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‘The Hell I Can’t’: The heroism and higher calling of Andrew Jackson Higgins

A Higgins boat.Dwight D. Eisenhower called him the man who won the war.

But Andrew Jackson Higgins, HON’43 — the man who invented the boats Allied soldiers and Marines used for amphibious assaults in World War II — preferred to think of himself as an inveterate tinkerer and, in his Creighton days, a bit of a rogue.

In interviews conducted during and after the war and cited in The History of Creighton University by emeritus Creighton history professor Dennis N. Mihelich, PhD, Higgins admitted to playing a few years of “rather indifferent football” and that he once put “a blow-up solution in the inkwell in Fr. Rigge’s classroom,” during the years he spent as part of Creighton’s Ratio Studiorum program from 1900 to 1903.

In an ordaining of Higgins’ fighting spirit, he was expelled from the institution after an affray. He promptly joined the National Guard and spent the better part of a decade in various outposts, ultimately landing in New Orleans in 1910, where he started out managing a lumber business.

By the 1930s, Higgins owned a small shipyard where he began experimenting with shallow-water vessels and landing craft. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the American military turned to Higgins to help devise the best means for keeping men and materiel afloat and churning toward beachheads. Higgins took to the charge in earnest, expanding his operation to more than 20,000 employees working around the clock to turn out 700 craft per month.

Per historian Douglas Brinkley’s 2000 biographical sketch of Higgins, the shipyard was so prolific that by 1943, nine of 10 U.S. Navy vessels had been designed by Higgins.

The boat to which Higgins will forever be tied is the Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP), known as the Higgins boat. The Higgins boat played an indispensable role in landings on beaches on obscure Pacific islands that became household names: Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa.

The boats also droned inexorably through choppy seas to the largest amphibious attack in history on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

While Higgins departed Creighton with something less than an unblemished record, he nevertheless was celebrated with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1943 for his service to the war effort. Higgins responded in kind by initiating a student loan fund named in honor of his favorite Creighton Jesuit, the Rev. Francis X. Reilly, SJ.

Higgins died in 1952 in New Orleans. Since then, many efforts have mounted to recognize his contributions to the Allied victory in World War II. In his hometown of Columbus, Nebraska, the Andrew Jackson Higgins National Memorial features a replica of a Higgins boat and a statue of its inventor in a public park.

Though notoriously ornery, Higgins maintained a can-do attitude that bespoke his Creighton experience. Higgins turned his discernment, scientific approach and business acumen into something for a higher good in a time of immense crisis.

“Andrew Jackson Higgins may have been short on social graces,” Brinkley wrote. “But he was a production genius when his nation most needed him. His motto was ‘The Hell I Can’t,’ and he always far exceeded expectations.”

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