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Napalm (naphthenic and palmitic acids) is the thickener used to coagulate gasoline into a gelatine for military uses. Developed by Harvardmarker chemists, headed by Louis Fieser, the thickener’s name, napalm, derives from the first letters of the names of the thickeners, coprecipitated aluminium salts of naphthenic and palmitic acids. Currently, napalm is the generic name denoting several flammable liquids used in warfare, often jellied gasoline.

A major problem with early incendiary fluids was that they splashed and drained too easily. The U.S. learned that a gasoline gel increased the range and effectiveness of flamethrowers, but its manufacture was difficult because it used natural rubber (latex), which then was expensive and in high demand for other war effort purposes (e.g. truck tires). Napalm was the cheaper alternative to latex (rubber-based) incendiaries.


Napalm is usually a mixture of gasoline with suitable thickening agents. The earliest thickeners were soaps, aluminium or magnesium palmitates and stearates. There have been unconfirmed reports of using blood from livestock as a field-expedient thickening agent combined with gasoline to make napalm, as was mentioned in the mystery novel called 'Gorky Park.' Depending on the amount of added thickener, the resulting viscosity may range between syrupy liquid and thick rubbery gel. The content of long hydrocarbon chains makes the material highly hydrophobic (resistant to wetting with water), making it more difficult to extinguish. Thickened fuel also rebounds better from surfaces, making it more useful for operations in urban terrain.

There are two types of napalm: oil-based with aluminium soap thickener, and oil-based with polymeric ("napalm-B").

The United States military uses three kinds of thickeners: M1, M2, and M4.
  • The M1 Thickener (MIL-T-589A), chemically a mixture of 25% wt. aluminium naphthenate, 25% aluminium oleate, and 50% aluminium laurate, (or, according to other sources, aluminium stearate soap) is a highly hygroscopic coarse tan-colored powder. As the water content impairs the quality of napalm, thickener from partially used open containers should not be used later. It is not maintained in the US Army inventory any more as it was used concurrently with M4. MIL-T-589A was cancelled 30 October 1987.
  • The M2 Thickener (MIL-T-0903025B) is a whitish powder similar to M1, with added devolatilized silica and anticaking agent.
  • The M4 flame fuel thickening compound (MIL-T-50009A), hydroxyl aluminium bis with anti-caking agent, is a fine white powder. It is less hygroscopic than M1 and opened containers can be resealed and used within one day. About half the amount of M4 is needed for the same effect as of M1. MIL-T-50009A was in use from 22 May 1959 and was listed INACTIVE 5 June 1996 for new design.

A later variant, napalm-B, also called "super napalm", is a mixture of low-octane gasoline with benzene and polystyrene. It was used in the Vietnam War. Unlike conventional napalm, which burns for only 15–30 seconds, napalm B burns for up to 10 minutes with fewer fireballs, sticks better to surfaces, and offers improved destruction effects. It is not as easy to ignite, which reduces the number of accidents caused by soldiers smoking. When it burns, it develops a characteristic smell.

Starting in the early 1990s, various websites including The Anarchist Cookbook advertised recipes for homemade napalm. These recipes were predominantly equal parts gasoline and styrofoam. This mixture closely resembles that of napalm-B, but lacks a percentage of benzene.

Napalm reaches burning temperatures of approximately 1,200 °C (2,200 °F). Other additives can be added, eg. powdered aluminium or magnesium, or white phosphorus.

In the early 1950s, Norwaymarker developed its own napalm, based on fatty acids in whale oil. The reason for this development was that the American-produced thickening agent performed rather poorly in the cold Norwegian climate. The product was known as Northick II.

Some weapons utilize a pyrophoric variant, known as TPA (thickened pyrophoric agent). Chemically it is a triethylaluminium thickened with polyisobutylene.

Modern napalm

Modern napalm is composed primarily of benzene and polystyrene, and is known as napalm-B.

Napalm 877 was used in flamethrowers and bombs by the U.S. and Allied forces, to increase effectiveness of flammable liquids. The substance is formulated to burn at a specific rate and adhere to surfaces. Napalm is mixed with gasoline in various proportions to achieve this. Another useful (and dangerous) effect, primarily involving its use in bombs, was that napalm "rapidly deoxygenates the available air" as well as creating large amounts of carbon monoxide causing suffocation. Napalm bombs were notably used in the Vietnam War. Lesser known is the first defensive use of napalm during the Korean War at Outpost Harrymarker on the night of June 10–11, 1953.

Though napalm was a 20th century invention, it is part of a long history of incendiary materials in warfare. Historically however, liquids were primarily used (see Greek fire). An infantry-based flammable liquid fuel weapon, the flamethrower, was introduced in World War I by the Germans, variations of which were soon developed by other nations in the conflict. The weapon was used in Vietnam through the Vietnam War.

Napalm is sometimes used as an effective, albeit dangerous, de-weeding agent for vines and weeds.

Usage in warfare

On July 17, 1944, napalm incendiary bombs were dropped for the first time by American P-38 pilots on a fuel depot at Coutancesmarker, near St. Lômarker, France. Howard Zinn relates how he participated in a napalm bombing of German soldiers (and French civilians) who were awaiting the end of World War II in France about two weeks before the end of the war. Napalm bombs were first used in the Pacific Theatre during the Battle of Tinian by Marine aviators; however, its use was complicated by problems with mixing, fuzing and aircraft release mechanisms. In World War II, The USAAF bombed citiesmarker in Japanmarker with napalm. The substance was used in bombs and flamethrowers in Germany and the Japanese-held islands. It was used by the Greek National army against the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE) during the Greek Civil War, by United Nations forces in Korea, by Francemarker against the Viet Minh in the First Indochina War, by Mexicomarker in the late 1960s against guerrilla fighters in Guerreromarker and by the United Statesmarker during the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War, Dow became the sole supplier of napalm to the United States military who used the Napalm in their efforts during the war. Localy produced napalm (known as Frantan) was widely used by the Rhodesian Air Force during that countrys 1970's civil war.

The most well-known method of delivering napalm is from air-dropped incendiary bombs. A lesser-known method is the flame throwers used by combat infantry. Flame throwers use a thinner version of the same jellied gasoline to destroy gun emplacements, bunkers and cave hideouts. U.S. Marines fighting on Guadalcanalmarker found them very effective against Japanese positions. The Marines used fire as both a casualty weapon as well as a psychological weapon. They found that Japanese soldiers would abandon positions in which they fought to the death against other weapons. Prisoners of war confirmed that they feared napalm more than any other weapon utilised against them.

Pilots returning from the war zone often remarked they would rather have a couple of droppable gasoline tanks full of napalm than any other weapon, bombs, rockets or guns. The U.S. Air Force and Navy used napalm with great effect against all manner of targets to include troops, tanks, buildings and even railroad tunnels. The demoralizing effect napalm had on the enemy became apparent when scores of North Koreanmarker troops began to surrender to aircraft flying overhead. Pilots noted that they saw surviving enemy troops waving white flags on subsequent passes after dropping napalm. The pilots radioed to ground troops and the North Koreans were captured.

Napalm has been used more recently in wartime by or against: Moroccomarker (1976), Iranmarker (1980–88), Israelmarker (1967, 1982), Nigeriamarker (1969), Indiamarker & Pakistanmarker (1965 & 1971), Brazilmarker (1972), Egyptmarker (1973), Cyprusmarker (1964, 1974), Iraqmarker (1980–88, 1991, 2003–present), Serbiamarker (1994), 1993 Angolamarker, by Argentinamarker during the Falklands War, Francemarker during the First Indochina War (1946–1954) and the Algerian War (1954–1962),.

Napalm can kill or wound by immolation and by asphyxiation. Immolation produces rapid loss of blood pressure, unconsciousness and death in a short time. Third-degree burns are typically not painful at the time, because only the skin nerves respond to heat and third-degree burns kill the nerves. Burn victims do not experience first-degree burns due to the adhesive properties of napalm that stick to the skin. Severe second-degree burns, likely to be suffered by someone hit with a small splash of napalm are severely painful and produce hideous scars called keloids, which can also bring about motor disturbances.

"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.
Napalm generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius."

Phúc sustained third-degree burns to half her body and was not expected to live after the attack by South Vietnamese aircraft. But thanks to assistance from South Vietnamese photographer Nick Ut and American doctors, and after surviving a 14-month hospital stay and 17 operations, she became an outspoken peace activist. During the Vietnam War, homemade napalm was used by peace activists to destroy draft records(see Catonsville Nine).

International law does not necessarily 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, (often referred to as the CCW) in 1980. Protocol III of the CCW restricts the use of incendiary weapons (not only napalm), but a number of states have not acceded to all of the protocols of the CCW. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), states are considered a party to the convention, which entered into force as international law in December 1983, if they ratify at least two of the five protocols. The United Statesmarker, for example, is a party to the CCW but did not sign protocol III.

Reports by the Sydney Morning Herald suggested the usage of napalm in the Iraq War by US forces. This was denied by the U.S.marker Department of Defensemarker. In August 2003, the San Diego Union Tribune alleged that U.S. Marine pilots and their commanders confirmed the use of Mark 77 firebombs on Iraqi Republican Guards during the initial stages of combat. Official denials of the use of 'napalm' were, however, disingenuous, as the Mk 77 bomb that is currently in service at this time, the Mk 77 Mod 5, does not use actual napalm (for example, napalm-B). The last U.S. bomb to use actual napalm was the Mark 77 Mod 4, the last of which were destroyed in March 2001. The substance used now is a different incendiary mixture, but sufficiently analogous in its effects that it is still a controversial incendiary, and can still be referred to colloquially as 'napalm.'

"We napalmed both those (bridge) approaches," said Col. Randolph Alles in a recent interview.
"Unfortunately, there were people there because you could see them in the (cockpit) video."
(...) "They were Iraqi soldiers there.
It's no great way to die," he added....
"The generals love napalm....
It has a big psychological effect."
San Diego Union-Tribune, August 2003

Napalm in popular culture

  • In the 2009 thriller film Law Abiding Citizen Clyde Shelton is attempting to blow up the city hall with a napalm bomb.
  • The video game Mega Man 5 featured a boss character Napalm Man.
  • In Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now, the character Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (played by actor Robert Duvall) famously recited the line "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."
  • Rock musician Iggy Pop makes a reference to napalm in the lyric "a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm" in the Iggy and the Stooges song Search and Destroy (which originally appears on the 1973 album Raw Power).
  • Progressive metal band Dream Theater makes a reference to the use of napalm in the Vietnamese War in the lyrics "Napalm showers showed the cowards, We weren't there to mess around" in the third part, "War Inside My Head", of the title track on the album Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.
  • Thrash Metal band Sodom makes a reference in the song called "Napalm in the morning"
  • Napalm Death are an English extreme metal band from Birmingham, formed in 1981.
  • In the video game Postal 2, one of the task for Postal Dude to do is to pick up a napalm bomb to "cut" his weeds. Turns out that he attempt to kill his wife by showing it off to her and after hearing from his wife that he got the carpet on fire and Postal Dude replies back saying "Sorry, I tried to aim higher".
  • The guitar simulation game series Guitar Hero features a playable character known as "Johnny Napalm".
  • The video game Grand Theft Auto Vice City Stories features a re-aired advertisement for "Friendly Napalm" as a sponsor for a fictional 1940s detective series, "Gordon Moorehead Rides Again", a program on the VCPR (Vice City Public Radio) station.
  • In the novel and subsequent movie, Fight Club, the main character, Tyler Durden, explains that one can make napalm using equal parts gasoline and orange juice concentrate.
  • American Post-Hardcore Band Emarosa released a song titled "Set It Off Like Napalm" on their album Relativity

See also


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