“The brave young men rode onto the beaches and into battle on Higgins Boats, built in New Orleans by Andrew Higgins, the man Eisenhower said, ‘won the war for us.'” —Stephen Ambrose
Yet these two American giants of World War II never met. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) eventually became President of the United States (1953-1961); however, it was a decade before, in his role as a 5-star general in the United States Army and finally Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, that solidified his status as a hero, leading the United States and its allies to victory in Europe during World War II.
Meanwhile, Andrew Higgins (1886-1952) lived and worked in New Orleans, where he built many types of boats and barges but, most famously, designed the Landing Craft Personnel, Large (LCPL), the boats that transported allied troops to the Normandy beaches on D-Day.
When the National World War II Museum approached George Rodrigue in 2008 about a Blue Dog painting for their new wing, he winced.
“The Blue Dog,” he noted, “has no connection to World War II.”
Instead, Rodrigue designed a painting unlike any photograph, posing Eisenhower and Higgins together for the first and only time.
He worked on the design in his Carmel, California studio for two months before lifting his paintbrush, using the computer to arrange the elements. Even with this shortcut, he changed the painting by hand several times, whiting out days of work and large sections of paint, including the jeep and the oak tree, which he re-painted with adjustments, sometimes less than an inch, but nevertheless critical to his eye.
In the end, the painting took six months. Too large for Rodrigue’s easel, the canvas remained propped against a wall, where he painted standing, sitting, or lying down.
“This is the most important project of my life,” he told me many nights, as he painted until daylight, at times falling asleep on the studio’s floor.
Once completed and before shipping the large canvas to New Orleans, we invited area friends for an unveiling in our home. Among the guests was a man in his seventies, Didier, visiting with his wife from Lyon, France. With tears in his eyes, he shared his D-Day story.
“I would not be here today if it were not for the Americans,” he said.
He recalled his shock as a child at seeing not only the boats, but also his first jeep. He recalled the kindness of American soldiers and the sweet taste of their Juicy Fruit gum, always accessible from their pockets.
He reminded all of us of the importance of honoring our soldiers for the risks they take for not only our freedom, but also the freedom of others.
I thought of Didier just a few weeks later, in November of 2009, when the National World War II Museum opened its new wing, featuring not only Rodrigue's painting, but also the Solomon Victory Theater, the Stage Door Canteen and Chef John Besh's American Sector. With canes and in wheelchairs, the veterans paraded from the old building to the new, greeted by stars like Tom Hanks, Tom Brokaw and Mickey Rooney, but mostly by ordinary people inspired and awed by their service and patriotism.
I also thought of my father, a Vietnam Veteran, now retired from the United States Air Force. I thought of our National Guard and their welcome presence following Hurricane Katrina. I thought of my cousin just returned from Afghanistan, and of our soldiers now abroad, risking their lives and missing their families.
On Veterans Day, we honor you, the men and women who, throughout history, protect and serve. As Didier observed on that fairytale day in Carmel, California,
“God only knows where we would be without you.”
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