Remembering “The smell of Napalm in the morning”

As we step gently into the final days of January, our eyes are alert for the first genuine signs of spring. Hopes are high for better weather and a steady stream of good news from the COVID-19 battlefront as we wait with apprehension for signs of relaxed tensions in Ukraine.

With vain hope, we approach February, a month with a Valentine’s Day that reminds us of friendlier times dedicated to love, and yet we are swamped by hateful rhetoric on the streets and in high places.

We talk, regretfully, about “yesterday” when the world was a gentler place, and maybe get a little upset when some old guy who should be relaxed in rocking chair comfort insists on reminding us that it was on Valentine’s Day, 1942, that a team of scientists in the USA announced success in the design of a new bomb. Not nuclear – that was still a work in progress. 

This was just – you know – an ordinary little bomb classified as acceptable according to warfare standards.

In his book The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell tells us the white coat scientists had come up with plans for small incendiary bombs as long as a short stick of dynamite that could be wrapped “with a layer of white phosphorous and placed it the middle of a canister of gelled napalm.”

When the dynamite exploded, the napalm gel would be ignited and scattered in flaming gobs to start other fires. 

Gladwell describes the workings of this new acceptable weapon of war – named the M-69: “When ignited, the gel filling becomes a clinging, fiery mass … it burns at approximately 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit for eight to 10 minutes.”

It was designed specifically for attacks on Japan, where wooden structures dominated the landscape in all major cities. The use of these weapons reached a fiery climax in a series of firebomb attacks on Tokyo starting on March 9, 1945. With the August war-ending destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by single nuclear bombs, the fire raids courtesy of M-69s quickly vanished from newspaper headlines. But not from memory. 

In his book, Gladwell tells us that more than 300 B-29 Superfortress aircraft “loaded with as much napalm as they could carry” began taking off from airfields in Guam, Tinian and Saigon late in the afternoon of March 9, 1945. The lead aircraft were in formation over Tokyo just after midnight. The “pathfinders” were laying flares to mark the target area, and then at 5,000 feet – the lowest B-29s ever flew on a mission – came “hundreds of planes, massive, winged beasts … flying so low that the entire city pulsed” from the booming of the engines. 

It is estimated that 100,000 people, mostly civilians, died in the six-hour raid. The Bomber Mafia quotes the post-war United States Strategic Bombing Survey conclusion that: “Probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a six-hour period than at any time in the history of man.”

Gladwell, whose “Mafia” reference in his book title could hint at pre-influenced thinking, says the attack lasted only three hours during which 1,665 tons of napalm were dropped in tight proximity to create a planned fire-storm, “a conflagration of such intensity that it would create and sustain its own wind system.” It is estimated that 16 square miles became ashes.

A few weeks later, 450 B29s hit Yokohama with 2,570 tons of napalm, reducing half the city to ash and “killing several thousand.”

If you have ever watched Apocalypse Now, you will remember actor Robert Duvall’s chilling lines: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like victory.”

Would it help, do you think, if the parties involved in the debate on the fate of Ukraine sat for joint viewing of news clips from Tokyo, Berlin, Stalingrad, London, Dresden, Yokohama or any one of dozens of Vietnam towns and villages and their countless dead courtesy of napalm?

Probably not. After all, the United Nations passed a protocol in 1981 creating a treaty banning the use of “incendiary weapons.” The UN claims 115 nations have now signed the treaty with the USA not getting to the table until 2009 when then-President Barack Obama made the signing one of his priorities the day after his inauguration.

And I wonder, how many countries would open their military weapons stores to prove they’re clean; and how many would enjoy a return to “the smell of napalm in the morning.”

One comment

  1. Napalm entered my consciousness during the Vietnam War. I wasn’t aware of its earlier application.

    It is a barbaric weapon. But much of 20th century warfare was barbaric.

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