Driving north into town, you can’t miss it. Along the Lincoln Highway lies one of the crown jewels of Columbus: The Andrew Jackson Higgins National Memorial.
Higgins, who President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1964 described as “the man who won the war for us,” is one of Columbus’ most famous sons. The area’s tribute to him and all veterans has attracted visitors from far and wide.
Deb Loseke is the director of the Columbus/Platte County Convention and Visitors Bureau. She estimates about 35 percent of 5,100 visitors to the memorial (in Pawnee Park) in 2017 were from out of state. However, it is unknown if they happend to be in the area or traveled to specifically visit the site, Loseke said. The memorial is also a popular destination for bus tours and has been a destination for The Nebraska Passport Program on multiple occasions.
“Most people enjoy hearing the story about how this project started with students in a classroom and how it all evolved and the additions that have gone on,” Loseke said. “And usually your bus tours are of an older generation. So they have pride in those types of memorials.”
“...For the community, it’s more of a pride of a community project, because it started with high school students and then the businesses and the individuals that have become involved with it, it’s just a big sense of pride."
Those who have and continue to enjoy the memorial will soon have plenty of reason to go back. The Andrew Jackson Higgins Memorial Foundation, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization responsible for maintaining the memorial, is in the process of renovating the area. Once done, tentatively around Memorial Day weekend, it will enhance a space that has become a local landmark since its inception.
The project was first conceived back in 2000 when Columbus High School history teacher Jerry Meyer came across a newspaper article. The story detailed how a seven-block section of a street near the D-Day Museum in New Orleans had been renamed "Andrew Higgins Street” in the man's honor.
Born in 1886 in Columbus, Higgins moved to New Orleans in 1910 to manage a German lumber import firm. When WWI broke out, he started his own business. He ended up creating one of the largest sailing fleets in the American registry and began importing and exporting lumber. Higgins Industries Inc. would go on to produce more than 25,000 boats and ships during WWII. Its now famous Higgins boat was the landing craft used in D-Day. While his legacy lives on through the lives saved by these crafts, Higgins died in 1952 at the age of 65.
Upon hearing news of the dedication, Meyer approached his U.S. history class about creating a local memorial for Higgins. The plan was to create a metal replica of one of the boats, estimated to cost $50,000. Chris Dixon, a retired teacher and Korean War veteran, said Meyer approached him about being the finance officer for the project. Dixon teamed up with his wife, Lauretta, to raise the money. Although they were able to receive some donations from several local banks, he said they were well short of the project's goal.
But an idea came to Dixon after visiting the D-Day Museum in New Orleans with a group of students. While there, Dixon said he saw a memorial surrounded by bricks with people's names on them, a method of fundraising for the project. On the bus ride home, Dixon and his wife estimated if they could sell 1,000 bricks for $50 each, then they could finance the project.
“Well the gentleman in the front seat right in front of me heard me talking to my wife, and he turned to me with a check for $50, and said ‘Chris, here's your first $50 and here’s your first brick.’ So that’s how we raised the money,” Dixon said.
As of today, the couple has sold more than 4,000 bricks for the project.
With funding soon secured, the replica was constructed. In 2001, the boat was dedicated. Surrounding the memorial in the concrete platform are 57 polished bronze stars These cartridges hold sand from every single beach the Higgins boat has landed on.
“One of the projects the kids had to do was to locate somebody that lived on that beach and send them a box with some money in it to mail it back with some sand in it,” Dixon said. “And we divided that sand into three parts. One part we buried, one part we put into a vial in our museum ... and the third part we gave to a veteran.”
At the dedication ceremony, these veterans gathered in the boat with palms full of the sand. As they left the vessel, they sprinkled the grains around the replica.
“And I’ll say that was pretty tear-jerking,” Dixon said.
The project has expanded since its dedication. In 2002, bronze figures of WWII, Korea and Vietnam War soldiers and of Higgins were added to the memorial. The statues were sculpted by Columbus artist Fred Hoppe.
“And he gave us a really good deal if the guy from WWII could be the face of his dad,” Dixon said. “And the other two faces on there are faces of veterans that were killed from the Columbus area… they were local boys.”
Flags from each of the military branches and from each U. S state and territory were also added. Another memorial was added comprised of charred wreckage of the World Trade Center. Atop is another Hoppe sculpture, this time of an eagle in flight, which represents the triumph of freedom. And in 2006, The Freedom Wall that features all of the sold bricks used to finance the project was dedicated.
Now that the memorial is more than a decade old, Dennis Hirschbrunner, a board member for The Andrew Jackson Higgins Memorial Foundation, said the organization has secured funding for renovation work on the memorial. A $31,000 grant awarded in November 2018 from the Platte County Board of Supervisors via its visitor improvement fund will help.
The project includes landscaping, an expansion of the irrigation system, additional sand placement and refinishing the three soldiers and Higgins sculptures. A crane will be used to move the Higgins boat so it can be sanded and repainted. A protective barrier made of either plastic or rubber will be put into place between the boat and the concrete base. Hirschbrunner said this will help to decrease the rate of rusting on the vessel. The goal is to complete all renovation work by Memorial Day on May 27, 2019.
Although the memorial is popular with tourists, Hirschbrunner said its main purpose is to honor veterans.
“I think its first and foremost an attraction for all the veterans. It's a tourist attraction secondly...It’s a recognition of the services and the veterans appreciate it and go there to remember,” Hirschbrunner said. “I have seven bricks on the wall, seven relatives that served in WWII, it's a great way to recognize and honor them for their service to the country…I think the value is a total recognition of what the community and what quite a few number of citizens have done in service to the country.”
Eric Schucht is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.