The Zippo goes to Vietnam

In 1945, when the war was raging in the Pacific Ocean, there is back fighting engaged in Vietnam by a handful of men. All trained at the same school, arm's brothers but opposed in this shared fight between France and USA. The American SOG supervised and trained the uncle "Ho" fighters, the French and the Moï faithful partisans fight against Japanese, Laotian dealers and the Viet Minh.

The first Zippo lighters were engraved in Vietnam during the French occupation of the Indochina war. The lighters from this era were mainly "Olympic" windproof lighters made in Japan with the faces ready to be engraved, French Drago's lighters with a double flint well and an arm to protect the wick but also some rare Zippos rescued from the Korean War.

The Zippo lighters are shared unfairly. American soldiers use "Black Crackle" shipped by Georges Blaisdell to the P.X and the French few Japanese copies; but since 1946, nickel silver and later the Korean war lighters. Even for the non-smoking warfare fighter needed a strong and reliable lighter, which would light at all times. During the siege of Dien Bien Phu, American aviators from the Gia Lam and Bach Mai airline bases near Hanoi have given Zippos to the Dakota's French pilots and to the technicians. Those lighters were then traded with foreign legion soldiers.

During the French occupation, after the Japanese withdraw, the soldiers in place were mainly from the foreign legion. The legion had reinforced its size after the hecatomb of 1945 and the majority of his soldiers were from the rest of the defeated armies, they spoke approximate French. So the first graves on their lighters have the candor of this approximate French.


The lighters were engraved Catinat street at Saigon, the necessary place for the men on leave and renowned for its bars and its girls. The first pictures engraved onto Zippo were: the Vietnam map with the name of major cities, from Hanoi to Saigon and Tourane the French name of Da Nang, the woman with the bird and the "Tonkinoise" who present erotic pictures if you flip the lighter. The famous "Touché?" and the "Cyclo (Xi chlô)". On the picture of the couple in the same tub, the man is carrying the white hat from the French legion, the "kepi Blanc".

The GI's in Vietnam

March 8 1965, the first American troops came in Vietnam into Da-Nang province and then were stationed in South Vietnam from Ben-Hai River (demarcation line) to Ca-Mau the ended land point. The majority of American units had immediately opened supply stores to improve soldiers' life. At the famous P.X. it was possible to find anything that the American way of life has built for its children. From the Coca-Cola bottle to the Hamilton watch and of course the must, Zippo lighters.

Most of the engraved lighters in Vietnam have identification code from 1965 to 1973 (the American troops withdrew from Vietnam at the beginning of 1973. Only supervisors stayed in Vietnam until the fall of Saigon April 30, 1975). All the lighters made between 1932 and 1975 could be engraved in Vietnam. At that time a lot of war correspondents, tourists, keen fighters, and special force members have sojourned in Vietnam and few of them used Zippo lighters. Soldiers from Korea or World War II carried their old friend in Vietnam.

The guys using the Zippo

When you hold a real Vietnam Zippo in your hand, you can't prevent yourself to think about the guy using it during his service tour. To understand the story of those lighters, you must plug yourself into the stories of these guys.

They have just gone from school and have discovered an adventure life, sex, sufferance, alcohol, drug and death. They wrote "Born to kill" or "Fuck It" on their helmets, they listened to the same songs as you, they loved the same girls and looked at the car that they are going to buy at the end of this fucking war.

They despised Vietnamese because they did not understand their standard of living. They never tolerate the reserved attitude of this people whom they are coming to fight for them. God was behind them; they came with a precise idea of freedom and fought for it. The major problem was the communication. In this country the word Ma stand for six different ways according to the pronunciation, how could they share their sadness? Only prostitutes, looking for green bucks were listening to them.

Nam has gulped their dreams, Dak to, Ia Drang, Khe Sanh, Hue and Hamburger Hill made them grow up. Their dreams turned to nightmares.
They were turned to violence and shameless but first of all, they were scared to die.
With the Flower Power, they have escaped to the control of the army. Early in 67 you could see guy with bandanas from disguised piece of parachute with long hair. Huey with genuine fox tail hanged up to the radio, guys from the Black Panther haired like Jimi Hendrix, bad boys but very nice first to help you into a dangerous place. Born to Kill, Born to Die, Born to Loose craved on their helmet, on the wall and then on the Zippos. It was at Khe Shan this Marine burning his jungle fatigue on which he have write " Yea Though I Walk Through The Valley Of The Shadow Of Death I Will Fear No Evil For I Am The Evilest Son Of A Bitch Of The Valley" because all the fucking bastards of the "Z" wrote the same since he walked with it on is ass.

So attached were the GI's to Zippos that the Viet-Cong learned to body trap them with explosives.
They leave them in a bars and other place frequented by American troops. Sooner or later, a curious, covetous soldier was sure to pick one up.

To understand the Nam Zippos, look at the Platoon movie from Oliver Stone or Full Metal Jacket from Kubrick , read Dispatches from Michael Herr or Vietnam INC from Philip Jones Griffiths. You could then think at all the guys and the small piece of metal where they have engraved sorrow, and fear of dying before to go to the world.

How the GI's got their engraved Zippos

Imagine you are a young US soldier; you've got your lighter from the PX and wanted a nice engraving on it. You go to the nearest Vietnamese craftsman and ask for this job. His shop looks like the one you go to when you need a new license plate or a tag for your favourite pet. The craftsman doesn't speak perfect English so you have to write the text on a paper sheet. He prepares the text on a form and you read at it carefully, looking for wrong spelling before engraving.

About your army insignia, or nice cartoon he already has a lot of templates with the major insignias used in Vietnam, snoopy on his doghouse and a large collection of nude women. You choose the one you want then if all is correct he can start his job.

He removes the lighter from the engraving machine and use sandpaper to remove the cut particles. The engraving looks shiny gold. Don't worry; at the end of your tour it will look dirty, rusty brown brass.
You pay; the cost in the 60' was only 50 cents by face, and go back to your US base, happy with your cherished lighter. No one would have a souvenir lighter with a bad engraving on it.

Very few unit commanders tolerated openly poetry, peace signs or graffiti on the soldier's equipment. Soldiers needed recognition signs and media. A few items began to become a canvas on which they have engraved their thoughts and feelings. The Zippo lighter was one of them. It was the only buddy with whom they shared their boredom moments, sadness and also the rage of their youth.

Early in the war, soldiers engraved their name, the places where they were parked and their unit insignia using a knife or a sharp device. The cleverest performed engravings for their companions. Others, less gifted, looked in the vicinity of military bases for local craftsmen to realize a better quality work. The local people quickly realized a fuel type lighter could be sold at a high price in any market. Most of the lighters were copies made in Japan, Korea and even China. Most of the engraved lighters sold in the market were engraved by hand before they were sold.

Even a soldier that did not smoke needed something to make a fire so as to warm his rations or only in case of…
If you were seated at a poker table, there were as many lighters on the table as players. Soldiers kept salt in the bottom of their Zippos to replenish lost body salt. And then it was this rumor about a guy who had seen a guy saved by the lighter that he carried into his chest pocket.

The most famous Zippos were those from Staff Sgt. Naugle and Sgt. Martinez.
Staff sergeant Naugle was saved because he was able to signal his position to the rescue helicopter by lighting his Zippo that he carried in the magazine pouch of his M16.

The luckiest was SGT.Martinez. He always carried his Zippo in his chest pocket. One time his unit was spotted by a North Vietnamese patrol, the fighting was hard; a bullet struck his breast, destroying the Zippo that kept him stoned but also alive.

This story was reported in Life magazine and also used in various advertisements for Zippo lighters.