Among acclaimed historians of World War II, Jerry Strahan of New Orleans has an unlikely distinction. He displays proudly on a shelf his "Frankie," a trophy he received from the Hot Dog Hall of Fame that recognizes meaningful contributions to the wiener's place in American culture.
Strahan is equally unique among hot dog vendors, as the only manager of street-corner concessionaires whose contribution to World War II history is ranked in the same company as Cornelius Ryan ("The Longest Day") and Stephen Ambrose ("Band of Brothers"). The Wall Street Journal and Parade magazine have both recognized Strahan's richly researched 1994 book, "Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II," as a Top 10 volume in the fathomless anthology of nonfiction accounts of the war. Last year, Strahan was invited to speak alongside top scholars and writers at the International World War II Conference put on by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
No one is more qualified to share historical insights about the two subjects he knows best: Higgins boats and hot dogs.
"Some people say it's like living in two worlds," Strahan says from his office in Lucky Dogs headquarters, near the ever-pulsating French Quarter. "But it's the only world I know. I've grown up in it."
His 1998 book, "Managing Ignatius: The Lunacy of Lucky Dogs and Life in the Quarter," was also a critical success – a real-life glimpse into the lives of itinerant Lucky Dog hawkers whose wiener-shaped pushcarts have been stapled into the New Orleans fabric since two World War II veterans started the business in 1947. Strahan went to work as a Lucky Dogs relief manager in 1970, and quickly moved up the company ladder after a promotion he did not anticipate until he entered a scene one day at the shop that would not seem unusual in years to come. In "Managing Ignatius," he writes of that moment:
I wasn't sure what I had walked into – a suicide, a murder, a practical joke? I quickly scanned the kitchen. There was no sign of danger. So I calmly asked her about the noose. As she gazed up at the dingy grayish drop ceiling, she softly replied, "Some guys put it there." Obviously, she was high on drugs. I tried to loosen the noose, but to no avail. I then picked up one of the knives used by the vendors to dice their onions and carefully cut the rope.
Once the noose was eliminated, I inquired as to the whereabouts of the day manager. "He's on his way to California," she replied as she swayed back and forth on the stool.
"Does the night manager know this?"
"I think so," she said giggling. "They left together in his car."
I immediately opened the old cast-iron combination safe. It was empty, except for a note from the departed duo recording the exact amount that they had taken. Just as I put the paper down, the pay phone hanging on the wood-paneled wall next to the office door began ringing. It was Doug Talbot (owner of the company).
He cheerfully asked how everything was going. I had just cut a noose off a girl's neck, the previous night's receipts were missing, Lucky Dogs no longer had a day or night manager, and he wanted to know how everything was going. I wasn't sure where to start. I responded, "I have some good news and some bad news."
"Managing Ignatius" chronicles more than 25 years of Lucky Dogs management, providing nonfiction context to John Kennedy Toole's 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "A Confederacy of Dunces." Lead character Ignatius Reilly is a misanthropic stay-at-home son who finally goes to work as a hot dog vendor in New Orleans, convinced that his fate belongs to the goddess Fortuna, whose wheel of luck spins up or down without regard for any of his own doing.
In a sense, Fortuna also had her way with Higgins during his illustrious career. His low-draft landing crafts and PT boats revolutionized warfare and New Orleans alike in the early 1940s, but his story had largely vaporized by the time Strahan was a college sophomore in need of a research-paper topic for a military-history class taught by future best-selling author Ambrose.
"I had no idea nothing had been written on the man," Strahan says. "So then I had to start scrounging. I had to go to newspapers and magazines. Looking in the phone book, I found Andrew Higgins Jr., who was a marvelous man who gave me plenty of his time to sit down and explain what happened during the war. Then he led me to other people. So I did the undergraduate paper."
That paper laid the foundation for a master's thesis on Higgins, who designed and constructed more than 20,000 military vessels, employed more than 20,000 well-paid workers, built seven manufacturing plants and irritated the Navy's own engineers, who could not outperform the Nebraska-born high school dropout who built his first boat at 12.
During World War II, Higgins rose to national celebrity among the great industrialists of the time. He appeared on magazine covers and befriended top U.S. political and military leaders. "Higgins was an outspoken, rough-cut,
hot-tempered Irishman with an incredible imagination and the ability to turn wild ideas into reality," Strahan said during the 2012 conference. "He hated bureaucratic red tape, loved good bourbon, and was the sort that tended to knock down anything that got in his way."
By the 1970s, however, the Higgins boat-building empire had sunk. "I grew up here, but you never heard about him," Strahan says. "He was forgotten, and there were a lot of reasons. It was a matter of trying to bring him back to life – to find the people who worked for him during the war, who made the boats and designed the boats. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, in this city, able to pick up a phone or drive to their houses and sit down and talk to them. It was tremendous – eerie, almost. When I was writing the book, I got to the point where I never worried about finding material. It always showed up."
Inspired by Ambrose, Strahan had wanted to become a history professor. Upon careful consideration of life after a Ph.D., however, he learned that of the 950 history doctorates in his completion year, about 75 would be hired as professors. He also found a book that showed professors' salaries at the time. "I went in and gave up my fellowship."
As he had been intermittently employed for most of his adult life, Strahan went back to work as a Lucky Dogs manager. "My intent was to start teaching high school. My wife was a math teacher."
The company owner asked if Strahan would train a new night manager for a couple of weeks. "I said, ‘Sure, I'll help.' It was the middle of a semester, so I couldn't start teaching anyway. Well, the gentleman we were training didn't work out, and the next gentleman didn't work out. Weeks turned into months, which turned into decades. I've been running it since 1976."
Strahan remained friends with Ambrose as the years passed. "I kept trying to get Steve to write the book on Higgins. You hear about professors who steal students' papers and students' primary sources. I was trying to give it to him, and he wouldn't take it. I told him, ‘Look, it's all laid out. All you have to do is write it.'"
"He said, ‘I don't want to write it.'
"I said, ‘I don't want to write it.'
"This went on for awhile."
Finally, Ambrose convinced Strahan to write one chapter at a time and send it to him for a critique. "I looked at the first chapter as a term paper. And I wrote. I sent it to him, and I got a thing back in the mail that he signed. It said, ‘You're on a roll. Keep going.' Every month or six weeks, it was like that. I was still doing assignments, and I had been out of school for 15 years. I'd been running Lucky Dogs for 15 years."
Strahan wrote for six or seven hours a night after work, while at the same time he and the goddess Fortuna guided the Lucky Dogs business. Like Higgins Industries, Lucky Dogs weathered multiple challenges from competitors and government
agencies alike, and pursued many promising growth opportunities. The plump, flavorful hot dogs and the colorful characters who sold them drew national media attention, as Higgins did. Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and Forbes featured Lucky Dogs for their gastronomic virtues, their place in Americana or both.
As company manager, Strahan was tasked with expanding the business beyond the Big Easy. They tried Washington, Martinique, Reno, the Pacific Northwest and even China. None of the expansion efforts really worked out, beyond the placement of Lucky Dogs carts at the local Harrah's casino and Louis Armstrong International Airport.
"If you think it's difficult to do business in Louisiana, try China," Strahan says. "First off, you have to be permitted by 28 different agencies, and if any one of those agencies, for any reason, decides not to permit you, then you're out. Once we were in and started operating, it was pretty obvious to the other people that we might become a threat. Once that happens, the government controls everything. Doors that were originally open to us, and spots that were originally open to us, started closing down ... The process was going to be much greater than we wanted to get into, and the investment was going to be too great. And there was no patent protection. So we decided not to pursue it."
Meanwhile on the homefront, the company continued to employ a diverse array of vendors, including many Vietnam War veterans who had gravitated to New Orleans. In "Managing Ignatius," Strahan wrote that some of the veterans he hired "returned home from Vietnam and never found inner peace ... They wanted limited responsibility, limited stress, and only enough money to cover their room and board. They weren't opposed to hard work, but they were opposed to having a boss constantly looking over their shoulder. They had their fill of orders and authorities. Street vending was an ideal alternative."
One longtime vendor, Chet Anderson, had been a Korean War POW. One night, when two thugs attempted to rob him at knifepoint in the French Quarter, Anderson, armed only with a wooden stool, ran off both assailants. "Chet had spent two years in a North Korean POW camp," Strahan wrote. "He had taken everything his captors had thrown at him and survived. He wasn't about to let two street punks defeat him now."
Anderson was later quoted in Newsweek about the state of the U.S. economy. His words appeared next to a photo of him in his red-and-white-striped shirt, squirting mustard onto a Lucky Dog in front of a wiener-shaped cart.
The Higgins book came out in 1994, and Strahan had done what he intended: He'd brought back to life the forgotten industrial giant whose landing crafts and PT boats were so vital to the Allied victory that Dwight Eisenhower later described Higgins as "the man who won the war for us." After the Normandy invasion, Adolf Hitler called Higgins "the new Noah."
During World War II, Higgins Industries had an annual payroll of more than $60 million and a line of products that included LCs, anti-submarine boats, aircraft rescue boats, PT boats, wing panels, pumps, torpedo tubes, radios and more – no fewer than 64 different products, including a plane. His economic impact was massive, but he had to confront local critics who blamed him for luring away capable workers from other industries at the same time war was having its effect on labor availability. Nonetheless, he was an innovator in the training and employment of black workers, women and disabled veterans.
But Fortuna's wheel did not always point upward for the self-made engineer whose low-draft boat designs originated from his need, as a lumber company owner earlier in his career, to harvest logs from the Louisiana swamps. To convert his swamp boats for military use, he battled the Navy and the established eastern shipyards, often financing his prototypes on borrowed money. His New Orleans-built LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) and PT boats simply outperformed his competition from the Navy and the private sector alike in trial after trial. Still, nearly every military contract he received was a struggle.
At the World War II Conference last year,
Strahan explained that confidence was one of Higgins' primary assets: "Higgins was proud of his boat. It had speed, durability and maneuverability. There were occasions, however, when potential buyers questioned the existence of these qualities. It was times like these when one could find Mr. Higgins out on Lake Pontchartrain at the helm of a Eureka (forerunner of the personnel landing craft). He would take the disbelievers through a trial course in which he would guide the boat over floating logs, turn it in its own length while at full speed, and then finish by running the craft up the lake's concrete sea wall. By the end of the test, most passengers ended up believing in both the boat and God."
At one point during World War II, 92 percent of all Navy craft came from Higgins Industries. As orders poured in, the company was in constant need of space and closed down an entire city block to serve as a warehouse and fabrication yard, a move that did not sit well with residents who could no longer drive to their homes, nor with garbage collectors or brothel owners whose business patterns were disrupted by the Higgins juggernaut.
When the war ended, military contracts began to dry up for Higgins Industries, stock values declined and the company began to fade from the economic landscape. Surplus military boats flooded the commercial market. A 1947 hurricane destroyed one of the plants. And soon after he negotiated $65 million in contracts for the Korean War, Higgins died of a stomach ailment in 1952. By the end of that decade, Fortuna's wheel was pointing toward the company's final destination.
Today, Strahan and a group of nearly 70 volunteers at the National World War II Museum are trying to spin the wheel Higgins' way again. They are restoring PT-305 with original plans and parts and have set March 15, 2015, as the relaunch date for the 78-foot combat boat that fought Axis ships in the Mediterranean Sea 70 years ago.
"On Saturdays we can have 30 to 40 dedicated volunteers here," says Bruce Harris, PT-305 restoration coordinator, whose father served on a PT boat. "There is nothing I ask them to do that they don't willingly do. I like the camaraderie that we all share. I think it's similar to the way it was in '43."
"Everybody my dad's age worked for Higgins at some point," says volunteer Don Cacamo as he applies paint to the hull of PT-305. "You've got to love it to do this. To come in here and work with your hands, to sweat, cut aluminum with a band saw and walk away from here every day – it's a great feeling."
"It's great the boat is being rebuilt here in the city," adds volunteer Steve Renfro. "It's our history."
Right down to the original spark plugs – an unopened case of which was donated to the project – and its Packard engines, PT-305 is being reassembled with parts from other PT boats from around the world. "Half of this project is finding original parts," Strahan says. "So if you have any PT boat parts in your closet, let us know. We are still missing one exhaust port. We've tracked one down in South America."
As he once did to research the lost history of Andrew Higgins, and as he did while trying to spread the Lucky Dogs brand beyond the French Quarter, Strahan now travels the world scrounging PT boat parts, even if it means dredging them up from river bottoms. He's looking everywhere for opportunities, trying to stay on Fortuna's good side. For Lucky Dog vendors, Andrew Higgins and Jerry Strahan, the spin of her wheel always depends on finding a way to be the right person in the right place at the right time.
Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.