Books: Vietnam-era GI lighters tracked changing attitudes toward war
Given the countless lungs healed, lives rescued and dollars saved in today’s post-tobacco America — when cigarette companies have shrunk from their former ubiquity and smokers are pariahs — maybe it’s crass to be wistful about America’s smoking years.
But as smoking evaporates, a system of etiquette and equipment is disappearing with it. High school boys no longer practice flipping up a pack of cigarettes so that one pops out to offer a girl. Except for at Halloween and on “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” posters, no one has seen a cigarette holder for 20 years. And today, seldom heard is the distinctive metal “clink” of someone flicking open a Zippo lighter.
The iconic lighter, which turns 75 this year, once epitomized cool. (Many are the hours I have spent practicing how to open a Zippo with a deft arm movement, and then, with another, light it on my pants leg.)
The Zippo Manufacturing Co., of Bradford, Pa., says it has sold 450 million lighters since it began production in 1932, and many of those have gone to military smokers. In World War II, the company’s entire line went straight to soldiers, sailors and Marines overseas. The legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle cemented the Zippo’s reputation among service members in his column:
“If I were to tell you how much these Zippos are coveted at the front and the gratitude and delight with which the boys receive them, you would probably accuse me of exaggeration. I truly believe that the Zippo lighter is the most coveted thing in the Army,” he wrote. The company still uses that endorsement in its promotional materials.
The Zippo has a devoted following among service members for several reasons: The lighters are tough — there are many stories of them stopping bullets or shrapnel and thus saving their owners’ lives — so they can withstand a front-line pounding. They light and stay lit in almost any weather condition. And they double as tiny metal billboards that display the name of your sports team, your unit emblem or a custom message you see every time you break for a smoke.
Hundreds of those custom messages are on display in “Vietnam Zippos,” a lavishly illustrated book by Sherry Buchanan about the lighter collection of artist Bradford Edwards. The book collects hundreds of photographs of scratched, nicked, beaten, burned and pockmarked Zippos carried by American servicemen in Vietnam. The book’s release wasn’t planned to coincide with the Zippo’s anniversary, its publisher said, and is unauthorized by Zippo Manufacturing.
A Zippo could be purchased for $1.80 from any post exchange in Vietnam, Buchanan writes, and there were sidewalk stalls everywhere that would engrave them for a few cents. As waves of draftees landed in Vietnam and geared up before heading out to “Indian Country,” they created a subgenre of battlefield art that has probably never been collected as thoroughly or presented as elegantly as in “Vietnam Zippos.”
The customized Zippos were so common that Americans thought nothing of leaving thousands of them in the Vietnamese countryside; when tourists in Saigon began buying them as souvenirs in open-air markets, Buchanan writes, the demand brought more and more out into the open.
The book uses the grunts’ battered lighters to track American sensibilities about the war; early on, soldiers and Marines scratched gung-ho slogans and their unit names into their lighters. As the war dragged on, they began to carve philosophical musings into the metal, and then even peace signs.
A popular early slogan was “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for I’m the evilest son of a bitch in the valley.” A popular later slogan was “We the unwilling led by the unqualified to kill the unfortunate die for the ungrateful.” Another was “Why me?”
(Many of the images and slogans on the Zippos are obscene, vulgar and hilarious, but unprintable in a family newspaper. It’s worth reading “Vietnam Zippos” just to explore grunts’ inventiveness in using a certain well-worn expletive.)
Buchanan and Edwards write that Vietnam changed the image of the little lighter from a World War II icon of home to an instrument of death: A signal moment for Buchanan was the famous 1965 TV report by Morley Safer of CBS News that showed a squad of Marines touching their Zippos to huts in a Vietnamese village.
Missions such as these (aka “Zippo raids”) broadened the way troops used the term “Zippo,” Buchanan writes. Marines’ backpack flamethrowers and flame tanks became “Zippos”; if you were told to “Zippo that hooch,” you burned it down.
Fans of “Apocalypse Now” will find many parallels in the stories and lighter engravings in the book: Many Airborne unit Zippos were emblazoned with “Death from Above,” which viewers will remember was painted on the nose of Col. Bill Killgore’s UH-1 Huey. Killgore, played by Robert Duvall, is the Army commander who seizes a Viet Cong-controlled beach to go surfing after he meets Lance, a Navy boat crewman who is a famous surfer. Edwards tells a wonderful story that begins with him finding a lighter in a Saigon market with the slogan “You can surf later.”
“There was not that many surfers, even in California, in the Sixties, and few of them, if any, volunteered for the military. It is generally accepted that the majority in that small and dedicated surfing subculture went to great lengths to avoid conscription. Yet here in my hand was a bizarre example of life imitating art imitating life — the Zippo had belonged to a real-life version of Lance.”
The lighters in “Vietnam Zippos” tell hundreds of stories like “Lance’s,” and each one makes the book worth reading.
Vietnam Zippos By Sherry Buchanan. The University of Chicago Press. $25.