Hellfire – 10 Incendiary Facts About Napalm

South Vietnamese aircraft drop a load of Napalm on the village of Trang Bang, 1972. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

South Vietnamese aircraft drop a load of Napalm on the village of Trang Bang, 1972. Image source: Nick Ut, The Associated Press.

Nick Ut's iconic image of Kim Phuc (second from left) fleeing after a napalm attack. Image courtesy The Associated Press.

Nick Ut’s iconic image of Kim Phuc (second from left) fleeing after a napalm attack. Image courtesy The Associated Press.

“NAPALM IS THE MOST TERRIBLE PAIN YOU CAN IMAGINE,” Kim Phuc once told an interviewer. “Water boils at 100 deg. C, [but] napalm generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 deg. C.”

The 49-year-old Vietnamese-Canadian woman became an unwilling expert on the effects of the fiery weapon at an early age. Phuc was only 9 years old in 1972, when planes from the South Vietnamese Air Force attacked her village of Trang Bang, about 40 kilometres northwest of Saigon.

During the June 8 raid, an A-1 Skyraider dropped bombs containing the petroleum-based gel mere yards from Phuc and a group of residents. The pilot reportedly mistook the fleeing villagers for communist soldiers.

As the bombs burst open, the sticky, flaming liquid doused Phuc’s clothes. The youngster frantically tore the burning fabric from her body as she fled the town with a group of terrified children.

A 21-year-old Associated Press photographer by the name of Nick Ut snapped several frames of the ghastly scene before he took it upon himself to rush the girl to a nearby hospital. Doctors treated the burned youngster; few expected her to survive.

Ut’s photo ran on the front page of The New York Times the following day and was soon seen worldwide. Amazingly, AP very nearly buried the now-famous shot because of a policy that forbid the depiction of nudity. The image ended up winning Ut a Pulitzer Prize. Alan Downes, a British cameraman standing nearby, captured film footage of the same scene. His pictures revealed the damage the napalm did to the young girl’s back and arms.

Overnight, Phuc’s ordeal became a lightning rod for the anti-war movement. The incident also enflamed public opinion against the use of napalm. The weapon has been mired in controversy since. Here are some other facts about this terrifying incendiary weapon and its bizarre history.

• The recipe for “Napalm B”, as it’s formally known, consists of 33 percent gasoline, 46 percent polystyrene (a substance used in plastic) and 21 percent benzene, an aromatic chemical that’s an ingredient in everything from aftershave and paints to glue and cigarettes. [1]

• Harvard researcher Louis Fieser invented an early form of napalm in 1942 while researching synthetic rubbers. The first napalm was detonated on a football field at the university on July 4, 1942. The formula, which consisted of a brown powder that could be mixed with ordinary gasoline, was soon passed along to the military where it was tested in both flamethrowers and free-fall bombs. Napalm was prized for its propensity to spread across vast areas, and its tendency to splash into foxholes, bunkers and trenches, where it would cling to both victims and surfaces. Napalm fire, which can burn for up to ten minutes, also consumes high amounts of oxygen. This coupled with the carbon monoxide it generates often asphyxiates victims not killed by the flames themselves.

• Napalm’s combat debut came on March 6, 1944, when American heavy bombers dropped canisters of it on Berlin. Allied planners soon gained an appreciation for the weapon’s decidedly unpleasant characteristics and began using it accordingly. In July 1944, RAF Mosquitoes from 140 Wing delivered napalm onto elements of the 17th SS Panzergrenadiers near Bonneuil-Matours, France after it was learned that the same Nazi unit had executed more than 30 Allied POWs and resistance fighters. The use of napalm was intended to be retaliatory. [2]

• Napalm would be used again at La Rochelle, France, which remained in the hands of German holdouts from September 1944 until the end of the war in Europe. In late April 1945, two weeks before the fall of Berlin, Allied aircraft doused German positions with napalm to punish the last stubborn resisters. The strike inadvertently killed a number of French civilians as well.

• Napalm featured more prominently in the Pacific War, where it was dropped by Allied aircraft onto Japanese fortifications on Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. B-29s also released napalm across the Japanese home islands as well, destroying up to 40 percent of the country’s urban areas. [3]

• In the 1950s, heavily outnumbered UN forces in Korea would rely on napalm as an equalizer, using it against the massive human wave-style assaults unleashed by Chinese communists and North Koreans.

• During the Vietnam conflict, French, American and South Vietnamese forces would employ napalm with devastating effect. The U.S. alone dropped 400,000 tons on Southeast Asia. Dow Chemicals, the manufacturer of napalm for much of the 1960s found itself in the crosshairs of American peace activists, many of who called for widespread boycotts of the company’s other products. Dow steadfastly defended its production of the weapon citing its manufacture as a ‘patriotic duty’.

• Napalm’s inventor, Louis Fieser of Harvard, also discovered Vitamin K and would go on to research health risks associated with smoking. Until his death in 1977, the professor maintained that he never intended his discovery to be used on human beings, but rather buildings and fortifications.

Nick Ut and Kim Phuc in Toronto, 2012. Image by Chris Young, The Canadian Press.

Nick Ut and Kim Phuc in Toronto, 2012. Image by Chris Young, The Canadian Press.

• In 1981, Protocol III of the United Nations Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) prohibited the use of napalm or any incendiary weapon on civilian areas and non-combatants. One hundred and seventeen nations have signed the agreement. The United States, which used napalm as recently as the war in Iraq, only signed on in 2009 with some reservations. Some countries, including Israel, have abstained altogether.

• Kim Phuc survived the napalm attack on her village in 1972, but underwent 17 surgeries in her 14 months in hospital. Kim survived and went on to study medicine in her homeland. She later moved to Cuba where she married a Vietnamese national. In 1992, the couple sought political asylum in Canada and settled near Toronto. She became a Canadian citizen in 1997. That same year, Phuc established The Kim Foundation, an organization that provides aid for children injured in war. In 2003, the foundation arranged medical treatment in Canada for Ali Abbas, a 12–year-old Iraqi boy who lost both arms when a missile destroyed his family’s home. She has maintained a life-long friendship with Nick Ut, the photographer who snapped the iconic photo and carried her to the hospital. Kim Phuc has two children. [4]

(Originally published, March 25, 2013)

1 comment for “Hellfire – 10 Incendiary Facts About Napalm

  1. Obama's favorite goat
    22 September, 2014 at 12:31 am

    Allied use of napalm was not restrained. They used it whenever they felt they could. Today we have a more restrained approach to war, indicating the next wave of barbarians will probably win because we are too concerned about the nuances and deeper implications of killing the stray civilian or hitting a religious facility that covers a vast underground facility.

    We can only hope that future enemies are as deluded as our own.

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