Andrew Higgins was born on 28 August 1886 in Columbus, Nebraska, the youngest child of John Gonegle Higgins and Annie Long (O'Conor) Higgins. His father was a Chicago attorney and newspaper reporter who had relocated to Nebraska, where he served as a local judge, but died after an accidental fall when Andrew Higgins was seven years old.
Higgins was raised in Omaha and completed three years at Creighton Prep High School before being expelled for brawling. He also served in the Nebraska Army National Guard, attaining the rank of First Lieutenant, first in the Infantry, and later in the Engineers. He gained his first experience with boat building and moving troops on the water during militia maneuvers on the Platte River.
He left Omaha in 1906 to enter the lumber business in Mobile, Alabama and worked at a variety of jobs in the lumber, shipping and boat building industries in a conscious effort to enhance his experience prior to starting his own company. Four years later, Higgins became manager of a German-owned lumber-importing firm in New Orleans. In 1922, he formed his own company, the Higgins Lumber and Export Co., importing hardwood from the Philippines, Central America, and Africa and exporting bald cypress and pine. In pursuing these ends he acquired a fleet of sailing ships—said to have been the largest under American registry at that time. To service this fleet, he established his own shipyard which built and repaired his cargomen as well as the tugs and barges needed to support them. As part of his work in boat building and design Higgins completed a program in naval architecture through the National University of Sciences in Chicago, an unaccredited correspondence school, which awarded him a bachelor of science degree.
In 1926, four years after founding the Higgins Lumber and Export Co., the industrialist and shipbuilder designed the Eureka boat, a shallow-draft craft for use by oil drillers and trappers in operations along the Gulf coast and in lower Mississippi River. With a propeller recessed into a semi-tunnel in the hull, the boat could be operated in shallow waters where flotsam and submerged obstacles would render more usual types of propellers almost useless. Higgins also designed a "spoonbill" bow for his craft, allowing it to be run up onto riverbanks and then to back off with ease. His boats proved to be record-beaters; and, within a decade, he had so perfected the design that they could attain high speed in shallow water and turn practically in their own length.
Stiff competition, declining world trade, and the employment of tramp steamers to carry lumber cargoes combined to put Higgins' Lumber and Export Co. out of business. Nevertheless, the indefatigable Higgins kept his boatbuilding firm (established in 1930 as Higgins Industries) in business, constructing motorboats, tugs and barges, not only for private firms and individuals but also for the United States Coast Guard.
Fortuitously, the Marine Corps—always interested in finding better ways to get men across a beach in an amphibious landing and frustrated that the Bureau of Construction and Repair could not meet its requirements—began to express interest in Higgins' boat. When tested in 1938 by the Navy and Marine Corps, Higgins' Eureka boat surpassed the performance of the Navy-designed boat and was tested by the services during fleet landing exercises in February 1939 as the LCPL. Satisfactory in most respects, the boat's major drawback appeared to be that equipment had to be unloaded, and men disembarked, over the sides—thus exposing them to enemy fire in a combat situation.
The Japanese, however, had been using ramp-bowed landing boats in the Second Sino-Japanese War since the summer of 1937—boats that had come under intense scrutiny by the Navy and Marine Corps observers at Shanghai in particular. When shown a picture of one of those craft, Higgins soon thereafter got in touch with his chief engineer, and, after describing the Japanese design over the telephone, told the engineer to have a mock-up built for his inspection upon his return to New Orleans.
Within one month, tests of the ramp-bow Eureka boat in Lake Pontchartrain showed conclusively that successful operation of such a boat was feasible. From these humble beginnings came what became known as the LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel), or simply, the "Higgins Boat". Each boat could hold up to thirty-six infantrymen, and over twenty-three thousand boats were produced during World War II. A larger version, originally classified as a "tank lighter" came on its heels, the precursor of the LCM (Landing Craft, Mechanized).
With the help of the "Higgins Boat", armies could unload across open beaches instead of at ports, which were heavily guarded. This allowed the troops to spread out and attack from a wide range of areas. These tactics were utilized for many of the attacks conducted by the Allied forces including the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Andrew Higgins believed strongly in diversification when it came to his workforce. If one visited Higgins Industries, they would see many African Americans and women. He believed in hiring highly skilled employees. This type of workforce was very attractive in the eyes of many politicians, including Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman who were known for frequent visits.
Higgins Industries quickly became one of the largest manufacturers in the world with over 85,000 workers and $350,000,000 in government contracts. With his first plant built on City Park Avenue, Higgins began to produce LCVPs non-stop. As more and more rail cars were filled and brought over to Bayou St. John, he began to gain contracts. These government contracts allowed Higgins Industries to expand to seven plants where he could produce larger landing crafts, PT boats and airplanes. One Higgins Industries plant was built on the Industrial Canal, creating an ease of transportation for various manufacturing overhead.
During World War II, Higgins' industrial plants turned out a variety of equipment for the Navy: Landing Craft, Motor Torpedo Boats (PT Boats), Torpedo tubes, Gun Turrets, and Smoke Generators. Over 20,000 boats were produced during the war. Operation “Torch” used three specific different types of landing crafts. The first type were Higgins boats. These barge-type boats were usually made of plywood and used for navigating swamps. Theses boats provided little success due to rocks puncturing holes into them and exposing troops when using an amphibian shore landing. The second of the "Torch" Operation vessels was the Landing Craft Personnel Ramp. This advanced version of the Higgins boat proved successful unloading onto beaches after passing test of Lake Pontchartrain. Other features of this design included placing the machine guns at the bow of the vessel to the side in order to provide access via the center ramp. The third vessel in the operations was the Landing Craft Vehicle. Machine guns were moved to the rear of the boat to accommodate for an increase in supply space. This change maximizes space for transportation of large land vehicles with the use of a new full width ramp.
During the war, Higgins became associated with Preston Tucker, who would later become famous for the controversial financing and development of the revolutionary 1948 Tucker Sedan. Tucker had gained the attention of the US Navy by developing a well designed gun turret which became known as the Tucker Turret, and formed the Tucker Aviation Corporation. Higgins acquired Tucker Aviation Corporation in March 1942, and Tucker moved to New Orleans, Louisiana to serve as a vice-president of Higgins Industries, specifically in charge of the Higgins-Tucker Aviation division. This entity produced Tucker gun turrets, armament and engines for Higgins' torpedo boats. This relationship did not work out and Tucker severed his association with Higgins in 1943.
Not all was glorious for Andrew Higgins, especially after the war. A close to ship building during World War II came on October 11, 1945. The federal government began canceling war contracts after Japan surrendered. This greatly affected Higgins Industries, and many workers began unionizing. Andrew Higgins began losing money due to multiple strikes and had to sell off most of his big plants to high bidders. The loss of contracts negatively impacted the company. The company went on to build more LCVPs, but did not have much more success with receiving government grants.
Andrew Higgins was an influential part of American history, not only with his participation in World War II but also in regards to politics. With the rising success of Higgins Industries, Higgins found himself in a position of power and influence. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for his fourth consecutive term alongside vice presidential candidate Harry Truman, Higgins made sure his voice and opinion were heard. Higgins revered them and urged the nation to vote for them during the 1944 presidential election campaign while visiting various cities such as Boston and New York. Roosevelt and Truman won and thanked Higgins for his strong recommendations and for playing such a significant role in swaying the nation’s opinion in that election.
Higgins died in New Orleans on 1 August 1952, and was buried in Metairie Cemetery. According to published accounts, he had been hospitalized for a week to treat stomach ulcers when he suffered a fatal stroke.
He was the inventor and holder of 30 patents pertinent to amphibious landing craft and vehicles.
In 1943 Creighton University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
In 1987, the Fleet Oiler, USNS Andrew J. Higgins (T-AO-190) was named in his honor. There is a memorial to Andrew Higgins in Columbus, Nebraska; a seven-mile (11 km) segment of U.S. Route 81 south of Columbus is designated as the "Andrew Jackson Higgins Expressway".
In 2000, a 7-block section of Howard Avenue in the Warehouse District of New Orleans near the newly opened D-Day Museum (now the National WWII Museum) was renamed "Andrew Higgins St.".
Jerry Meyer, a history teacher at Columbus High School, worked with his students to create the Higgins Memorial in Columbus, Nebraska.