The Nebraska Boat Builder Who “Won the War for Us”
June 6th, 2015
A Nebraska native, and the boats he built for the military, will be honored June 6 on the anniversary of D-Day, with a new memorial on the beaches of Normandy, France. Mike Tobias of NET News introduces us to Andrew Jackson Higgins, an unlikely war hero.
More than 100 thousand soldiers would land on the beaches of Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944.[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/higginsboat6_5_15KVNO01.mp3]
Most scrambling ashore from LCVPs, military jargon for landing craft vehicle, personnel. Those long, flat boats with doors on the front that fold down. Later Gen. Dwight Eisenhower said these boats and their builder “won the war for us.” That shipbuilder was Columbus, Nebraska, native Andrew Jackson Higgins.
“If he hadn’t designed and built those LCVPs, those Higgins Boats, we couldn’t have gone over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different,” said historian Jerry Meyer.
Meyer is the Nebraska National Guard’s historian. But it was when he was teaching history at Columbus High School that he first started doing research on Higgins. What started as a project for his students eventually led to the Higgins Memorial in a Columbus park.
Meyer calls Higgins “an interesting character.” A youth from Columbus, then Omaha who was part entrepreneur, part problem child. He left or was kicked out of four schools, never graduating from high school. After a stint in the Nebraska Army Guard, Higgins moved to the Gulf Coast, eventually starting a lumber business in New Orleans in the 1920s. For this, he needed boats to get wood out of shallow water swamps; thus, the genesis of the Higgins Boat.
“He doesn’t have an engineering background, but yet he can see things,” Meyer said. “He would wake up in the middle of the night, sketch something, and then in the morning he would give his architects or engineers a plan and say, ‘make this happen.’ He’s a lead, follow or get out the way type of person. I’ve seen students like that. They may not always be book smart but boy they can make things happen, and I think that was Mr. Higgins essence.”
By the time the United States entered World War II in 1941, boatbuilding had become Higgins’ primary business and he was already making them for the military. He quickly expanded and created massive factories to support the war effort.
“The assembly lines were working 24-7. The whole floor was moving,” Meyer said. “None of his plants were on water either, so when the boats went out the end they went onto a rail car and they rode the rails down to the industrial canal or Lake Pontchatrain, and they would spray paint them as they were going down the rail. It was all about efficiency of operation and Mr. Higgins was on a grand scale.”
“It wasn’t about making money, it was about investing it back into the people,” Meyer added. “Because if you look at Higgins’ work force, you have men and women, blacks, whites, paid by their skill level. If you have a skill level 5 welder (who is) a woman, (she) gets paid higher than a skill level 3 male welder. Almost scandalous in the ‘40s what he did. But he took care of his people. He built hospitals, he built schools, he built housing for them. To make that many boats in really four years of the war, that’s astronomical what they did.”
“That many” was more than 20,000 military boats, mostly the famous landing craft. Two more Higgins Boats were built after their creator died in 1952. One replica for the memorial in Columbus, a display that includes statues of three soldiers charging from the boat, and another statue of Higgins.
Earlier this year, a second Higgins Boat replica was shipped to France. Higgins and his boats will be honored at one of the places where they made a difference, Normandy’s Utah Beach. Packing this display for shipment to France and dedication on the anniversary of D-Day wasn’t easy. Neither is raising money for this memorial, similar to what’s already in Columbus. But members of the Columbus committee behind this effort said it’s worth the effort.
“I think it’s both the opportunity to honor a native son in Andrew Jackson Higgins, but it’s also even more important to be able to honor the veterans from World War II,” said Columbus businessman Dennis Hirschbrunner, one of the Higgins Memorial committee members.
“I think the most important thing is if Higgins hadn’t of been born here, and his family hadn’t lived in Nebraska, they thought maybe he would have different values or he’d ended up doing something else,” said sculptor Fred Hoppe, creator of the statues that are part of memorials in Columbus and France. “And just the way this thing ties back to Columbus, it just has special meaning for everybody involved.”
The story of Andrew Jackson Higgins also has special meaning for Meyer, who has spent years studying and then giving presentations on the boat maker.
“His whole story is just one big story of doing what he loved for his country, and I think that’s what makes him really kind of a bigger than life character to me,” Meyer said. “He put everything on the line for this country and now today we’re just really discovering what he did. He was global and to think that his boats were used in all theaters of war, all amphibious operations used them. And he was a household name. Back in the 1940s, during World War II, everybody knew who Higgins was.”
Now visitors to one of the great battlefields of World War II, Normandy Beach in France, will also be able to discover Higgins, and the impact his boats had on D-Day.
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