The Most Dangerous Day of my Life
or "There’s nothing like the smell of napalm in the morning"
Those of you who know a little about my history know that I fought in Vietnam as a Marine rifle company commander and operations officer in 1967 and 1968. We confronted Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers from Goi Noi Island in the southern part of I Corps to the DMZ in the north. My battalion spent it's month on Con Thien near the DMZ where we were hit every day with artillery and mortars from within the DMZ and from NVA batteries across the Ben Hai River in North Vietnam. I was involved in the recapture of Hue during the 1968 TET Offensive.
But the most dangerous day of my life had nothing to do with combat in Vietnam. It had to do with Marine reservists and napalm. Marine reserve units are activated for two weeks of training at Marine Corps bases around the country every year during peacetime. Some active duty Marines disparage the reservists because they are only part time Marines, drilling one weekend a month and serving two weeks of active duty every year. Their military bearing and personal appearance are sometimes not up to the standards of the regular Marine Corps. Some of the reservists appear to have a lackadaisical, not give a shit attitude when they do their two week stint, usually in the summertime at Camp Lejeune, NC or Camp Pendleton, CA. But when I hear this I always remind the disparagers that the reserves are here because they want to be here. They don't have to do this stuff.
When I was a 2nd Lieutenant assigned to Company M, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines of the Second Marine Division at Lejeune in 1964, I was assigned as the officer in charge of training reservists in the use of the flame thrower. The picture below is of the model of flame thrower that was used during World War II, Korea and into the 1960s, the venerable M2A1. The Flame Section was part of the Headquarters and Service Company of the Marine Infantry Battalion. This weapon is no longer in the Marine Corps inventory…something about being inhumane and all the baggage that goes with that accusation in our politically correct world.
Flame Thrower, M2A1…from H&S Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines
The primary use of flame throwers was to burn out Japanese bunkers during the amphibious assaults in the Pacific during World War II. They were very effective in that they not only used fire to destroy the enemy in their emplacements, but also instantly consumed all the oxygen in the bunkers suffocating those not burned to death. This weapon continued to be used during Korea, Vietnam, and post Vietnam as well.
The two larger tanks on the weapon were filled with napalm, a mixture of a thickening agent and gasoline. The caps on the top of the tanks were unscrewed and the napalm was poured in. The smaller tank in the center was filled with compressed air to propel the burning napalm down range. You will notice two pistol grips on the business end of the flame thrower. The front one lit a match-like device in the nose and the rear one released the napalm under pressure. As the napalm passed the burning match, it caught fire and could be fired 25-30 yards down range.
Marine Flame Thrower team assaulting a Japanese bunker on Iwo Jima
OK, so much for flame thrower lore. How did I get involved? I was a rifle platoon leader in Mike Company. The only thing I knew about flame throwers was what we were taught in The Basic School. I have no idea why I was assigned as the OIC for this reservist training session, but there I was. The NCOs and troops from the 3/6 Flames Section would provide the expertise. Our objective was to get each reservist in the class trigger time with the flame thrower. The Flames Section guys would take care of the technical details. My primary duty was safety, and that's where the rub came in.
First we had to mix the napalm. We had plenty of the powdered thickener and plenty of gasoline stacked up in 5 gallon jerry cans. The napalm was concocted in a 55 gallon drum. You poured the proper ratio of gasoline to thickener into the drum and mixed it with a canoe paddle. It was just like making a witches brew, except more explosive. Mixing the gas with the thickener made the fuel a little less flammable, but still dangerous. So one Marine stirred the concoction, and others dipped it out of the drum and poured it through funnels into the tanks of the weapons. I forget how many flame throwers we had on the range that day, but it was probably three or four of the infernal things.
After they were filled they were strapped on the backs of the reservists, and under the close supervision of the Flames personnel, they were fired. The flame thrower can be just as dangerous to the gunner as to the enemy. When the compressed air is released there is significant recoil and if the gunner is not braced in a forward leaning position, he can be knocked on his back. Remember that when the napalm is released it passes the match and is burning. Imagine what could happen if a gunner went down with an active weapon.
Anyway there I was, a 2nd Lieutenant worrying about some idiot lighting up a cigarette while stirring the napalm, or some not give a shit reservist burning himself up because he didn't follow directions. There were gas fumes all over the place and the slightest spark could have wiped out the entire Flames sections of 3/6 and the reserve battalion we were training, not to mention the small buildings and targets on the range. It probably would have taken out a number of the tall pine trees that dot Camp Lejeune as well.
So after a very long and apprehensive day we finally cycled all the reservists through and burned up all the napalm without taking out half of Onslow County, North Carolina. In Vietnam we often called for close air support and saw the napalm in action against the Viet Cong and NVA. It was an extremely effective weapon to say the least. But there was something very sinister about that day long ago when I feared that a tiny spark would send us all to hell. In retrospective comparison, it is even somewhat comforting to think of lying flat in a rice paddy with 12.7mm NVA machine gun rounds cracking over your head. It's amazing how flat you can make yourself under such circumstances. At least you had the paddy dikes to hide behind. I don't care how flat you made yourself if the 55 gallon drum of napalm and the surrounding gas cans had cooked off. We all would have been crispy critters. No place to hide.
So there you have it. I have been scared in combat, as all of us who have been shot at have been, but there is a special fear when the possibility of disappearing in a ball of fire is extant. It must have been the same brand of fear that the Japanese gunners in the bunkers of Tarawa, Saipan, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa felt when they saw the bent figures with the camouflage helmet covers coming carrying the flame throwers and satchel charges.
Just another story in this wayward old Marine’s life in the Corps…every day a holiday, every meal a feast, every reservist training exercise an adventure that made your knees shake.
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