard for the rest of the war.

The boat that won the war

That landing craft – often cited as “the boat that won World War II” – could quickly carry up to 36 men, or a Willys Jeep, small truck, or other equipment with fewer troops. 

Higgins’ earlier modifications along with an ingenious protected propeller system enabled the boats to maneuver in only 10 inches of water.

This became the basis for a variety of designs and configurations which followed the same fundamental style, all built by Higgins or under license with his company, Higgins Industries. 

Higgins was named on 18 patents, most of which were for his boats or different design adaptations to the vessels.

Before the LCVP, large-scale seaborne invasions usually required the bombardment and capture of often heavily fortified and well-defended large ports and harbors.

ANDREW JACKSON HIGGINS. American inventor and industrialist Andrew Jackson Higgins – US National Inventors Hall of Fame

Thanks to the Higgins boat, troops were quickly deployed on any stretch of shoreline.

To meet the threat of an invasion that could fall anywhere, enemy commanders needed to spread their forces out across entire coastlines and fortify vast stretches of shore.

The Higgins boat was used for many amphibious landings, including Operation Overlord on D-Day in Nazi Germany-occupied Normandy, Operation Torch in North Africa, the Allied Invasion of Sicily, Operation Shingle and Operation Avalanche in Italy, and in over 100 amphibious operations in the Pacific.

The small craft is remembered along with the Jeep, the C-47 aircraft, and the deuce-and-a-half ton truck as one of the transport systems that powered the Allied victory in World War II.

Thanks in no small measure to that 1939 crop of Philippine mahogany that made the Higgins boats available in numbers that made the ultimate Allied victory a reality. – Rappler.com

An earlier version of this story first appeared in the author’s blog.