Aviation Art: The Lighter Side

In wartime, a customized Zippo was part of an airman’s identity

(Cowan's Auctions)

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 below.

335th Assault Helicopter Company

(Cowan's Auctions)

"This looks like the Zippo lighters that were given to us when our tour was up and we went home," says Jim McLaughlin, who was with the 335th Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam from 1967-1968. "The emblem is taken from the original Cowboy patch that was changed in late 1967 or early 1968. Early in the war the Dallas Cowboys football team gave the unit permission to use their name and logo, and the patch and emblem were worked up from some of their stuff."

The design was based on the logos that pilots with the 335th stuck on the doors of their Hueys. McLaughlin has a pristine version of the lighter in his collection.

"This [Cowboys lighter] was a special order," confirms Zippo historian Linda Meabon. "They were ordered through the division, or the battalion in Vietnam, so we don't actually have records. The company couldn't keep records for the hundreds of thousands that they did through the years. The minimum to even do the engraving was 50 lighters, and they could order 500 or up to 1,000. Even though I have worked at Zippo for over 44 years, I have not seen this one."


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