The Zippo goes to Vietnam
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.
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.
LEGION ERANGIER LES KEPI BLANC
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
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.
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.
guys using the Zippo
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.
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
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.
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
How the GI's got their engraved
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.
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
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
This story was reported in Life magazine and
also used in various advertisements for Zippo