World War II-era boat found in California lake is on its way to Nebraska

By Dmitry Martirosov   This article appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star on July 1, 2023

This holiday weekend, history returns to the Cornhusker State.

Just in time for the Fourth of July, an artifact more than 80 years old is making its way to Nebraska: a Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP) boat, or the “Higgins Boat,” — a 36-feet-long, military craft used during World War II.

The historic relic, arriving in Seward on Sunday, will be parked in front of the Nebraska National Guard Museum on July 4 and dedicated in a ceremony at 9 a.m.

On July 5, it will travel to Columbus, the birthplace of American businessman and boatbuilder Andrew Jackson Higgins — the designer and namesake of the boat — and be parked in front of his national memorial before returning to the museum.

The boat, one of only 16 left in the world, was discovered 18 months ago at the bottom of Lake Shasta, a reservoir in Northern California.

How it ended up there, remains a mystery.

“There’s many stories about how it got there,” said Gerald Meyer, historian at the Nebraska National Guard Museum.

With the marking PA31-17 on its stern, the boat was assigned to the USS Monrovia, a flagship used during the invasion of Sicily, which also was Gen. George S. Patton’s flagship during the war.

At its highest, production of the boats peaked at more than 20,000 during the 1940s and 1950s — a record, according to the Andrew Jackson Higgins National Memorial.

They became so popular that Dwight Eisenhower, then supreme commander of the Allies, praised Higgins, calling him “the man who won the war for us.”

With a speed of up to 12 knots, the wooden-made boats were used in landings at Normandy, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and many other World War II battles, and were able to land a platoon of 36 men.

But they were not supposed to survive the war, Meyer said, and when it ended, they were sold for surplus.

“Our ships that came from the Pacific (Ocean) were built in Oregon, California and Washington,” he said. “They would take off all the Higgins Boats and all the stuff they could sell for surplus, and they sold them to people for $400, $500.”

Subsequently, they were used for all sorts of purposes.

“At Lake Shasta, they would use them to transport material … to haul cattle, they used them to haul trash out, they used them for everything,” Meyer said.

In total, 23,000 Higgins Boats were manufactured during the war — which means other companies built them too. Still, the one found at the lake has a distinctive trait linking it to Higgins.

“Higgins was the only one during the war who built landing craft with a rounded stern,” Meyer said. “It’s his trademark.”

Dr. Van and Becky Cattle Vahle spearheaded the campaign and contributed money, along with the Cattle Bank in Seward, to bring the boat back to Nebraska.

Becky Cattle Vahle’s father, Maj. John Cattle, rode a Higgins Boat to the shores of North Africa, Sicily and Normandy during World War II. Their donations were in honor of Cattle, Higgins and the greatest generation of World War II.

“There’s not hardly any money outside of them that’s been invested in this boat — they took this thing completely,” Meyer said.

Higgins hull home to Nebraska
Higgins manufacturing plant for WW II landing craft

portrait on Andrew J Higgins

Andrew J Higgins   1886-1952   Manufacturer

Higgins, who grew up in Columbus and Omaha, has been credited as “the man who won the war for us” for his invention and manufacturing of “Higgins boats,” the ramp-bowed landing craft used by American forces during World War II.