After an American M1 combat helmet with an ace of spades tucked into the strap, probably the next most iconic cultural image associated with the Vietnam War is a Zippo lighter engraved with a tragic, humorous, aggressive, patriotic, or rebellious slogan.
Many such engraved Zippos have survived the war’s end and often trade hands between collectors for large sums of money. The images and slogans engraved onto these instantly recognizable lighters can give one a poignant look inside the minds and lives of the young men who served, fought, and died so far from home.
Zippo lighters have a long history of being associated with the American military. When America entered the Second World War after Pearl Harbor, the Zippo company stopped selling their lighters to the consumer market and instead dedicated the entirety of their lighter production to the United States military.
The Zippo method of manufacture was also affected by the United States’ entry into WWII. Because of the need to divert raw materials to wartime production of armaments, Zippo lighters manufactured for US military personnel during the war were made with steel covered with a black crackle finish.
However, Zippo lighters attained a uniquely iconic status among US troops during the Vietnam War.
These lighters were carried by almost every American serviceman involved in the conflict, and it was during this time that some of the most interesting and sometimes sentimental customizations of these lighters emerged. Many of the slogans and images emblazoned on them have themselves become quintessential images of the war.
Many of the slogans reflect the views of career servicemen, who had already been serving in the military prior to the conflict and would continue to do so after it ended. They were men who were proud to serve and believed strongly in the cause they were fighting for.
For such servicemen, slogans were kept to a minimum; if they got their Zippo lighters engraved, it would usually be with their unit’s name, badge, or motto, or else something patriotic.
These engraved Zippo lighters from the Vietnam War have become such popular collectors’ items that a number of books have been written about them. A booming market in fake Zippos purporting to be genuine items used by US servicemen exploded in Vietnam in the decades following the war.