Weapons experts demonstrate how M2-Flamethrowers were once used to destroy Japanese bunkers June 7, 2014, during World War II Weekend in Reading, Pa. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. David Bessey.
By the time the American flag was raised atop Mount Suribachi, Marine Cpl. Hershel Williams had already destroyed seven enemy pillboxes. Throughout the morning of Feb. 23, 1945, Japanese soldiers ensconced in heavily fortified concrete dugouts had slowed the American advance across the island of Iwo Jima. Tanks, explosives, and even aircraft couldn’t destroy the bunkers. Eventually, Williams volunteered to take the flamethrower on his back and knock them out himself.
“Bazookas and that sort of thing had no effect on them, because [the bunkers] were so thick and well-built,” Williams later recalled. “The only way to eliminate the enemy inside those pillboxes was by flamethrower.”
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Hershel "Woody" Williams speaks during a hangar dedication ceremony at the Capital Jet Center in Charleston, West Virginia, July 26, 2019. US Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. William Holdaway.
It’s been almost eight decades since Williams and other Americans of his ilk wielded man-portable flamethrowers to deadly effect on the battlefields of the Pacific Theater. Today, the fire-breathing weapons are considered relics of a bygone era of warfare. Yet, if the flamethrower’s history teaches us anything, it’s that the need for such a weapon is timeless. Because when it comes to inflicting mass carnage at close range, nothing can replace a gun that spews half a gallon of white-hot napalm every second.
Ranged incendiary devices have been a feature of armed conflict for more than a thousand years. In the seventh century, the Byzantine navy armed its warships with pressurized fire-spouting hoses that could turn enemy ships to ash. Modern flamethrowers, which are carried on the backs of soldiers and fueled by jellied gasoline, first saw widespread use in the trenches of Europe during World War I. The first man-portable incendiary weapons ever fielded in combat were used by German troops against the French in 1915 at the Battle of Verdun.
An American soldier with the 33rd Infantry Division uses his flamethrower on Luzon, 1944. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The weapon proved to be very effective at blasting holes through enemy lines for infantry troops to exploit. Recognizing its advantages, the French quickly developed their own flamethrowers and got them fielded in time for the Battle of Vauquois. With flamethrowers now being used on both sides, the war only became more nightmarish, as men marched into battle knowing that they might be roasted alive. Both armies continued to use the weapon prolifically throughout the remainder of the war.
The German army employed flamethrowers again during WWII, primarily on the Eastern Front. Meanwhile, the US Army and Marine Corps came to rely on flamethrowers in the Pacific Theater, where troops regularly faced enemy soldiers fighting out of subterranean bunkers. As they proved to be the best weapons for clearing tunnels and caves, the Marine Corps began issuing 81 flamethrowers to each of its regiments.
Sgt. Maj. William Carter, the sergeant major of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, uses a World War II-era M2 flame thrower to burn last season’s Christmas trees at Elliot’s Beach Feb. 1, 2019. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Shane T. Manson.
American GIs used flamethrowers in Korea and Vietnam, though to a far lesser extent than their World War II predecessors. The M9-7 was the last man-portable infantry flamethrower developed by the United States military. Production of the M9-7 stopped altogether in 1978. Today, most of the incendiary devices that American warfighters use in combat are explosive projectiles fired from mortars or cannons.
Flamethrowers are classified as incendiary weapons and are therefore regulated by Protocol III of the Geneva Convention, which prohibits the use of any weapon designed to set fire to civilian targets. Although the US military no longer fields the weapons, there are no laws prohibiting their use against enemy combatants.
Riflemen lead the way as flame throwing Marines of the Fifth Division, crouched with the weight of their weapons, move up to work on a concentration of Japanese pillboxes on Iwo Jima, February 1945. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
While the flamethrower may never again be used as extensively as it was in World War II, fire-spewing guns will always have their time and place. Currently, they are being increasingly used in the ongoing war in Ukraine, where urban and trench combat is common. Last year, Russian forces claimed they killed 35 Ukrainian soldiers in a single skirmish using flamethrowers.
If the war in Ukraine is any indication of what future conflicts might look like, man-portable incendiary weapons — like the Type 74 flamethrower China currently issues to soldiers — may one day again be essential tools for winning wars. After all, the weapon has no equal when it comes to clearing heavily defended fighting positions that are unreachable by explosives or long-range projectiles.
Eric Junger, a founder of Parris Island’s Living History Detachment, demonstrates an M2-Flamethrower on June 7, 2014. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. David Bessey.
Flamethrowers are legal in all but two states: California and Maryland. Civilian models, such as Elon Musk’s Not-A-Flamethrower, use propane to shoot flame rather than jellied gasoline, as most military models do. So while Musk has sold more than 20,000 “flamethrowers,” the device is more akin to a large torch than a weapon.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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