COLUMN ONE : Waging a Low-Key War on Napalm : Once, it was the ultimate symbol for the divisiveness of the Vietnam War. Now, the last cache lies nearly forgotten as the military attempts to dispose of it.


Just west of this quiet farming community--a continent away from the stark, black wall in Washington that commemorates Americans killed in Vietnam--are three weedy and rocky fields that are host to an equally chilling, if less dignified, memorial to the same war.

The fields, part of the sprawling Fallbrook Naval Weapons Station, contain an enduring symbol of that divisive conflict: more than 35,000 canisters filled with 23 million pounds of napalm, a deadly brew of benzene, gasoline and polystyrene plastic that turns into a flaming syrupy mass when ignited by white phosphorus.

Twenty years have passed since the fall of Saigon, but the best and brightest have yet to find a way to dispose of the Vietnam War’s final cache of liquid fire.


Like chemical combatants ready for inspection, the cigar-shaped, olive drab canisters are arranged in neat rows with military precision, each 15-foot-long canister encased in its own open-sided wood crate, row after row, acre after acre, exposed for two decades to the wind and sun and rain.

An eerie stillness envelops the napalm fields of Fallbrook, broken only by the muffled sounds of heavy artillery being used miles away by the Marines training at Camp Pendleton.

Some of the napalm canisters are still stamped with the manufacturer’s 30-day warranty attesting to the contents’ killing power. A few are leaking a gooey residue. Those that cannot be patched are taken to a toxic dump in Arkansas.

The specter of napalm bombs being dropped by American jets once aroused passionate debate, but the fate of this forgotten stockpile has now become a low-key battle of attrition, a bureaucratic mix of environmental concerns, budgetary restraints and governmental red tape.

The residents of Fallbrook, a rural and politically conservative community in northern San Diego County, have learned to live with the napalm--which is said to be non-flammable without its detonators--and with the occasional promise that there is light at the end of the hazardous waste tunnel.

Technicians and environmentalists, mindful that benzene is a carcinogen and that the crates are soaked with a toxic wood preserver, periodically check for leakage and air pollution. But mostly the canisters just serve as a staging area for jack rabbits, rattlesnakes and field rats.


In a few weeks the Navy will officially launch its fourth attempt to win its war against the napalm, this time by paying a company to extract it from the aluminum canisters and send it by rail across the country for use as fuel in high-temperature kilns at cement plants.

“This time we think we have a better handle on it,” said Richard Williamson, spokesman for the Naval Ordnance Center, Pacific Division, headquartered in Seal Beach, and point man for the napalm project.

The process, if it works, could take five years or more and cost $12 million to $18 million. Throw in the cost of cleaning up the three fields where the napalm has been stored, and the price tag jumps to more than $24 million.

After keeping the press at bay for years, the Navy has decided to try to rehabilitate the weapon’s image by allowing journalists to visit the napalm fields. Fallbrook residents have been offered tours.

“We’re trying to demystify napalm,” Williamson said.


Perhaps more than any other word associated with the Vietnam conflict, napalm came to define the sides in a bitter national--and international--debate.

In 1972 and 1974, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolutions condemning the use of napalm and other incendiary weapons. The United States and the Soviet Union, which had supplied napalm to the North Vietnamese for their flamethrowers, abstained.

In movies, books and poems, napalm has repeatedly entered into the cultural, intellectual and political discourse.


The debate over whether the Americans would have used the new, more lethal napalm against a Caucasian enemy hiding among Caucasian civilians is one of the irresolvable issues of Vietnam. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam,” Frances Fitzgerald wrote:

“In Europe (during World War II), the Americans rejected the use of chemical warfare, but in Vietnam they used napalm, phosphorus, tear gas, and various kinds of defoliants as a general practice and in such quantities as to render certain parts of the country uninhabitable.”

One of the most searing images of the war was a 1972 picture by an Associated Press photographer that showed Vietnamese children, including a naked 9-year-old girl, running in terror after their village had accidentally been struck by napalm.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now”--seen as a polemic against the war--the substance is a malevolent character in its own right. The war-loving Lt. Col. Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, delivers the famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Even movies and books that take no overt position on the morality or the politics of the war have included napalm scenes as a shorthand method of evoking the carnage and confusion of battle.

In this year’s hit movie “Forrest Gump,” the simpleton hero played by Tom Hanks finds himself in Vietnam and acting bravely when his unit is caught in a napalm strike.


In the novel by Winston Groom, Gump says: “At dawn they call in a napalm airplane, but it drop the (stuff) damn near right on top of us. Our own fellers be all singed an burnt up--come runnin out into the open, eyes big as biscuits, everybody cussing an sweating an scared, woods set on fire, damn near put the rain out!”

Despite its horrific image among many Americans, troops in the field said napalm saved innumerable American lives by repelling advances by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army.

Scholar Guenter Lewy, in his book “America in Vietnam,” argued that anti-war activists overstated their claims.

“The impression created by critics of the war that many thousands of villagers and children were burnt by napalm is undoubtedly false,” said Lewy, who based his book on millions of pages of secret military documents.

Still, Lewy also doubted military assertions that napalm and other incendiary weapons were used with surgical precision and only as a last resort. In truth, commanders enjoyed wide latitude to call for air strikes on civilians when they believed that the enemy was hiding among them, he concluded.

“The rather free use of napalm and attacks upon fortified hamlets with artillery and air strikes can be criticized on humanitarian grounds, and, moreover, were often counterproductive,” Lewy wrote.


Whatever the truth about the number of civilian casualties from napalm, it cannot be denied that its use became a rallying point for those opposed to the war.

In one of the angriest of his anti-war poems, Allen Ginsberg wrote: “Under the world there’s pain, fractured thighs, napalm burning in black hair, phosphorous eating elbows to the bone.”

Demonstrators besieged Dow Chemical Co., which made much of the napalm used in the war. Dowrecruiters were chased off several college campuses.

In the Wall Street Journal, Dow President Ted Doan tried to answer charges that Dow, in making napalm, was acting as immorally as the German industrialists who had supplied the ovens for the Nazi concentration camps:

“We reject the validity of comparing our present form of government with Hitler’s Nazi Germany. In our mind our government is still representative of and responsive to the will of the people. . . . We plan to continue making napalm because we feel that so long as the United States is sending men to war, it is unthinkable that we would not supply the materials they need.”

Napalm was invented by chemists from Harvard University and the Army Chemical Warfare Service for use in flamethrowers carried by U.S. troops in World War II. The name comes from its chemical constituents, napthene and palmitate.


By 1965, the Air Force had developed a new formula for napalm to increase its range and destructive power. The old napalm had merely thrown out a column of quickly extinguished flame.

The new napalm used in Vietnam, which could be spread by flamethrowers or dropped from jets, spread out quickly, stuck to surfaces--trees, bamboo huts, clothing, skin--and continued burning.

Once armed with phosphorus ignition fuses at either end, the 500-pound canisters were strapped beneath Navy and Air Force jets, most frequently to be dropped at low levels for accuracy. The napalm fire reached temperatures of 5,000 degrees, so hot it sucked out all the air in its path.

Today, the United States has eliminated napalm from its arsenal.


In 1978 the Air Force declared the Fallbrook napalm to be surplus and ordered it demilitarized. But three stratagems by the Navy and environmental agencies in the intervening years to have it carted off and buried or recycled for civilian uses have failed for economic or regulatory reasons.

“It doesn’t scare me anymore,” said Jennifer Gaggero, who can see some of the canisters on the horizon from the back of the Good Earth nursery she runs with her parents. “I used to be worried about lightning striking it, but you can only worry about something for so long and then you have to stop.”

Navy and civilian officials insist that for all its fiery legacy, the napalm poses no danger to Fallbrook and that only the ultra hot temperatures induced by burning white phosphorus can ignite napalm. Even the heat of a blowtorch would not be sufficient to ignite the stored napalm, officials say.


“It’s an unusual problem, but it doesn’t present any immediate health hazards to anyone,” said Rich Varenchik, spokesman for the state Department of Toxic Substance Control. “We could give them a deadline to have the stuff out but we’re not inclined to do that.”

The latest attempt to rid the community of the napalm hopes to capitalize on the mistakes of the past.

The first three attempts--by Barstow Truck in 1982, Bud’s Oil from Phoenix in 1983, and Palm Enterprises from Monrovia in 1992--ran into money trouble, got mired in regulations or otherwise failed to meet the Navy’s satisfaction. The abandoned and rusting remains of the removal machinery devised by Palm Enterprises still litter one of the fields.

This time, the Navy hopes to hire Battelle Memorial Institute of Richland, Wash., which has a proven record of working on hazardous materials and high-technology matters for the Department of Energy.

The firm will be asked to build a facility at the Fallbrook base to extract the napalm from the aluminum canisters--like toothpaste being squeezed from giant tubes, Williamson said--without exposing any of it to the air.

The plan is to extract the napalm into railroad tanker cars, smelt the aluminum for scrap, and chop up and detoxify the wooden crates to be made into particle board.


In this round, there may be less interagency wrangling over the disposal.

Previously, the federal and state Environmental Protection Agencies have been involved with the napalm issue. So have San Diego County water quality and air pollution agencies. At one point, the federal EPA became concerned that the napalm canisters were disturbing the nests of the Stephen’s kangaroo rat, an endangered species.

The Navy is taking the position that local permits are not needed because the effort is being carried out under an executive order to clean up toxic sites at military bases as quickly as possible. The local pollution control agency disagrees, but so far has just engaged in a polite volley of letters.

Officials from the weapons station, which is on Ammunition Way, plan a public hearing next month in Fallbrook to brief the public on the latest disposal plan.

Charley Wolk, a civic leader, avocado grower and retired Marine lieutenant colonel who ordered napalm strikes during Vietnam, does not figure that Fallbrook residents will show much interest. The community, Wolk said, has a heavy contingent of retired military personnel who know that defused napalm is not combustible.

“Nobody who has lived in Fallbrook for very long is afraid of napalm,” he said. “You could roll those canisters down the main street and you wouldn’t scare anybody.”

Napalm Fields

Three fields in the Fallbrook Naval Weapons Station contain 35,000 canisters filled with 23 million pounds of napalm from the Vietnam War. The Navy hopes to finally dispose of them in the next five years.