Napalm Experimentation

As the war progressed, the military had been hard at work on new technology for its soldiers. Among the inventions was a substance that would gain notoriety about 20 years later during the Vietnam War: napalm. This sticky gel was highly flammable and typically used for burning away jungle foliage. In June 1945, however, the 22nd and 43rd Bomb Groups were chosen to conduct tests regarding how well a drum of napalm would burn if it was dropped next to wooden surfaces in the water (i.e. boats) and whether a phosphorus or sodium igniter would work better.

This was not the type of mission crews looked forward to. They hated dealing with the napalm-filled drums which were difficult to load, leaked (thereby raising the risk of a catastrophic explosion on board), hung up in the bomb bay and sometimes detonated right after being dropped instead of a few seconds afterward.

On the 12th of June, 34 22nd Bomb Group B-24s joined up with 28 from the 43rd to conduct their tests in the Hong Kong area. Prior to the arrival of these planes, the chosen target had caused some controversy, as Causeway Bay was known to be home to many civilian families. A fair number of them lived aboard boats that the military had been eyeing as napalm targets. In the end, it was decided to still target the area, but make sure families had been evacuated before the strike happened.

As the 22nd’s B-24s flew to the target on the day of the the test, two napalm barrels were jettisoned from one of the planes because they were leaking badly. Another jettisoned all of its barrels because engine trouble forced the pilots to return to base. A third aircraft had one napalm barrel leak, but that was fixed with chewing gum and caramel candy. The run over the target area was somewhat of a letdown. Although most of the barrels exploded on the water as they hoped, cloud cover made it hard to see the targets and crews missed the two high-speed motorized Japanese boats that crews were hoping to destroy.

22nd crews were sent out again on the 13th to target boats in Takao’s harbor. Once again, on the way to the target, a couple of napalm drums were jettisoned because of bad leaking. As the pilots began their runs, the crew of B-24 #241 experienced a close call when the igniter on one of the barrels exploded as it was being dropped. Both the engineer and radio operator were burned as smoke and flames filled the fuselage. Quickly, the engineer sprayed the radio operator with the fire extinguisher and probably saved his life. Fifty feet below the B-24, the troublesome barrel detonated, launching the plane about 75 feet. Two other aircrews were affected by one premature detonation each, although neither aircraft was damaged by the explosion.

Fortunately for the men, no antiaircraft fire was unleashed over Takao, partially thanks to equipment that jammed Japanese guns that relied on radar-aiming technology. Mission results were undetermined, as Formosa was socked in and the experiment was successful, insofar as napalm burned on the water as expected. Aiming, on the other hand, was impossible.

 

 


Read more about these missions in our book Revenge of the Red Raiders.

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