Aviation Art: The Lighter Side
In wartime, a customized Zippo was part of an airman's identity.
- By Rebecca Maksel
- AirSpaceMag.com, September 07, 2011
The Vietnam War-era Zippo lighter—part pop art and part military artifact, according to author Sherry Buchanan—was sold in PX stores in-country, and engraved with personalized messages and drawings at Vietnamese village stalls.
This form of military art, says Zippo's Web site, actually began during World War II. "From 1943 until the end of World War II," notes the site, "Zippo's entire production was shipped to Army Exchanges and Naval ship stores for the soldiers in combat around the world.... Many soldiers customized their Zippo lighters, scratching in names, places, images, and messages of all kinds that suggest their hopes, dreams, fears and longings."
The lighter above features the iconic Bell UH-1 "Huey" helicopter. Phu Loi, the former French artillery training center, was located about 30 kilometers northwest of Saigon. It became (among other things) the base camp of the 128th Assault Helicopter Company.
Steve Dillman, a member of the 128th Assault Helicopter Company from 1967 to 1968, recalls: "In the gun platoon it was a common thing to have a Zippo cigarette lighter that had been engraved in downtown Phu Loi with your name, call sign, 128th AHC and an armed B Model UH-1. My engraved lighter is one of my most prized souvenirs from Viet Nam. I completed my active duty time with the Army in 1969, and searched for work as a helicopter pilot [in my hometown of Etna, California]. While at home, I participated in the recreational basketball program. At one of the games my Zippo was stolen from the locker room. In 1985 I was serving as an umpire for a ladies softball game [and] I was approached by a lady spectator. She asked if I was Steve Dillman and I told her I was. She then handed me the Zippo that I had not seen in 15 years. I asked her how she had come to have it. She explained that she had gone to a church-sponsored yard sale. It was at this sale that she picked up my lighter. I thanked her and told her how much that little Zippo meant to me."
See more engraved lighters in the gallery above.