Archaehistoria

Higgins Boat 01

Figure 1
This superb photo of a landing on a tropical isle from a Higgins boat was published on p.16 of “This is Guadalcanal: The Original Combat Photography” by L. Douglas Kenney and William S. Butler in 1998. It captures the atmosphere of a landing from an early original Higgins boat with no hinged bow ramp, forcing an awkward and exposed dismount for passengers by climbing over the sides. Note the WWI vintage air-cooled Lewis Machine Gun in the portside gunner cockpit. Note engine box in mid-bottom of the photo. This style of Higgins boat with similar bow guns was typical of the Higgins boats in the early South Pacific campaign in the Solomons. On September 4, 1942, the battle-hardened men of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion landed and departed Savo Island using such Higgins boats. During the departure phase in the late afternoon from the South-Eastern end of Savo, one of the four Higgins boats from the high speed converted transport USS Gregory (APD-3) was broached and abandoned.


Higgins Boat 02

Figure 2
The Landing Craft Personnel (Large) or LCPL or more popularly known ‘Higgins Boat’. Many of these landing craft were lost in the Solomons but because of their small size and insignificance, the history of such losses is largely unrecorded. If the Higgins boat wrecked on Savo Island is still there in some very minor form, it is one of the few where the history is known of how it got there. Wreck sites of such small wooden craft are difficult to identify today. [Excerpt from “Allied Landing Craft and Ships”, ONI 226, Navy Department, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Washington, 7 April 1944, Op-16-P-2, A10-1/ONI226].


Author
Ewan M. Stevenson.  

Site Location
In the vicinity of Kolika, Lakevala or Sesepi on the South East coast of Savo Island.  

GPS
09º 9.500’S, 159º 49.260’E approx.

Site Creation and Discussion
This Higgins boat was one of four from the USS Gregory (APD-3) used to extract the 1st Raiders from their day patrol on Savo Island on September 4, 1942. The boat was beached,  

“about 1,000 yards East of Reka [sic]. Boat was broached and filled and was abandoned until opportunity for salvage”. [1]  

The month of September is in the South East trade wind season in the Solomons. Typically, the wind starts blowing about 9am in the morning and continues to build during the day, and by mid-afternoon, quite a choppy sea has developed with perhaps 3-5 foot surf crashing on exposed shores. The selection of the departing beach at Reko was a probably miscalculation and probably due to hurried operations planning. In the afternoon, the SE trade wind whipped-up seas would be pounding the SE coast of Savo and this evidently accounted for the loss of Gregory’s Higgins boat. Not wanting the weapons to possibly fall into enemy or civilian hands, the boat’s crew would have recovered the two Lewis Machine Guns from the gunners cockpits in the bow. Later that night, the three remaining Higgins landing boats onboard the Gregory were blasted to pieces by Japanese 5-inch naval gunfire off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, as the USS Gregory was engaged by three Japanese destroyers. The remaining trio of wooden Higgins boats with the USS Gregory sank a thousand feet to the bottom of Iron Bottom Sound.  

It is not known if the Savo Island boat was recovered at a later date. Certainly, after the immediate loss of the entire mother ship, impetus to recover the lone, damaged, landing boat would be reduced. Does anyone know the individual boat number of the Savo Island Higgins boat?  

Discussion on Figure 1 photograph
Although published in a pictorial book on the Guadalcanal Campaign, this photograph may not be Guadalcanal or the Solomons. The landing depicted in the photo is most likely a practise landing as the troops have no combat packs and carrying very little gear. At the top right is a large triangular navigation beacon. The Solomons were largely devoid of such navigational markers well into 1943 when American authorities began installing a few. The troops in the photo are using M1 Garand rifles which the Marines in the Solomons in 1942 did not have. White sand beaches like this are not particularly common on Guadalcanal, certainly not on Savo, but a few exist in the Florida Islands area. Presumably this photo is from the US Navy’s 80-G official collection at National Archives II in College Park, MD, and it would be interesting to see the original photo caption to possibly identify the location. After Guadalcanal was secure, practise landings were conducted on the Rua Sura Islands down towards Eastern Guadalcanal and this photo may be from some remote location like this but otherwise it could be Hawaiian, Midway or Palmyra Islands and not relevant to the Guadalcanal Campaign.  

The Higgins Landing Boat.
The Higgins boat was officially titled in the U.S. Navy as Landing Craft Personnel (Large) or LCPL. They were built of wood and were 36’8’’ in length overall. They had a 10’ beam. They were powered by a single engine (single propeller) of various engine types and power ratings. Typical was a Gray diesel engine of 165-225 HP or a Hall-Scott 250 HP gasoline engine. The combat safer diesel engines of the Gray Marine Motor Company of Detroit appear to be the most common engines used. The boats were being built faster than the engines, so practically any suitable engine from a number of manufacturers were installed. The Higgins boats were the most common landing craft of the Guadalcanal Campaign. The early versions, rushed through production at Higgins Industries, Inc., in New Orleans, were based on the rugged ‘Eureka’ work boat that Andrew Jackson Higgins was selling pre war to trappers and oil field workers operating around the everglades and shallow swamps. The Chris-Craft Corporation of Algonac, Michigan, also built Higgins boats. The Higgins boat wrecked on Savo was one of hundreds built. A unique feature of the early Solomon campaign is the use of these early versions of the Higgins boat. The later version with more user-friendly bow ramp eventually  phased out the older Higgins boats.  

Archaeology
With the Gregory Higgins boat broached and filled with sea water on such an exposed coast, it would not take long for the surf to break it up. The site will be in the shallows probably less than 10 feet deep. All wood would be quickly broken up, eaten by shipworms and none would remain on site.  

The most visible and significant evidence remaining on site today would be the robust engine block. Pounded by surf and swell, it will be very damaged. Other evidence on site may be the prop shaft, struts, propeller (typically cast iron), rudder and bulky fuel tank. Remains of the three armoured bulkheads may be on site. Small hardware fittings, fastenings, railings, bilge pumps, anchor, etc., could remain, however, Melanesian Savo islanders will have salvaged materials off the wreck.  Noticeable in figure 1 on the port side by the coxswain is a gas cylinder. This is probably a CO2 fire extinguishing system for the engine compartment. It is sometimes possible, hard objects like this remain on site, however, the SE surf and the huge storm seas associated with numerous cyclones that have affected Savo Island over the years, will have largely destroyed the site.  

Solomon Islanders often salvage propellers off shallow wrecks like this intending to collect scrap money in Honiara, but find cast iron props almost worthless. Such activity also accounts for lack of archaeological evidence.  

Significance

  • The only archaeological evidence of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion patrol of Savo Island.     
  • Very rare opportunity to have a Higgins boat archaeological site with known history. Most Higgins boat wreck sites are non-descript.        
  • Very small site.
  • There are numerous Higgins boats archaeological sites in the Solomons, the majority located off Lunga Lagoon boat pool area.     
  • Early form of landing craft  

[1]. Page 2, Lt. Col. S.B. Griffith, USMC., Patrol on Savo island, First Marine Raider Bn., Guadalcanal, S.I., 5 Sept., 1942.  

References
Lt. Col. S.B. Griffith, USMC. Patrol on SAVO ISLAND, First Marine Raider Bn., Guadalcanal, S.I., 5 Sept., 1942.
Strahan, Jerry E. Andrew Jackson Higgins and the boats that won World War II. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1998.
Keeney, L. Douglas and Butler S., William. This is Guadalcanal: the Original Combat Photography. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY., 1998.
U.S. Navy Department. Allied Landing Craft and Ships ONI 226. Navy Department, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Washington, DC, 7 April 1944, Op-16-P-2, A10-1/ONI226.  

Acknowledgements
Archaehistoria wishes to gratefully acknowledge the valuable assistance by:
Sgt. Gene Leslie, USMC (Ret.) for continuously assisting Archaehistoria with acquiring research materials.
Col. Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret.) for kindly providing a copy of the Savo Island patrol report
Candace Dougherty for generously helping with material from the USA
Mike Fraser for continued IT and web site support  

Request for Information
Archaehistoria conducts archaeological studies of numerous landing craft wreck sites in the South Pacific and would be most grateful to any historic materials pertaining to such. Examples includes landing craft operating manuals, ONI manuals, personal accounts of landing craft losses, any historic records of loss of landing craft in the Solomons and photos of wrecked boats.  

Any further information on the Savo Island Higgins boat or this landing craft type would be gratefully received.  

14 April 2013

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