Zippos and American warfighters go hand-in-hand.
If you watch a movie and see troops lighting up a cigarette, you’ll probably notice that Zippo in their hand. Search-and-destroy missions in the Vietnam War were often referred to as “Zippo missions.” There’s simply no denying the fact that American troops have long had an intimate relationship with Zippos.
Troops are always searching for reliable gear as, oftentimes, the stuff we’re issued is absolute trash. That’s where Zippos come in. They’re reliable and compact, two criteria that “military-grade” items tend not to satisfy. But it’s not just that they work well — they’ve had a long history with troops.
Zippos during WWII were primarily used to light cigarettes. Vietnam, however, was another story.
(U.S. Marine Corps)
The American Zippo Manufacturing Company was founded in the 1930s, but when World War II started, the company ceased all production for consumer markets altogether and instead manufactured lighters exclusively for troops being sent to war. Millions of them were carried by troops and, no matter what, they knew they could rely on their trusty, metal lighter to spark their cigarette during a long day of ass-kicking.
Some units who performed these Zippo missions were referred to as “Zippo Squads.”
Zippos took on a different function during the Vietnam War. Aside from reliably lighting cigarettes, they were used to light flamethrower tanks when the built-in, electrical igniter didn’t work. They were also used as mirrors to shave, to heat up popcorn, and the list goes on.
In fact, Zippos became synonymous with Vietnam War operations as troops would raze villages with lighters on seek-and-destroy missions. But Zippos weren’t just for burning things down — they actually became a kind of cultural timepiece.
Some of the best pieces of military history.
(Photo by Joe Haupt)
In Vietnam, troops began engraving designs onto the sides of the hardy, metal lighters as a way to pass the time. By looking at those engravings, we’ve been able to glean some insight into the mindset of troops from the era. It might have been just an idle habit at the time, but such historical artifacts are invaluable for future generations.
The practice of engraving Zippos is one that carries over to modern-day service members. It may not be as popular as it once was, but troops all over still use the iconic lighter to spark up cigarettes or even burn frayed paracord.
Regardless, one thing is for sure — Zippos remain one of the most iconic pieces of unofficial military gear.