SAINTE-MARIE-DU-MONT, France — A piece of Columbus now sits at the site of the D-Day landings in northern France, serving as a symbol honoring the brave men who risked their lives, and gave their lives, there 71 years ago.
U.S. and French officials gathered Saturday on the sand outside the Utah Beach Museum in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont to dedicate a memorial that pays tribute to a Columbus native and the Allied forces who used his landing craft to liberate France from Nazi Germany during World War II.
The dedication of the Utah Beach Higgins Memorial, installed late last month in the same breach used by American and Allied troops as they stormed the heavily protected beach, represents the culmination of a months-long local effort to make this “dream” project a reality.
Planning for the memorial, which includes a 15,000-pound replica of a Higgins boat and four bronze statues of World War II-era soldiers and Andrew Jackson Higgins, began in August 2014 when U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and military historian Timothy Kilvert-Jones visited the memorial in Pawnee Park.
It was Kilvert-Jones, a retired major in the United Kingdom Army who lives near the Normandy battlefield, who suggested placing a similar memorial on Utah Beach.
“Normandy needs it,” he said while visiting the local memorial, which was completed in 2001.
Higgins, born in Columbus on Aug. 28, 1886, was referred to by then-Gen. Dwight Eisenhower as the man who won the war for the Allied Forces.
More than 1,000 of his LCVP landing craft were used by Allied Forces when they landed June 6, 1944, on the beaches of northern France to begin an 81-day campaign to liberate France from Nazi Germany.
Columbus Mayor Mike Moser, who spoke at Saturday’s dedication, called the newest memorial a permanent reminder of the critical role Higgins played in the success of the D-Day landings.
“This Higgins boat, a product of his inventive genius, allowed thousands of brave U.S. and Allied soldiers to come ashore to battle fierce resistance from the German Army,” Moser said. “We are a free people today as a result of the bravery and tenacity shown by the Allies here on June 6, 1944. We thank them for their service and their sacrifice.”
Columbus residents Terri and Dennis Hirschbrunner, who were part of a local planning and fundraising committee for the project, also attended Saturday’s dedication along with Fortenberry, who said the memorial is already a popular part of the museum because of the way it captures the moment when troops landed there in 1944.
"People are just drawn to it," the congressman said.
Higgins' great-nephew, Ed Higgins, U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley, French dignitaries, military members and veterans were also part of the event.
Fortenberry said Saturday’s dedication represents a “remarkable effort by the people of Columbus.”
“The people of Columbus have now built a memorial to life — in honor of the lives of those men who gave their all. In honor of the veterans who are still with us. In honor of the people of America whose spirit of generosity helped liberate Europe. And in honor of the French, whose partnership and friendship we deeply value,” he said in his address, which was released Friday in an email.
Andrew Jackson Higgins, who moved to Omaha as a youth and built his first boat in the basement of his family’s home, started Higgins Industries in New Orleans before designing and building the landing craft used in World War II.
During his August presentation in Columbus, Kilvert-Jones said Higgins “made a major contribution” to Operation Overlord, which put 176,000 Allied troops supported by thousands of ships, combat aircraft and other vehicles and artillery on the ground in the first 24 hours after the D-Day landings.
The Higgins Memorial in France is located near a U.S. Navy monument outside the Utah Beach Museum, where an original Higgins boat is displayed alongside the bronze statue of Higgins.
Duo Lift Manufacturing created the replica Higgins boat, which was shipped overseas with assistance from Behlen Mfg. Co., and local artist Fred Hoppe designed the statues.
The cost of the project exceeded $300,000, with the local committee having raised $190,000 as of May 28.
“I think this effort is worthy of the World War II generation — the Greatest Generation, as we call them today,” Fortenberry said. “We reflect fondly and appropriately on that great generation. We admire their courage. We are nostalgic for their values. We want what they had: purpose, determination and a can-do spirit.”