D-Day Design Innovation “won the war for us”

D-Day Design Innovation “won the war for us”

I recently spent a peaceful day on Omaha Beach in Normandy, a bucolic picture of French country life on the coast. It was difficult to imagine the scene on June 6, 1944 when a landing craft called the LCVP (landing craft, vehicle and personnel) transported soldiers to this beach, making it the D-Day design innovation that “won the war for us.”

The 2014 October sun was spectacular. The beach was calm; the waves no more than delicate ripples; the sky a vivid but calming shade of blue. French people of all ages appeared on the beaches at low tide to compete with sea gulls in the hunt for l’huitres, the fat and fresh Normandy oysters eaten by the dozens each evening in local homes and restaurants.

Omaha Beach today

Omaha Beach today.

But 70 years ago, there was no tranquility on that beach. It was the scene of the largest land-sea-air operation in history, launched by Allied forces to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. Perhaps the most familiar yet haunting image that day was a landing craft crashing ashore in rough waves, dropping its ramp and soldiers rushing out to the beaches. The water was red with the blood of U.S. Able Company troops dragging themselves to the beach who were shot dead by Nazi gunfire from heavily fortified fortresses on the bluffs above.  So many soldiers gave their lives that day in 1944 but their sacrifice was the foundation of an Allied victory less than a year later.

The Higgins landing craft is the defining image of D-Day.

The Higgins landing craft is a defining image of D-Day.

A hot-tempered self-taught entrepreneur and inventor named Andrew Jackson Higgins was responsible for the LCVP. Higgins transformed a small swamp boat produced for travel in the Louisiana bayou into the  landing craft used on D-day. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander, credits Higgins as the “man who won the war for us.”

The story of the Higgins boats that made the D-Day landing possible is a case study in innovation.

A small boat manufacturer in New Orleans, Higgins produced wooden boats for the local market. When the United States Navy started to look for small, easy to maneuver boats, they dismissed Higgins as inexperienced and refused to consider him for a contract. Not only was he a little-known manufacturer, his boats were made of wood. The Navy was looking for sturdy metal boats.

But as the prototypes developed for the Navy failed, its officers reconsidered Andrew Higgins. The once Louisiana swamp boat was now a 36 feet long and 10 1/2 feet wide wooden landing vehicle that resembled a “floating cigar box.”  The Higgins LCVP could transport a 36-man platoon from a ship, speeding to the shoreline and discharging the troops before it turned around quickly and returned to collect another group of men, machines and materials.

The innovation of the D-Day landing craft "won the war for us," according to General Eisenhower.

The innovation of the D-Day landing craft “won the war for us,” according to General Eisenhower (left).

Higgins was an innovator and a leader whose company built more than 20,000 landing vehicles during World War II. He had the vision and imagination to transform a swamp boat into an invaluable landing vehicle for Allied troops. Higgins inspired his employees to be creative and believed in listening to all sorts of ideas from which would emerge the very best. He listened not only to his engineers, but also challenged all of his employees, who included women and African Americans, to submit their ideas.  He encouraged people to stop by his office and brainstorm, insisting that there was no such thing as a bad idea. Even if an idea sounded ridiculous, Higgins wanted to hear it.

We’d just sit there and talk. That way he really knew what was going on.  — Ted Sprague, Higgins employee

He used an iterative process to improve the best ideas and then told his engineers to go in a room and not to leave until they designed the boat — and a landing ramp.  The engineers fashioned numerous prototypes. One rendered with a discarded cigar box became the prototype that eventually evolved into the Higgins landing vehicle.  The cigar box design can be seen in the dimensions of each landing vehicle.

Higgins challenged all of his employees to share their ideas.

Higgins (center) challenged all of his employees to share their ideas about the design of a new landing craft.

Andrew Higgins surprised the Navy and large established companies.  His small enterprise designed and built what would become known as the Higgins landing vehicles, which contributed greatly to the successful Allied landing on Normandy beaches.  Combining his imagination with a thorough knowledge of boats and boat building, Higgins’s innovation “won the war for us.”

Author

Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University in political science with a specialization in comparative educational systems. My professional experience includes teaching at Princeton University, serving as deputy director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Science Education Center, policy analyst at the U.S. Department of State, and an editor at USA TODAY. Current research interests are first generation college students and innovations in STEM education.

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