THE HIGGINS BOX

THE HIGGINS BOX

In the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans is a replica of a ''Higgins boat'' - one of the thousands of amphibious assault craft that landed Allied troops on enemy beaches during World War II.

The opening of the museum last summer has focused overdue recognition on Andrew Jackson Higgins, the hard-driving genius whose company built more than 20,000 landing craft, PT boats and other vessels during World War II. Higgins' wartime production achievements are legendary; Eisenhower once described him as ''the man who won the war for us.''If events had turned out differently, Higgins might also be re-membered as the pioneer of containerized shipping.

Higgins' wartime accomplishments are well-documented. His company developed innovative designs and set production records, at one point turning out 700 boats a month. During World War II, Higgins was front-page news - a loud, profane, energetic Irishman with a contempt for bureaucracy, a head full of ideas and a knack for turning them into reality.

After the war, his ideas kept flowing. As his company sought to adapt to a peacetime economy, Higgins em-barked on projects ranging from helicopter manufacturing to prefab housing to something called the ''Higgins Container System of Transportation.''

When I read a brief reference to that in Jerry E. Strahan's detailed biography, Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats That Won World War II (LSU Press), I was startled. Though the military had used small Conex containers during the war, no one was offering containerized shipping as a commercial service in the 1940s. Higgins' plan came more than a decade before Malcom McLean introduced the container ship in 1956.

Curious, I contacted Strahan, who dug out a 50-page booklet that Higgins Industries Inc. published in 1945 to tout the proposed system to potential investors. The booklet is a remarkable document. With a few modifications, it could have been a blueprint for the containerized transportation that we know today.

Higgins proposed the use of 20- and 10-foot-long containers that would be carried on truck chassis, railcars, ships and barges. These boxes would have been half the size of today's standard marine containers, but were designed small to comply with that era's highway weight restrictions, which in many states were less than 40,000 pounds.

The containers would have been steel-framed, with doors at each end, wooden sides and floors, and steel skids underneath. The boxes would have moved on conventional vessels, including shallow-draft ships that Higgins built to sail to inland points.

The system would have been operated by selected ship, barge and truck operators on each route where the system would have been used. The whole operation would have been run by a neutral management group serving as an agent for the member carriers.

It's worth noting that about half of the Higgins booklet was devoted to a discussion of how rates would be set to comply with U.S. inland transportation regulations, which survived until 1980.

Though it would have been revolutionary, Higgins' container system never got beyond the drawing board. After the war, his company was crippled by union jurisdictional disputes, cash-flow problems and a 1947 hurricane that wrecked Higgins' underinsured plant in New Orleans. By the time its founder died in 1952, Higgins Industries was a shadow of its former self.

Would Higgins' container system have succeeded? We'll never know, but it's interesting to speculate.

Higgins correctly forecast that containerization would slash costs for handling, damage, pilferage and insurance. He was overly optimistic, however, in predicting that containerization would reduce the capital costs of shipping. Container shipping turned out to be extremely capital-intensive, requiring enormous investments in ships, containers, chassis, terminals and computers. The problem is complicated by cargo imbalances that force carriers to spend billions annually to reposition empty boxes.

My hunch is that the world wasn't ready for containerization in the late 1940s. Conventional carriers still had plenty of cheap war-built ships, interstate highways didn't exist, and Higgins would have encountered ferocious opposition from dockworker unions, which were much stronger then. All of those things would have worked against him.

But while Higgins' timing may have been premature, his basic idea was sound. And who knows, maybe he could have pulled it off. In the early days of World War II, some people didn't think his military landing craft would work either.