Higgins boat to get new life

A vintage World War II landing craft was hauled across a coastal N.C. town Wednesday and is set to be restored and preserved – one of only about a dozen of its kind believed to be left.

The N.C. Maritime Museum moved the rare Higgins boat to its Watercraft Center in Beaufort, where restoration work is to begin today.

“There are only four left in the United States, including this one, so it's a very unique boat,” museum spokeswoman Michelle McConnell said. “We have the opportunity to restore one of these, which is restoring history.”

Few of the wooden boats remained after the war, and some were significantly modified.

The boat traveled from England to Baltimore to Beaufort before it was transferred from the museum's expansion site at Gallants Channel, museum officials said.

Workers had to fabricate and weld a tongue and axle to move the 10-ton, 36-foot boat a mile and a half through the downtown area, she said. It took 45 minutes to move it early Wednesday morning, she said.

The shallow-draft, barge-like boat could transfer troops directly from larger vessels to a beach, making amphibious assaults possible.

According to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Higgins boats were used in every major American amphibious operation in Europe and the Pacific, including D-Day at Normandy, and were deemed crucial to the success of those operations.

About 36,000 of the boats were manufactured during the war.

“Chances are, given that it was in Europe, it was used by either British or American forces during World War II, otherwise it wouldn't have been sent there,” said Paul Fontenoy, the N.C. museum's curator.

He said the boat will be restored as close as possible to original condition. First, workers will have to deal with rust and rot.

In about six to eight months, the vessel should be restored and returned to its owner, the First Division Museum in Wheaton, Ill.

Fontenoy said previous owners removed the engine and steering station, causing loss of the serial number. The staff will look at other numbers on the boat during restoration in an attempt to ascertain the boat's origins.

The repair costs will be about $50,000, Fontenoy said.

“As soon as the cover comes off, they're going to start working on it,” McConnell said.

She said she believes two of the remaining Higgins boats are in Florida and Washington. She did not know where the overseas boats are.