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Posted on Nov 7, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Vietnam Zippos – Book Review

By Jerry D. Morelock

Much like their fathers, uncles and grandfathers had done before in World War II and Korea, Vietnam GIs carried Zippo lighters in their pockets as an essential, if unofficial, tool. While some servicemen may have opted to carry a competitor’s product, like Ronson, Zippo clearly has been the GIs iconic lighter – its distinctive, tinny “click” when opening the lid and the satisfying “thunk” when it’s closed again even substituted for American troops’ “sign and countersign” on many a dark night in the eerie quiet of a combat zone where enemy soldiers lurked about. Zippo is as distinctly American as apple pie, the Stars & Stripes and the girl next door.

Vietnam Zippo book -- GI with Zippo.jpg
Essential Equipment. Zippos were not always carried in GIs’ pockets, as this soldier shows – he’s keeping his tucked into his helmet camouflage band, right next to his smokes!

Founded in 1932, the Zippo Manufacturing Company of Bradford, Pennsylvania (zippo.com) has been producing these pocket-sized flame producers for three-quarters of a century. Yet, despite the lighter’s World War II and Korean War pedigrees, the “Vietnam Zippos” seem particularly unique and colorful, given their widely personalized — frequently X-rated! – engravings. The Zippos featured in the superb color plates in Buchanan’s book are as pugnaciously individualistic as were the GIs who carried them. Many of the engravings on Buchanan’s Vietnam Zippos are profane; some wax philosophical; many scream social protest slogans; others are just plain raunchy; while the less imaginative among them might simply feature the GI’s unit and perhaps the years of his Vietnam service.

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Buchanan organizes the lighters into several categories: “Get Charlie” (combat oriented); “Get High Get Laid” (sex, drugs and rock & roll themes); and “Zippo War” (protest messages). As the author notes, the book’s collection is “part pop art and part military artifact;” yet, taken together, we read the engravings as a snapshot social history, a microcosm of the attitudes (very often “in your face!”), mores, desires, hopes and fears of the GIs who owned them. Whether carried as a talisman or as simply a convenient, easily-concealable object upon which to privately “rage against the machine,” these Vietnam Zippos represent a previously untapped source for studying the “new military history” of those who fought our most divisive war.

Vietnam Zippo book -- Morelocks VN Zippo Nov 1971.jpg
Reviewer (and ACG Editor in Chief) Jerry D. Morelock bought this Zippo in the Danang PX shortly after arriving in Vietnam in November 1971. Like many GIs, Morelock immediately had it engraved in the Vietnamese stall right next to the PX. The principal reason most GIs had their Zippos engraved soon after purchase was not necessarily for self-expression – it made them harder to steal! And, yeah, he knows his engraving is pretty dull – definitely would not have made it into this book!

In addition to an introduction by the author, the book features a chapter on collecting Zippos by Bradford Edwards, the artist who owns most of the lighters featured, plus a useful alphabetical index of all of the inscriptions and a helpful glossary of Vietnam War terms. This book is highly recommended for those who want to get a rare, “insider’s look” at GI attitudes during the war. But, be forewarned – many of the engravings are frankly explicit (e. g. like the typical GI’s dialogue of that era, the “F – word” abounds!). This is not a book for children – but most ex-GIs who read it will be laughing their butts off at many of the engravings.

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