July 17, 1944: P-38 Fighter Bombers Use Napalm (“It smells like Victory!”)

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A Brief History

On July 17, 1944, US P-38 fighter bombers dropped napalm bombs on a German Army fuel depot near St. Lo in Normandy, France, one of the earliest uses of napalm.  Napalm a mixture of gasoline and a thickening agent (several formulas) is used as a flame weapon that stubbornly sticks to anything it comes in contact with, greatly increasing its lethality against humans and effectiveness in catching things on fire.

Digging Deeper

One of the iconic products closely associated with the US by the rest of the world, napalm was developed secretly in 1942 during World War II by Harvard University in conjunction with the US government.  Named for the thickening agents first used, naphthenic and palmitic acids, napalm has been made with a variety of other thickeners and with phosphorus added as well.

Adapted for use in small incendiary bombs to be dropped by bombers over vast areas of a city, napalm was used to burn down German and Japanese cities during World War II, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.  Normally what we think of as napalm bombs are the long cylinders that tumble end over end when dropped by fighter bombers and result in a giant whoosh of flame, sucking the oxygen from victim’s lungs and sticking to everything in its path in flaming globs.

Used extensively in the Pacific, napalm proved effective against dug in enemy troops, often from the oxygen robbing effect against underground fortifications.  Replacing regular gasoline in flamethrowers, napalm was also used to good effect against pill boxes and bunkers, as well as caves in the Pacific.  It was also used as the flame agent in flamethrower tanks.

As the US progressed from World War II through Korea and Viet Nam, napalm bombs became closely associated with foreigners perception of Americans.  Used all the way until the 21st Century, the US finally has agreed to limit the use of this fiendish stuff.  “Improvements” over the years have made napalm “safer” for the user, stickier, and more resistant to being extinguished, making it almost impossible to get off a victim’s skin once it lands on someone.

Along with Agent Orange, nuclear weapons, and carpet bombing, napalm has come to symbolize America.

Obviously, napalm and these other weapons have proven valuable for military operations, but the question is at what cost to our reputation?

One of the most famous photographs in history is of a Vietnamese girl running naked from a napalm attack.

The US has given the world Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, Jonas Salk and thousands of other great men and women and their contributions to health, medicine, society, science and technology.  As George Carlin pointed out, besides napalm, the US also gave the world Silly Putty.  Should Harry Truman be known for dropping atom bombs on Japan or for rebuilding Europe and Japan?

These questions should be considered before we take any action likely to effect our legacy.  War is by nature a violent and inhumane activity, so are any weapons worse than others?  Is being burned somehow worse than having your arms blown off? Should we develop laser weapons that blind the enemy?  How horrible is too horrible? Is the best solution to avoid war in the first place instead of immediately clamoring for military action?  We do not have the answers, do you?  If you do, please share them with us.

Historical Evidence

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.