Cold War

Zippo Lighters: The Vietnam War Icon

During the Vietnam War, the trend of personalized the Zippo lighters emerged. Soldiers, with the assistance of local artists in Vietnam, began engraving their Zippos with various slogans.

These engravings frequently carried a tone of sarcasm or expressed anti-war sentiments. This practice of customizing lighters gained popularity, as engraving messages on the metal casings of Zippos became a widespread phenomenon.

The Zippo lighter is a simple yet functional item, made of chrome-plated brass and measuring 2.2 inches in height with a weight of 2.05 ounces. It’s designed for efficiency, capable of being opened and lit with a single, practiced movement, and emits a satisfying ‘thwink’ sound upon being snapped shut.

However, during the Vietnam War, Zippos transcended their role as mere lighters. They became symbolic, much like the crests on medieval knights’ armor, bearing slogans that reflected the soldiers’ internal views on what many felt was a futile mission.

These lighters were comparable to tattoos in their personal significance. The custom engraving was often done in small, makeshift shops by the roadside.



The origins of the iconic Zippo lighter trace back to 1932 in Pennsylvania. George G. Blaisdell observed a friend struggling with a bulky Austrian-designed lighter, which was cumbersome and required two hands to operate, though it had a sturdy flame protected by an internal chimney.

Soldiers’ Zippos often bore inscriptions like FIGMO (“F*ck it. Got my orders”).

Blaisdell set out to refine this design. His initial model retained the protective chimney but was more compact and stylish. He added a hinge connecting the lid to the base, allowing for one-handed operation. These innovations quickly popularized his creation, which he named the Zippo.

In 1936, Blaisdell patented his lighter design and offered a unique guarantee, promising to repair any defective Zippo at the company’s expense. The Zippo’s legacy was profoundly shaped by two major conflicts: World War II and the Vietnam War.

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With America’s entry into WWII in 1941, Blaisdell ceased commercial production of Zippo lighters, focusing instead on supplying American soldiers. Due to wartime restrictions, the Zippo factory used lower-grade metal, and the lighters were given a protective “black crackle” finish.

Counterfeit Vietnam War–engraved Zippos flooded the market post-war.

Post-WWII, Zippos were again available to the public, having become a symbol of American culture. Soldiers returning home brought their Zippos, which had become indispensable and widely available in stores for the military. Young men viewed the Zippo as a marker of adulthood and autonomy, a sentiment that was further intensified during the Vietnam War.

During the peacetime of 1956, between the major wars, Zippo introduced a slim edition of their lighter, specifically targeting female consumers. Apart from this, there have been minimal changes to the Zippo’s fundamental design over the years.

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Despite the fact that hundreds of millions of Zippos have been sold worldwide, they remain sought-after collectibles. The models produced before the design was patented are particularly valuable, with the earliest versions from 1933 being the most prized, often fetching thousands in value.


The company achieved significant success during World War II when, like many other American manufacturers, it shifted its focus from consumer goods to producing lighters exclusively for the U.S. military. Between 1943 and 1945, all Zippos manufactured were sent directly to military post exchanges and Navy ships worldwide.

Zippo lighters
Soldiers often got them engraved with personal messages, slogans, or images.

Millions of these lighters were carried into various battlefields by American soldiers. They became immensely popular, viewed as an indispensable tool in an era when smoking was a widespread and socially accepted pastime among Americans, particularly young men.

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At the time, smoking was often portrayed in advertisements as harmless or even beneficial to health. Reflecting this attitude, cigarettes were routinely distributed to military personnel by organizations like the Red Cross.

“If I were to tell you how much these Zippos are coveted at the front and the gratitude and delight with which the boys receive them, you would probably accuse me of exaggeration,” so wrote Ernie Pyle, the iconic war correspondent, in August 1944. “I truly believe that the Zippo lighter is the most coveted thing in the army.”

Vietnam War

The Zippo lighter, particularly its engraved versions, took on a significant and distinct role during the Vietnam War.

Zippos were personal items, not provided by the government; this included the lighter fluid and other necessary components. Troops either brought them along, purchased them in military stores such as PXs (Post Exchanges) or BXs (Base Exchanges), or received them as gifts from family and friends back home. The only related item that was officially supplied were waterproof matches included in ration packs.

Zippo lighters
Zippos symbolized American military presence and culture in Vietnam.

The term “Zippo” became a part of the military vocabulary of the war in relation to fire. The act of setting fire to huts or villages was commonly known as a “Zippo job,” “Zippo mission,” or “Zippo raid.” The soldiers who frequently carried out these incendiary tasks were sometimes referred to as “Zippo squads.”

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In the context of military equipment, the Army’s flame-throwing M-67 tanks and M-132 armored personnel carriers earned the nickname “Zippos” or “Zippo tracks.” When the electrical igniters failed, soldiers often relied on their Zippo lighters to light the napalm fuel in these vehicles. Furthermore, the M2A1-7 portable flamethrower used in the conflict was also colloquially called a “Zippo.” Even the Brown Water Navy boats equipped with flamethrowers were sometimes nicknamed “Zippo monitors.”

Such was the association of the Zippo lighter with the American military operations in Vietnam that some people even termed the entire campaign as the “Zippo War,” a reference to the widespread use of Zippo lighters in the burning of villages.

Zippo Lighters Were Personal

Zippos were personal items, not provided by the government; this included the lighter fluid and other necessary components. Troops either brought them along, purchased them in military stores such as PXs (Post Exchanges) or BXs (Base Exchanges), or received them as gifts from family and friends back home. The only related item that was officially supplied were waterproof matches included in ration packs.

Zippo lighters
They were prized for their durability and reliability in harsh conditions.

The popularity of Zippos among the troops was due to their durability, dependability, and their effective performance in wind and water-resistant conditions. An added advantage was their ability to be fueled by various liquid flammables, such as gasoline or kerosene, although regular lighter fluid was always the preferred choice.

The main replacement parts needed for these lighters were flints and occasionally the small spring for the flint mechanism. Receiving a few spare flints in a letter from home was often enough to assist several soldiers.

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Regarding the opposing forces, historical records do not specify the number of North Vietnamese Army soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas who carried engraved American-made Zippo lighters, but it is likely that a significant number did.

Although these enemy combatants did not employ flamethrowers, they creatively used Zippos as a weapon. They rigged the lighters with booby traps and strategically left them in bars and other locations frequented by Americans. Unsuspecting U.S. personnel who picked up these lighters would inadvertently trigger the explosive devices.

Engraved Zippo Lighters

The most frequently chosen engravings on Zippos during the Vietnam era included maps of Vietnam, military unit insignias, names of places and dates, peace symbols, and cartoon characters, with the irreverent Snoopy from Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” being particularly popular. Additionally, there was a prevalence of engravings depicting nude women.

Zippo lighters
The lighters could be fueled with various flammables, not just lighter fluid.

Commonly inscribed phrases featured FIGMO (“Fuck it. Got my orders,” indicating the end of a soldier’s tour), adaptations of “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death…” from the 23rd Psalm, and “Death is our Business and Business is good.”

The Zig-Zag man, a symbol found on rolling papers for cigarettes and marijuana, was another popular choice, along with various other marijuana-related phrases and images.

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Zippo manufacturers also produced their own range of factory-engraved lighters tailored to the tastes of Vietnam troops. These included lighters adorned with detailed images representing all five military service branches. There was a particular emphasis on designs appealing to sailors, who were known to be avid smokers at the time, featuring numerous representations of Brown Water Navy boats.

Zippos, which had been a cherished item for U.S. servicemen since World War II, gained particular significance during the prolonged and infamous Vietnam War. Soldiers often had these lighters engraved with personal messages, some intended for the loved ones they had left behind, and others as a message for whoever might discover their remains.

I Walk Through the Valley

These engravings were done in the towns and cities where the troops were based or during their rest and recreation periods. Servicemen could choose from a selection of popular phrases or opt to inscribe their own unique message on their lighter.

Zippo lighters
Some soldiers engraved their lighters themselves as a pastime.

One widespread adaptation of Psalm 23 from the Bible was notably popular, with one Zippo inscribed: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for I am the evilest son of a b**** in the jungle.”

Another frequently seen inscription was: “We the unwilling, led by the unqualified, to kill the unfortunate, die for the ungrateful.”

As time has passed, these lighters have evolved into sought-after collectibles, with some individual pieces fetching over £200 on platforms like eBay. Edwards’s own collection was valued at an estimated $30,000 to $50,000, though it did not sell at auction.

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Edwards, who highlighted many of these lighters in the 2010 publication “Vietnam Zippos: American Soldiers’ Engravings and Stories 1965-1973” (co-authored with Sherry Buchanan and published by University of Chicago Press), noted that these objects provide a compelling window into the thoughts and experiences of American servicemen.

While perhaps not as detailed as war letters or diaries, these lighters still serve as a tangible record of a specific time and place. Most of the servicemen in Vietnam were drafted, often feeling betrayed, hopeless, and yearning for the lives and loved ones they were compelled to leave behind.

F**k You

One Zippo, featured on the cover of “Vietnam Zippos” and bearing a peace symbol, hauntingly asks: “Why me?” Another lighter, reflecting the hardened attitude of a combat veteran and the perceived inevitability of his fate, declares: “35 kills if you are recovering my body f*** you.”

The evolving sentiments of the soldiers engaged in the Vietnam War are poignantly reflected in the chronological progression of messages engraved on their Zippos.

Zippo lighters
“Zippo squads” referred to units assigned to burn down structures.

Initially, the inscriptions on Zippos, especially those from before the draft, typically displayed the bold slogans of military units. A notable example is “Death From Above,” an adaptation of the “Mors ab alto” motto of the USAF 7th Bombardment Wing, but commonly associated with airborne units. These lighters were likely owned by career soldiers, committed to their service and proud of their duty to their country.

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However, as the war progressed and public sentiment shifted against the United States’ involvement, a sense of disillusionment appears to have crept into the soldiers’ mindset. This change in attitude is evident in engravings such as “One has never lived until he has almost died… life has a flavour the protected will never know,” or “When I die bury me face down so the world can kiss my ass.”

Despite the varying circumstances, a recurring theme among many young servicemen was their preoccupation with romantic or sexual encounters. This is crudely but candidly expressed in one lighter’s message: “Girl if you want to f*** then smile when you give this lighter back.”

Collections of Zippo Lighters

Among the most impactful are the intimate messages intended for family and loved ones back home, possibly serving as final words should the owner fall in battle.

Zippo lighters
The term “Zippo” became military slang for incendiary missions.

One carries the touching inscription, ‘To mom from a lonely paratrooper Tony’, highlighting the deep emotions felt by these soldiers. Another poignant message states: ‘Whoever may read this, know that there is only one girl for me, and her beautiful name is Beverley Dennington. I love her very very much.’ These heartfelt engravings reflect the personal sacrifices and enduring connections of those serving far from home.

Since the Vietnam War concluded, numerous individuals—including veterans, military memorabilia enthusiasts, and avid Zippo collectors—have amassed their own collections of Zippo lighters. However, collectors face a challenge due to the proliferation of counterfeit Vietnam War–engraved Zippos in the market.

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These fakes, produced in large quantities in Vietnam, are readily available for purchase at low prices. The most easily identifiable forgeries typically involve generic lighters and inserts with the Zippo logo artificially engraved on them.

The engraved Zippo lighters from the Vietnam War era have garnered such interest among collectors that several books have been dedicated to them. In the years following the war, Vietnam saw a surge in the production of counterfeit Zippos, falsely claimed to be authentic pieces used by US servicemen.

However, the original Zippos that have endured through the years continue to serve as a poignant and emotional glimpse into the experiences and thoughts of the soldiers who served and sacrificed their lives in the Vietnam War. These genuine artifacts offer a unique connection to the Vietnam War.


Photograph by Cowan’s Auctions
Zippo lighters
The term “Zippo” became military slang for incendiary missions.

Read More: The Highly-Explosive History of the Hand Grenade

Zippo lighters
Genuine wartime Zippos are now valuable collectibles.

Zippo lighters
Engravings served as a record of soldiers’ experiences and thoughts.

Zippo lighters
The lighters represented a connection to life back home for many soldiers.

Zippo lighters
They were a common trade item among soldiers and locals.

Poignant and poetic

The Zippos windproof design was particularly suited for Vietnam’s climate.

Books have been written about the role and significance of Zippos in Vietnam.

The lighters could be fueled with various flammables, not just lighter fluid.