Napalm is a flammable liquid used in warfare. It is a mixture of a gelling agent, and either petroleum or a similar fuel. It was initially used as an incendiary device against buildings and later primarily as an anti-personnel weapon, as it sticks to skin and causes severe burns when on fire. Napalm was developed in 1942 in a secret laboratory at Harvard University, by a team led by chemist Louis Fieser. Its first recorded use was in the European theatre of war during World War II. It was used extensively by the US in incendiary attacks on Japanese cities in World War II as well as during the Korean War and Vietnam War.
"Napalm" is a combination of the names of two of the constituents of the thickening/gelling agent: co-precipitated aluminium salts of naphthenic and palmitic acids. "Napalm B" is the more modern version of napalm and, although distinctly different in its chemical composition, is often referred to simply as "napalm".
Napalm was used in flamethrowers, bombs and tanks in World War II. It is believed to have been formulated to burn at a specific rate and to adhere to surfaces to increase its stopping power. During combustion, napalm rapidly deoxygenates the available air and generates large amounts of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
Use of fire in warfare has a long history. Greek fire, also described as "sticky fire" (πῦρ κολλητικόν, pýr kolletikón), is believed to have had a petroleum base. The development of napalm was precipitated by the use of jellied gasoline mixtures by the Allied forces during World War II. Latex, used in these early forms of incendiary devices, became scarce in the Pacific Theater of Operations, since natural rubber was almost impossible to obtain after the Japanese army captured the rubber plantations in Malaya, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand.
This shortage of natural rubber prompted chemists at US companies such as Du Pont and Standard Oil, and researchers at Harvard University, to develop factory-made alternatives—artificial rubber for all uses, including vehicle tires, tank tracks, gaskets, hoses, medical supplies and rain clothing. A team of chemists led by Louis Fieser at Harvard University was the first to develop synthetic napalm, during 1942. "The production of napalm was first entrusted to Nuodex Products, and by the middle of April 1942 they had developed a brown, dry powder that was not sticky by itself, but when mixed with gasoline turned into an extremely sticky and inflammable substance." One of Fieser's colleagues suggested adding phosphorus to the mix which increased the "ability to penetrate deeply...into the musculature, where it would continue to burn day after day."
On 4 July 1942, the first test occurred on the football field near the Harvard Business School. Tests under operational conditions were carried out at Jefferson Proving Ground on condemned farm buildings, and subsequently at Dugway Proving Ground on buildings designed and constructed to represent those to be found in German and Japanese towns. This new mixture of chemicals was widely used in the Second World War in incendiary bombs and in flamethrowers.
From 1965 to 1969, the Dow Chemical Company manufactured napalm B for the American armed forces. After news reports of napalm B's deadly and disfiguring effects were published, Dow Chemical experienced boycotts of its products, and its recruiters for new chemists, chemical engineers, etc., graduating from college were subject to campus boycotts. The management of the company decided that its "first obligation was the government." Meanwhile, napalm B became a symbol for the Vietnam War.
Napalm was first employed in incendiary bombs and went on to be used as fuel for flamethrowers.
The first recorded strategic use of napalm incendiary bombs occurred in an attack by the US Army Air Force on Berlin on 6 March 1944, using American AN-M76 incendiary bombs with PT-1 (Pyrogel) filler. The first known tactical operation was by De Havilland D.H.98 Mosquito FB Mk.VIs of No. 140 Wing RAF, Second Tactical Air Force on 14 July 1944, which also employed the AN-M76 incendiary in a reprisal attack on the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division „Götz von Berlichingen“ in Bonneuil-Matours. Soldiers of this Waffen SS unit had captured and then killed a British SAS prisoner-of-war, Lt. Tomos Stephens, taking part in Operation Bulbasket, and seven local Resistance fighters. Although it was not known at the time of the air strike, 31 other POWs from the same SAS unit, and an American airman who had joined up with the SAS unit, had also been executed.
Further use of napalm by American forces occurred in the Pacific Theater of Operations, where in 1944 and 1945, napalm was used as a tactical weapon against Japanese bunkers, pillboxes, tunnels, and other fortifications, especially on Saipan, Iwo Jima, the Philippines, and Okinawa, where deeply dug-in Japanese troops refused to surrender. Napalm bombs were dropped by aviators of the U.S. Navy, the United States Army Air Forces, and the U.S. Marine Corps in support of their ground troops.
Then, when the U.S. Army Air Forces on the Marianas Islands ran out of conventional thermite incendiary bombs for their B-29 Superfortresses to drop on Japanese cities, its top commanders, such as General Curtis LeMay, turned to napalm bombs to continue fire raids on the large Japanese cities.
In the European Theater of Operations napalm was used by American forces in the siege of La Rochelle in April 1945 against German soldiers (and inadvertently French civilians in Royan) – about two weeks before the end of the war.
Napalm B was also used during the Greek Civil War between the Greek Army and Communist rebels. During 1949, the last year of the war, the United States increased its military aid to the Greek Government by introducing a new weapon to finish off the war: napalm B. The first napalm attack in Greece took place on the mountain of Grammos, which was the stronghold of the Communist rebels.
Napalm B was also widely used by the United Nations military forces during the Korean War. These Allied ground forces in Korea were frequently outnumbered, and often greatly, by their Chinese and North Korean attackers, but the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy naval aviators had control of the air over nearly all of the Korean Peninsula. Hence, close air support of the ground troops along the border between North Korea and South Korea was vital, and the American and other U.N. aviators turned to napalm B as an important weapon for defending against communist ground attacks. Napalm was used most notably during the defense of "Outpost Harry" in South Korea during the night of June 10–11, 1953.
Napalm B became an intrinsic element of U.S. military action during the Vietnam War as forces increasingly employed its widespread tactical as well as psychological effects. Reportedly about 388,000 tons of U.S. napalm bombs were dropped in the region between 1963 and 1973, compared to 32,357 tons used over three years in the Korean War, and 16,500 tons dropped on Japan in 1945.
The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy used napalm with great effect against all kinds of targets to include troops, tanks, buildings, jungles, and even railroad tunnels. The effect was not always purely physical as napalm had psychological effects on the enemy as well.
Other uses include: by France during the First Indochina War (1946–1954), the Algerian War (1954–1962), the Portuguese Colonial War (1961–1974), The Six-Day War by Israel (1967), in Nigeria (1969), India and Pakistan (1965 and 1971), by Morocco during the Western Sahara War (1975–1991), Iran (1980–88), Egypt (1973), Iraq (1980–88, 1991), Angola (1993), Yugoslavia (1991–1996), and by Argentina (1982).
Effects on people
"Napalm is the most terrible pain you can imagine," said Kim Phúc, a napalm bombing survivor known from a famous Vietnam War photograph. "Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius (212°F). Napalm generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius (1,500–2,200°F)."
When used as a part of an incendiary weapon, napalm can cause severe burns (ranging from superficial to subdermal), asphyxiation, unconsciousness, and death. In this implementation, napalm fires can create an atmosphere of greater than 20% carbon monoxide and firestorms with self-perpetuating winds of up to 70 miles per hour (110 km/h). One of the main anti-personnel features of napalm is that it sticks to human skin, with no practical method for removal of the burning substance.
Napalm is effective against dug-in enemy personnel. The burning incendiary composition flows into foxholes, trenches and bunkers, and drainage and irrigation ditches and other improvised troop shelters. Even people in undamaged shelters can be killed by hyperthermia, radiant heat, dehydration, asphyxiation, smoke exposure, or carbon monoxide poisoning.
One firebomb released from a low-flying plane can damage an area of 2,500 square yards (2,100 m2).
International law does not specifically prohibit the use of napalm or other incendiaries against military targets, but use against civilian populations was banned by the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in 1980. Protocol III of the CCW restricts the use of all incendiary weapons, but a number of countries have not acceded to all of the protocols of the CCW. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), countries are considered a party to the convention, which entered into force as international law in December 1983, as long as they ratify at least two of the five protocols. Approximately 25 years after the General Assembly adopted it, the United States signed it on January 21, 2009, President Barack Obama's first full day in office. Its ratification, however, is subject to a reservation that says that the treaty can be ignored if it would save civilian lives.
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- Globalsecurity.org article
- University of Bristol Webproject
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- Kleber, Brooks E. and Birdsell, Dale (1966) The Chemical Warfare Service: Chemicals in Combat. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, p.158.
- An article in The Harvard Crimson dated 12 October 1973 here states that "The U.S. military started using napalm during the middle of 1942", but no source has been found to confirm this statement.
- McCue, Paul and Baker, Max (2009) SAS Operation Bulbasket: Behind the Lines in Occupied France. Barnsley, S. Yorks: Pen and Sword Books. p. 104. ISBN 1848841930.
- Reference: see any good biography of the WW II Marine Corps pilot John Glenn, who dropped napalm on Okinawa. Also, see war films of American pilots dropping napalm on Japanese strong points on Okinawa. See Report of the Commanding General Eighth Army on the Luzon Mop-up Operation (February 1946)
- De Chant, John A. (1947). Devilbirds. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers. p. 155.
- Zinn, Howard (1997). The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy. Seven Stories Press. pp. 267–. ISBN 978-1-888363-54-8.
- Howard ZinnYou Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. 2004 Documentary
- Benjamin Stora, "Avoir 20 ans en Kabylie", in L'Histoire n°324, October 2007, pp. 28–29 (French)
- Goose Green, 2 Para in Falklands War 1982. Naval-history.net. Retrieved on 2010-02-11.
- Omara-Otunnu, Elizabeth (November 8, 2004). Napalm Survivor Tells of Healing After Vietnam War. University of Connecticut Advance.
- Napalm Exposure at eMedicine
- Text of Convention on CCW at www.worldinbalance.net
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