Hunkered down in the trenches as the rain continuously pours, the men are cold, wet, and covered in mud. The soldier flips up the collar of his trench coat to keep the rain off, and he fumbles through his pockets for a smoke and a light. We hear the familiar, metallic click of the lid popping open, followed by the scrape of the striker and the whoosh of the flame as it springs to life. A cold breeze blows, and the flame dances in the night air.
The soldier’s hard eyes and furrowed brow take on an orange hue behind the bouncing flame. Shadows cascade across his face, contrasting the creased lines around his eyes. The cigarette sparks to life as the man take a long drag, and the cherry begins to glow. With a flick of the wrist, the Zippo lighter closes with a clang and disappears back into a pocket.
In 1932, George G. Blaisdell came up with the Zippo lighter after watching a friend struggle with a windproof lighter from Austria. He vastly improved on the design and played around with names, finally settling on Zippo, which he thought gave it a modern sound. Ultimately, he created an attractive lighter destined to become iconic, durable, reliable, and easily operated with one hand. Coupled with his unconditional lifetime guarantee of “It works, or we fix it free,” which is still in effect today, Blaisdell manufactured a durable winner with a genuine competitive advantage.
America entered World War II in 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor. At this time, Zippo ceased production of all its lighters for the consumer market to focus instead on production for the military. They created a steel-cased Zippo lighter with a black crackle finish that soldiers coveted throughout the war. The troops were always looking for reliable gear since, often, what was issued to them was absolute trash. The Zippo was both reliable and compact, which quickly endeared it to the troops.
Though it was predominantly used to light cigarettes, the Zippo, as with fire in general, has many uses. A Zippo can start a fire for warmth or heat a meal, and it can be used as a signal or just to light one’s way. It was one piece of gear that was an absolute necessity.
The Zippo took on an even more significant role in the war effort in Vietnam. Aside from reliably lighting cigarettes, soldiers could also use it to light the Flame Thrower Tank M67 when its electrical igniter failed. These tanks were affectionately known as “Zippo tracks.” The M2A1-7 portable flamethrower was also known as a “Zippo.” So too, were the Brown Water Navy boats equipped with flamethrowers known as “Zippo monitors.” “Zippo raids” or “Zippo jobs” were performed by “Zippo squads.” These fiery missions occurred when grunts had to go in and “burn a hooch” (a dwelling) or raze entire villages.
The Viet Cong used them as weapons too. They would boobytrap the lighters and deposit them in bars or other rear areas for unsuspecting U.S. soldiers to pick up and detonate. Indeed, the Zippo has a long and storied history with our American warfighters.
Zippos have now become treasured historical artifacts. Throughout its history, soldiers have created trench art from these lighters by engraving them with all manner of designs. During Vietnam, Zippos became commonly engraved with maps of Vietnam, unit insignias, cartoon characters, and nude women—lots of nude women. Variations of phrases like FIGMO (“Fuck it, got my orders”), “Death is our business and business is good” or biblical references, such as the 23rd Psalm (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …”), were commonplace on these embellished lighters.
The Zippo lighter is a true American cultural fixture and has been much loved by American warfighters up to this very day. World War II war correspondent Ernie Pyle captured it best: “If I were to tell you how much these Zippos are coveted at the front and the gratitude and delight with which the boys receive them, you would probably accuse me of exaggeration. I truly believe that the Zippo lighter is the most coveted thing in the army.” That, I believe, says it all.