Vietnam War Dictionary

Napalm

Developed in 1942 by a team of chemists led by Professor Louis Fieser at Harvard University, Napalm is a sticky gasoline gel named after the thickening agents used in the original formulation; aluminum Naphthenate and aluminum Palmitate. Once ignited, the sticky jellied mixture burns far hotter and longer than unthickened gasoline. These properties make it an especially lethal incendiary weapon; an exploding bomb that scatters large fiery globs of sticky gel, killing its victims both by burning and asphyxiation.

U.S. aircraft used napalm bombs to devastating effect against Japan in 1945 (the March 9th fire-bomb raid on Tokyo destroyed 16 square miles of the city and is estimated to have killed approximately 100,000 people in a single night1) and against North Korea in the Korean War.

Napalm bombs were dropped by the French aircraft in Indochina for the first time in January 1951, defeating a Viet Minh attack on Vinh-Yen in the Red River Delta.2 At Dien Bien Phu, however, the wet foliage that covered Viet Minh gun emplacements proved largely impervious to French dropped napalm.3

US. and RVNAF aircraft dropped napalm on Viet Cong targets in South Vietnam in the early stages of the Vietnam War and it was first authorized for use against North Vietnam in March 1965.4

A revised version of napalm was introduced in 1965 that used polystyrene and benzene as the thickening agents.5 Named Napalm B, it was less easily ignited and therefore safer to handle and store, but once set alight it would burn for longer than conventional napalm.


1. Hastings, Nemesis, pp 329
2. As a consequence of the defeat, Giap switched to employing guerrilla tactics within a strategy of protracted war. By forcing the French to stretch their military resources throughout Indochina, the Viet Minh sought to create points of vulnerability suitable for attack. See Duiker, Ho Chi Minh: A Life pp 434-5 and 441.
3. Fall, Street Without Joy, pp 322-3
4. Rolling Thunder 6 (14 - 15 March, 1965) was the first time napalm strikes were authorized against North Vietnam
5. Napalm B: 25% gasoline, 25% benzene and 50% polystyrene



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