Zippos: A Peak Into the Mind of Vietnam War Heroes

The Vietnam War is forever etched in the history of the United States as one of the bloodiest show of power with the most disappointing results between the American and Vietnamese forces. Imagine going to war after a brutal training, killing tons of people, including civilians, holding on to dear life day after day and seeing your comrades die one after another, just to feed the egos of rich SOBs. Kind of sucks, right? I couldn’t even begin to picture how these heroes felt in the field.

If you’ve seen old war movies like the We Were Soldiers, where Mel Gibson was still a celebrated actor of his time, you might have come across these soldiers lighting a cigar with a small rectangular silver lighter, which clicks after they flip it close like a boss. These were called Zippo’s. They used it to light a cigar, signal a position, make fire for warmth or to cook food, even to get stoned for a short minute of relaxation before all the hardcore intense action. But over all the conventional uses of an old lighter, these served as witnesses of a soldier’s endeavor during the war.

From the city of Ho Chi Minh, 282 Zippos have been collected by Bradford Edwards and displayed over at Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnatti, Ohio. These objects contained various personalized epigrams, quotes, logos and even names of people, which were mostly engraved by their individual owners. From vindictive to senseless and even humorous to sentimental, zippos have became more than keepsakes, reflecting a soldier’s inner thoughts and convictions.

More than plain vintage collectibles, zippos have influenced quite an obsession in Mr. Edwards. He was taken over by the pursuit of revealing their true historical significance. Perhaps he saw them as mementos that bridge his longing for his estranged father who has been a US fighter pilot over Vietnam.

There must have been a chronological effect of the war on the soldiers who owned these zippos. Most likely, at the start of the war they walked the field as proud soldiers defending their country with honor. Then once they started seeing the real picture of what the US government’s role in the war truly is, hatred soon replaced pride. Towards the end of the war, when there seemed no more honor in what they do, it’s as if they were overcome with desperation for life, their eyes opened to the fact that they have been deprived of a normal life and that they were born to kill, nothing else.

According to the Zippo Manufacturing Company, there were about 200,000 that were used by American forces in Vietnam. They were found as items lost, given away, rarely scavenged from the remains of a hero. Because zippos are genuine pieces from the Vietnam war, no matter how small they are, their value comes with a price only wealthy collectors can afford. Mr. Edwards’ collection range from $30,000 to $50,000 and are sold via auctions. Unfortunately, in this world where everything can be remade and distributed for a cheaper price, there have been mass-produced counterfeit zippos being distributed by who else but China.

Memoirs often fascinate me like this other article I did about the Willard Suitcases. It’s one to see historic photos and another to see objects that actually belonged to people from the past. With these little objects we could deduce what type of personality they had, how they felt during the war and even who they are truly fighting for. Somehow, these memoirs not only bridge the past and present but allow us to have a personal connection with the people who used to own them.