Liquid Fire – How Napalm Was Used In The Vietnam War

 
 

The First World War introduced many new weapons to the world of warfare. The first global mechanized war saw the first use of tanks and combat airplanes, but it’s less well known that the first functional flamethrowers were also used in WWI. They lacked efficiency, though, since they only used ignited gasoline, which would burn out quickly, causing minimal damage.

The weapon continued to develop. The US Chemical Warfare Service added rubber to the gasoline to produce a jelly mixture which would burn longer, would be harder to put out and would stick to the victim, causing fatal injuries.

This seemed like a solution to the US military, but when they entered the war in the Pacific, natural rubber was in short supply, and the Army was forced to find a suitable replacement. This is how napalm was born.

In a period between 1942 and 1943, a team of leading Harvard chemist headed by Louis Fieser developed a mixture of naphthenic and palmitic acids added to the classic ingredient ― gasoline. The weapon was first tested in bombing raids on Berlin and later on Tokyo, where it caused mass panic after the firestorm disintegrated over 100,000 people.

Later, in Korea, the US Army claimed that napalm was “the most outstanding weapon”, which basically won the war against North Korea and their Chinese allies.

Left: US bombers dropping bombs on North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder. By Lt. Col. Cecil J. Poss, 20th TRS on RF-101C, USAF. - Public Domain. Right: The French Aviation navale drops napalm over Viet Minh guerrilla positions during an ambush (December 1953). By Warner Pathé News - Public Domain.

Left: US bombers dropping bombs on North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder. Right: The French Naval Air Force drops napalm over Viet Minh guerrilla positions during an ambush (December 1953). 

Napalm became a necessary weapon of every modern military force, even though its consequences were among the most inhumane.  The effectiveness of the weapon overruled its cruelty. In fact, napalm caused carbon monoxide poisoning when used on enclosed environment which wasn’t directly hit by fire. The effects of carbon monoxide were well known after the end of WWII, as it was one of the main gasses used for poisoning concentration camp victims.

Out in the open, napalm caused severe burns all over the body, burns which were far worse than the ones caused by fire in general. Human skin becomes covered with viscous magma that resembles tar. Napalm causes wounds that are too deep to heal. In contact with humans, it would immediately stick to the skin and melt the flesh. There is no way to put the fire out, except by smothering it, which causes unbearable pain. In panic, many victims would try to wipe it off, but this only causes the fire to spread, expanding the burn area.

Riverboat of the U.S. Brown-water navy deploying an ignited napalm mixture from a riverboat mounted flamethrower in Vietnam. Public Domain.

Riverboat of the U.S. Brown-water navy deploying an ignited napalm mixture from a riverboat mounted flamethrower in Vietnam.

All this made napalm really popular among its users and the worse nightmare for the ones on which it was used on. In Vietnam, the use of napalm was introduced first by the French and later by their US successors, who used it extensively, often causing a lot of collateral damage due to the fact that the fire, once released, was almost impossible to contain.

Having been pronounced as the winning weapon of the Korean War, napalm was part of the US arsenal from the very beginning of the conflict in Vietnam. In the decade from 1963 to 1973, 388,000 tons of napalm were dropped on Vietnam. That is ten times the amount of napalm used in Korea (32,357 tons) and almost twenty times more than was used in the Pacific (16,500 tons). First, it was used via flamethrowers by the US Army and their ARVN allies to clear out bunkers, foxholes, and trenches. Even if the flames could not penetrate into the bunker, the fire consumed enough oxygen to cause suffocation inside it.

First, it was used via flamethrowers by the US Army and their ARVN allies to clear out bunkers, foxholes, and trenches. Even if the flames could not penetrate into the bunker, the fire consumed enough oxygen to cause suffocation inside it.