For D-Day: Ugly-duckling tech helped victory

Higgins boat isn't much to look at it. Stand in it, though, and be awed by D-Day.

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As the World War II veterans age and pass into their eternal rewards, the physical connection to the flesh-and-blood of that period goes with them. That’s one reason so many people organize on D-Day to make sure the frail veterans make it to Omaha Beach, or maybe the memorial right on the mall in D.C.

D-Day was the beginning of the end of a long period nearly impossible to visualize for those who didn’t face duty over there or gasoline rationing stamps and frightening radio reports over here. Fortunately photography and cinematography of the early 1940s was sufficiently advanced that we have a tremendous audio-visual record. But like the Civil War veterans — the very last of whom died in 1956 — the people eventually become two-dimensional images.

As the nation recalls D-Day on a significant anniversary, we can also recall that World War II sparked technological progress. It sparked things ranging from synthetic rubber to radio frequency hopping, and radar (which spawned the microwave oven) to atomic bombs.

I know it sounds odd, but I like watching Army Air Corps training films, preserved on YouTube, on topics such as how to start up and fly the B-17, an advanced type of aircraft for its time. Of course, these are methodical, bloodless presentations that don’t capture the noise, cold, chaos and violence of the actual B-17 experience. I did have a 20-minute flight on a B-17 a few years ago. Although it was warm and our altitude low, I tried to conjure up a rudimentary picture what life-and-death might have felt like on such a contraption.

Americans like to preserve tangible artifacts of our past. Witness the always-packed conditions at the Smithsonian’s fabulous Air & Space and American History museums.

Nearly a million people have watched videos concerning the Union Pacific Railroad last month. It depicts the coming-to-life of a gigantic steam locomotive, dormant since 1959 but now restored. One can imagine how it must have contributed to the home front wartime in the ’40s, hauling stuff around to feed the nation’s hyperproductive factories. How could a nation with the human and materiel resources to produce a million-pound machine like that not whip Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan?

Our collective barn has many pieces of the past.

Another is the Higgins boat. When you watch films of flat-fronted boats lowering their panels and disgorging soldiers into the turbulent and bullet-riddled surf, that boat is probably a Higgins boat. Andrew Jackson Higgins received two patents for the craft dubbed by General Dwight Eisenhower as the boat that won the war. One patent was for the hull design, the other for the drop-front design.

Tom Temin plants a flag at the Higgins boat in honor of his father, a WWII veteran.

A restored Higgins boat is on the lawn in front of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office until July 27th, specifically to commemorate D-Day and Higgins’s contributions to the war effort. Higgins was recently inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The Hall is a tangible place right next to the USPTO. It’s worth a visit to Alexandria, Virginia. My interview with USPTO press secretary Paul Fucito has more detail on the Higgins boat.

Instrumental as it was, the Higgins boat lacks the stunning visual punch of, say, the Enola Gay on display at the Udvar-Hazy annex to the Air & Space Museum. Or the power to make you shudder like the Little Boy atomic bomb casing at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. You think: that stubby thing changed so much in human history?

By contrast, the Higgins boat looks ungainly, like it could barely float. It resembles nothing so much as a large Dumpster with a propeller underneath. Yet standing in it — like you can at the USPTO display — you can imagine what it might’ve felt like crouched in there on D-Day,  had you bobbed in the rough, near-shore waters. You think, how would my heart and stomach have felt knowing that when the ramp dropped down, I’d be open to the relentless rain of hot steel pouring down from enemy emplacements?

The technology of war isn’t always pretty. But the artifacts we preserve must eventually stand in for the people who used it.

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