Gulf Coast Boatbuilders who won Wars

Published – Southern Boating
©2015 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert

The Gulf Coast has a long history of ship and boatbuilding from Galveston to Biloxi, but at the outset of World War II, New Orleans was the powerhouse and Andrew Higgins was one of the best naval architects. Originally building small, shallow-draft skiffs for use in the marshes of southern Louisiana, Higgins realized the value of these shallow draft vessels for the war effort and began designing military landing craft.

Eventually thousands of PT boats and Higgins landing craft were designed and built in New Orleans and were so crucial to the Pacific island-hopping and Normandy campaigns that General Dwight D. Eisenhower famously stated “Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us.” This directly led to the selection of New Orleans as the home of the National World War II Museum.

The museum has a cadre of historians, volunteers and restoration experts rebuilding everything from planes to boats, and one section of the complex is open for the public to explore and learn about their restoration work on these major artifacts.

Nearing completion is the restoration of PT-305, a 78-foot fast attack vessel that operated out of Corsica in the Mediterranean Theater during the war—one of thousands constructed on the Gulf Coast. Housing torpedoes and other heavy weapons, the vessel saw plenty of action in Italy and southern France, including running French Special Forces ashore, but after the war she was repurposed for use as an oyster boat on Chesapeake Bay until 2001. The boat was then purchased by the Defenders of America Museum in Galveston, where it was held until acquired by the National World War II Museum in 2006.

The extensive and exact restoration process on PT-305 is funded completely by donations, and the total cost will approach $1.5 million when completed this August. Following Higgins’ original designs and built mostly of wood, PT-305, known as Sudden Jerk, Bar Fly and Half Hitch during her service in the war, includes reconstructing nearly 13 feet of the boat that was removed in order to comply with Coast Guard regulations for oyster boats in the 1950s.

Once complete, the vessel will be trailered and then launched onto Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans where she was first christened. Under the helm of volunteer ship’s captain Dale Casey, PT-305 will then make one last run on the waters of her home birth and then possibly a few appearances at Gulf Coast boat shows. Afterward she will be returned to the sprawling pavilions of the museum in downtown New Orleans to be on permanent display.

The National World War II Museum is a huge asset for the Gulf Coast and something to be proud of. What is even more valuable are the hours and knowledge passed down by those volunteers who both served and fought on these vessels or the men and women who built them.

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