Science and engineering that helped win a war: Reflections on Veterans Day

Being part of a military family, Veterans Day holds special significance for me. Members of my family have served in the Coast Guard, Navy, and Army. Wherever I am on Veterans Day, I seek out a way to reflect on the sacrifices and accomplishments of the men and women who serve in our armed forces. This year I had occasion to visit The National WWII Museum while in New Orleans for the National Science Teachers Association area conference. The scope of the exhibition galleries in this 11-year-old museum is overwhelming; the curators and historians took care to present an overview of the war in all theatres, with special emphasis on the amphibious invasions or D-Days. Moving from gallery to gallery, visitors see large-scale illustrations of battles across continents side by side with small objects soldiers carried and brought home, such as the metallic “cricket” clickers paratroopers used to signal one another in the French countryside. A soldier’s bullet-punctured helmet is displayed not far from a pocket Bible, carried by a Marine into battle in the Solomon Islands. In one gallery that focused on the war effort at home, I saw my reasons for being in New Orleans and at the museum come together in a compelling look at science and engineering that helped win World War II.

The exhibit supplies a summary of “Some Wartime Scientific and Technical Advances” that included the Jeep, high-octane gasoline, Teflon, synthetic cortisone, the electron microscope, and M&M’s. Penicillin, discovered and developed in 1928, was moved into mass production during the war, a boon to battlefield medicine. An engineering marvel that contributed greatly to the U.S.’s ability to ferry troops efficiently from sea to land was the Higgins landing craft, invented by Andrew Jackson Higgins of New Orleans. Higgins Industries and its affiliates manufactured more than 20,000 of these boats, which facilitated swifter landings of troops and equipment around the world. General Dwight Eisenhower is said to have called Higgins “the man who won the war for us.”

Another feature of this gallery is discussion of the extensive programs of conservation, salvage, and recycling the American public participated in to aid the war effort. In addition to adhering to rationing programs, Americans delivered tin foil, metal, used cooking oil, and nylon stockings to collection centers. These salvaged materials could be repurposed into shells, parachutes, and explosives. A gallery sign notes the salvage yields of some household items: 30,000 razor blades could yield 50 .30-caliber machine guns. And 30 lipstick cases could yield 20 ammunition cartridges.

As I moved through the museum, gaining a deeper understanding of World War II, I reflected on the American ingenuity and inventiveness that fueled many of the Allies’ strategies. Today’s military embodies this spirit of invention, continuously improving technology and equipment and advancing medical practice to improve care for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In “With STEM, Almost Everything Is Possible,” Debra Shapiro writes of a remarkable advance in prosthetics research announced at the New Orleans NSTA conference by Colonel Geoffrey Ling, program manager for the Defense Science Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

As a student of science and of history, I could not have asked for more from my New Orleans experience this Veterans Day.  For a glimpse inside the NSTA conference, be sure to browse the NSTA Blog entries from New Orleans. For a virtual visit to The National WWII Museum, visit their website. Teachers and students should visit The National WWII Museum’s website “Science & Technology of World War II” for cool lessons and activities like “Moon Phases and Tides in Planning the D-Day Invasion,” “Waves, Sonar, and Radar” and “Send a Coded Message.”

 

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