When it comes to military ships and boats, it’s nuclear subs, aircraft carriers and guided missile cruisers that steal the spotlight.
After all, they’re the most iconic representations of a nation’s might.
That said, smaller and lesser known craft like the ones included here often play equally significant roles during times of peace and war.
Stick around, we’re about to take a look at 5 impressive but lesser known military ships and boats.
Unlike famous World War II figures generals George S. Patton and Omar Bradley, civilian Andrew Higgins isn’t so well known these days, but his contributions to the war effort can’t be overstated.
In fact, none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said –
“Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us.”
The President added that if Higgins hadn’t designed and built the LCPSs (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel), or Higgins boats as they were commonly called, getting men and war material onto the D-Day beaches would’ve been nearly impossible.
But ironically, Higgins had a heck of a time convincing military brass that they needed his revolutionary boats.
In fact he once famously stated that “the Navy doesn’t know a damn thing about small boats.”
As far back as 1938 Higgins marketed his craft to the Navy and Marine Corps, but though his original Eureka boat was better than what they had, it’s major drawback was that men and equipment had to be unloaded over the side, a dangerous and time consuming endeavor under enemy fire.
Later on, Higgins improved his design to include a droppable ramp that allowed vehicles to be driven off and men to charge directly out the front and onto the beach, and rapid unloading allowed Higgins boats to make multiple trips in the time it took predecessors to make just one.
According to legend, Higgins was a hard-drinking entrepreneur and tinkerer of Irish descent who originally built boats in his Louisiana workshop for trappers, oil prospectors, and booze smugglers.
His boats were well suited to operating in the shallow marshes and swamps along the Gulf Coast, and with war looming he was convinced that his designs would be in high demand, and that the Navy would need thousands of them.
Higgins also correctly surmised that steel would be hard to come by, so to hedge his bets he bought a huge lot of mahogany from the Philippines prior to the war.
Constructed largely from wood, Higgins’ new boats featured relatively flat bottoms which meant they drew barely 3 feet of water aft, and just a few inches up front.
On the downside, they were notoriously unstable in choppy seas, which caused many troops destined for combat to succumb to the ravages of seasickness while en route.
Higgins boats were 36 ft 3 in (11.05 m) long, 10 ft 10 in (3.30 m) wide, displaced 18,000 pounds (8,200 kg) empty, and were capable of carrying a 36-man platoon or a Jeep and a 12-man squad and their gear, or about 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg) of cargo.
Power came from either a 225 horsepower Gray Marine diesel, or a 250 horsepower Hall-Scott gasoline engine, which gave them a top speed of just 9 knots (17 km/h) when loaded.
The boats’ only defense came from two .30 caliber machine guns, and their wooden hulls left them vulnerable even to small arms fire.
At a time when segregation was the norm, Higgins’ factory employed thousands of Black workers and women, and all told more than 23,358 units were built by Higgins Industries and licensees.
Relatively small, blindingly fast, and inexpensive by Navy standards, the PT (Patrol Torpedo) boats built by the Naval Division of Bayonne, New Jersey’s Electric Boat Company (Elco) served with distinction throughout the Second World War.
The most well-known was PT-109, which on the evening of August 2, 1943 collided with a Japanese destroyer near the Solomon Islands killing two crew members and injuring skipper junior Lieutenant John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy’s purported heroics rescuing survivors after the incident served him well throughout his political career, which culminated in his election as 35th President of the United States in November of 1960.
Among the Navy’s most versatile craft, PT boats’ roles include providing fire support for amphibious landings, laying and destroying sea mines, rescuing sea and airmen, and attacking enemy warships, though it’s generally agreed that many claims of the latter were bolstered or outright fabrications.
PT boat development began in mid-July of July 1938 when the Navy issued requests for prototypes to a number of boat builders and designers.
Though they shared some commonalities, the boats that entered the competition had differing lengths, hull designs, armament packages and powerplants, and among those participating were none other than Higgins Industries of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the British Power Boat Company whose design would largely influence later Elco PT boats.
To determine performance, seaworthiness and durability, sea trials were held in 1941, the most notable of which was a particularly grueling 190 nautical mile (350 km) full-throttle course between New York’s Block Island and Long Island sounds.
Known as the “Plywood Derby” due to the boats’ predominately wooden construction, both men and machines suffered mightily during the trial, but Elco’s 77-foot boat fared the best with an average speed of more than 45 miles per hour (73 km/h) despite reports of 10-foot seas.
Elco eventually won a contract to build 400 PT boats, all of which were powered by three Packard liquid cooled V-12 aircraft engines featuring superchargers, intercoolers and two spark plugs per cylinder, and during the war power rose from 1,200 horsepower per engine to over 1,800.
80 feet long, 20-foot, 8-inches wide and displacing more than 50 tons, the boats were capable of exceeding 50 miles per hour under the right conditions, and they were generally crewed by three officers and between 12 and 14 seamen.
Launched from gunwale mounted tubes, Pt boats’ main anti-ship weapons were 2,500 pound (1,133 kg) Mark 8 torpedoes that packed more than 450 pounds (208 kg) of TNT and had ranges of about 16,000 yards (14,640 meters).
Other weapons included 7.62 mm light machine guns, twin .50 caliber heavy machine guns mounted in open ring turrets both for and aft, and in some instances 37 mm anti aircraft cannons, rocket launchers and mortars.
Throughout their service lives PT boats’ effectiveness were limited by faulty torpedoes and light construction that often relegated them to coastal areas, though they were particularly successful at attacking German coastal supply barges in the North Atlantic – hence their nickname “barge busters.”
Now only one original PT boat remains, the 80-foot Elco PT-617 located at the Battleship Cove Naval Museum in Fall River, Massachusetts.
In the 1997 blockbuster hit Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) was tasked with killing deranged special forces officer Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who’d gone rogue in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Significant portions of the movie involved Willard and an accompanying crew onboard a PBR (Patrol Boat River) making their way ever deeper into the unknown, encountering everything from firefights and USO performances, to Bengal tigers and spear-wielding tribesmen.
The nature of the conflict in Vietnam forced the Navy to add non-traditional watercraft to its lineup, and when they were introduced in ‘66 PBRs began operating in conjunction with ground and airborne forces and aircraft to keep South Vietnam’s waterways clear of mines, munitions and Viet Cong infiltrators.
The Mekong Delta encompassed more than a quarter of South Vietnam’s land area, was home to half its population, and was crisscrossed by thousands of miles of rivers, creeks and canals, many of which were unnavigable by traditional boats.
Designed for just such conditions, fiberglass hulled PBR boats drew between 1 and 2 feet of water, and thanks to their twin 180 horsepower Detroit Diesel 6V53 engines and cutting edge propulsion systems, they were capable of high speeds, amazing maneuverability, and operating in shallow vegetation choked water.
Unlike boats with standard propellers, PBR’s thrust came from powerful pumps manufactured by the Jacuzzi Corporation that spewed 6,000 gallons per minute through two nozzles below the stern, allowing the boats to turn 180 degrees from full speed in just one boat length without rudders.
Battle loaded PBRs weighed 10 tons, could travel 150 nautical miles between refuelings and topped out at about 33 knots, though their engines were so loud they could be heard from as far away as three miles.
As part of the “Brown Water Navy,” so called for the delta’s chocolate colored water, PBR’s were an integral part of Operation Game Warden, which largely saw them interdicting junks and sampans notorious for hauling war material and Viet Cong soldiers between the north and south throughout the war.
PBRs were armed with twin open turret mounted .50-caliber M-2 machine guns in the bow, a single .30-caliber machine gun aft, and another M-60 machine gun or M-18 grenade launcher amidship.
Boats crews usually consisted of a captain, engineer, gunner, gunner’s mate and seamen, all of who were expected to fulfill multiple roles as needed.
For additional protection especially when off the boat, crews were armed with standard infantry M-16s and in some cases .45 caliber pistols.
PBRs were built by the Uniflite boatyard in Bellingham, Washington for about $400,000 each, and during the conflict about 300 were delivered to both American and South Vietnamese riverine units.
But though they served with distinction, their fiberglass hulls were prone to cracking and corrosion, and engine and pump nozzle intakes were susceptible to constant clogging from aquatic vegetation, mud, fish and turtles.
Landing Craft Air Cushion
Nearly 88 feet long (27 m), 47 feet wide (14.3 m) and tipping the scales at a whopping 185 tons, Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) amphibious vehicles are impressive by any standards.
Powered by four 4,000 horsepower TF-40B gas turbines driving two massive airplane-like propellers, loaded LCACs suck down nearly 1,000 gallons of fuel every hour, and at full-tilt they’re capable of traveling nearly 300 miles at more than 40 knots (74 km/h) with 60+ ton payloads.
LCACs are primarily used by the United States Marine Corps, but despite their notable specs they’re typically crewed by just five service men and women.
They’re essentially huge innertubes that deflate when loading and unloading and inflate when moving, but their topside steel structures house everything from engines and fuel tanks, to the wheelhouse, crew quarters, and a large central cargo area.
But unlike traditional boats, LCACs skim over the water’s surface on a thin cushion of air produced by blowers beneath the hull that create pressure greater than the atmosphere above.
Together with downward thrust and lift, this pressure difference causes the craft to levitate while at the same time being propelled forward – hence their unofficial nickname – “hovercraft.”
In fact their unique design gives speedy over-the-beach LCACs access to nearly 75 percent of the world’s coastal areas, whereas less than 20 percent is accessible to conventional landing craft.
LCACs mainly transport troops, vehicles and equipment from larger vessels offshore to beaches and other rough coastal landing areas, and they’re the only craft in the corps’ inventory capable of moving M-1 Abrams main battle tanks in this manner.
Development began in the early ‘70s when two prototypes were built as Amphibious Assault Landing Craft (AALC) test platforms – one by Bell Aerospace in Louisiana, the other by Aerojet General in California.
Feasibility studies concluded that large hovercraft were capable of performing the roles for which they’d been built, but ultimately Bell’s machine won out and became the basis for contemporary LCACs.
The first LCAC wasn’t delivered to the Navy until more than a decade later in 1984, though it would be another two years before it reached official operational status.
Since LCACs aren’t technically fighting vehicles, they’re relatively lightly armed by Navy and Marine Corps stands, but defensive armaments include .50 and .30 caliber machine guns as well as 40 mm grenade launchers.
In the past LCACs also served in mine countermeasure, evacuation, special forces delivery and even humanitarian assistance roles.
Many of the 97 LCACs produced were built in the ‘80s and ‘90s, though when inflation is taken into account per-unit cost tops $40 million.
Though they were originally slated for retirement in the early 21st century, LCACs have benefited from a number of Service Life Extension Programs (SLEPS).
Beaver Class Security Tug
Less than 20 feet long and totally weaponless, the US Navy’s Beaver Class security tugs aren’t the most impressive launch in the fleet.
In fact, they’re among the Navy’s smallest vessels, and are often described with unflattering adjectives like “cute” and “adorable.”
Affectionately known as “Boomin’ Beavers,” Beaver class tugs were previously used in civilian applications, primarily wrangling heavy clusters of waterborne logs at sawmills in the Pacific Northwest.
However in their new military roles, they’re often tasked with towing small ships and keeping larger vessels like cruisers, subs and destroyers safely apart in tight ports, harbors and naval bases.
But the role they perform most frequently is tending floating barriers or “fences” designed to keep military areas free from unwanted civilian craft at both active naval bases and around historic ships like the 200+ year old USS Constitution on display in Boston Harbor.
At about 19 feet (5.8 m) long and 10 feet (3 m) wide, the 22,000 pound (9,980 kg) boats draw as much as 5 feet (1.5 m) of water, and most are powered by 5.9 liter, 260 horsepower Cummins diesels that transmit power to a steerable jet nozzle instead of a traditional shaft, prop and rudder setup, making them particularly maneuverable.
Definitive information on Beaver Class tugs is spotty at best, but online sources claim the Navy has between 10 and 40 of the little pushers that were manufactured by a now defunct boat builder in Washington State.
Some of the more active tugs are based at California’s Point Loma Sub Base near San Diego, and Naval Base Kitsap just west of Seattle, Washington.
A few years back the General Services Administration auctioned off a Beaver Class tug in Kings Bay, GA, and according to their website, it featured a steel hull, a heated and air conditioned 3-person cabin, with fans, windshield wipers, sound insulation and an impressive navigation suite including magnetic compass, radar, and depth finder.
Though the auction’s opening bid was a paltry $250, eleven more were placed, and ultimately the little boat went for the princely sum of $100,025.