Napalm: An American Biographyby Robert M. Neer
Napalm, incendiary gel that sticks to skin and burns to the bone, came into the world on Valentine’s Day 1942 at a secret Harvard war research laboratory. On March 9, 1945, it created an inferno that killed over 87,500 people in Tokyo—more than died in the atomic explosions at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. It went on to incinerate sixty-four of Japan’s
Napalm, incendiary gel that sticks to skin and burns to the bone, came into the world on Valentine’s Day 1942 at a secret Harvard war research laboratory. On March 9, 1945, it created an inferno that killed over 87,500 people in Tokyo—more than died in the atomic explosions at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. It went on to incinerate sixty-four of Japan’s largest cities. The Bomb got the press, but napalm did the work.
After World War II, the incendiary held the line against communism in Greece and Korea—Napalm Day led the 1950 counter-attack from Inchon—and fought elsewhere under many flags. Americans generally applauded, until the Vietnam War. Today, napalm lives on as a pariah: a symbol of American cruelty and the misguided use of power, according to anti-war protesters in the 1960s and popular culture from Apocalypse Now to the punk band Napalm Death and British street artist Banksy. Its use by Serbia in 1994 and by the United States in Iraq in 2003 drew condemnation. United Nations delegates judged deployment against concentrations of civilians a war crime in 1980. After thirty-one years, America joined the global consensus, in 2011.
Robert Neer has written the first history of napalm, from its inaugural test on the Harvard College soccer field, to a Marine Corps plan to attack Japan with millions of bats armed with tiny napalm time bombs, to the reflections of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, a girl who knew firsthand about its power and its morality.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter 5: The American Century
A windstorm ripped the skies over Tokyo on the night of 9 March 1945. Gusts of 60 miles per hour roared through narrow streets and over wooden houses that sheltered the city’s millions. Blasts rose to 80 miles per hour as midnight approached.
Far at sea, sentries on Japanese Navy ships heard the roar of hundreds of U.S. bombers as they flew north at low altitudes. Radar stations on the Bonin Islands, 600 miles south of Tokyo, also detected the attackers. Warnings flashed, but it was unclear exactly where the airplanes were going. It was not until just after midnight that sentries on tiny islands near the capital heard the thunder of propellors and radioed “Major air raid on Tokyo.”
“Pathfinder” bombers reached the city minutes later, flying at about 5,000 feet: low enough to see individual buildings, parks and streets. Searchlights flared, anti-aircraft guns on ships in the harbor and land batteries boomed, and a few dozen fighters scrambled. Too late. The pathfinders dropped 100-pound M-47 bombs painted gray-blue and banded in purple to indicate their incendiary payloads—twins of the shells tested in Boston three years earlier—and burned a flaming cross about four miles by three into the heart of the city. “[W]ithin this target area of approximately 10 square miles, the average population density is 103,000 people per square mile, an average probably not exceeded in any other modern industrial city in the world,” reported crew information sheets. Manhattan’s Lower East Side immigrant neighborhood, by comparison, had a peak density of 106,240 people per square mile in 1910. Commanding general Thomas Power steered his bomber to 10,000 feet and circled as a “Master of Ceremonies” for Operation Meetinghouse, following a British technique developed in night attacks on German metropolises.
Bombers followed in a line that stretched for hundreds of miles back over the sea. French journalist Guillain wrote of the Superfortresses, “Their long, glinting wings, sharp as blades, could be seen through the oblique columns of smoke rising from the city, suddenly reflecting the fire from the furnace below, black silhouettes gliding through the fiery sky to reappear further on, shining golden against the dark roof of heaven or glittering blue, like meteors, in the searchlight beams spraying the vault from horizon to horizon.” As they passed, around 6,500 clusters of Standard Oil’s M-69 bombs dropped from their bellies, burst as they fell, and scattered around a quarter of a million individual “Molotov flower baskets,” as the Japanese called them. Bright green 40-inch streamers unfurled to point the bombs down head-first. They smashed through roofs to spatter blazing napalm and belch thick clouds of white phosphorus. “[C]ylinders scattered a kind if flaming dew that skittered along the roofs, setting fire to everything it splashed and spreading a wash of dancing flames everywhere,” Guillain recounted. About 690,000 pounds of napalm fell in less than an hour.
Meet the Author
Robert M. Neer is an attorney and Core Lecturer in the History Department at Columbia University.
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I'm feeling frisky. *she said. She had a tattoo saying, "fu ck me" on her back.*
Falls asleep. ((Gtg. Bbt. Too tierd and has a very bad headache...
Poured over them.