How Phosphorus was Used in the Pacific Theater During World War II

In last week’s post, we mentioned the use of white phosphorus bombs by the Japanese. We wanted to take a closer look at this weapon that really gained notoriety during the Vietnam War, what it is and how it was used during World War II. White phosphorus bombs have been in use since World War I. The element phosphorus is highly flammable and toxic, and most notable for spontaneous combustion, meaning it will catch fire if it’s left out in the open. As such, any burning bits of phosphorus are very difficult to fully extinguish. For a visual demonstration of its flammability, take a look at the video below.

 

The U.S. Army Air Force used white phosphorus a couple of different ways. Because this element reacts when it comes in contact with oxygen, it made an excellent smoke screen for disguising troop movements. Another use was as an incendiary against enemies, especially those dug out in foxholes or gun emplacements. On contact with human skin, white phosphorus has been known to burn all the way to the bone. Fifth Air Force created something that became known as “Kenney’s Cocktails,” 100-pound bombs with their main explosive charge replaced with phosphorus. Dramatic images of these “cocktails” in use can be seen in photos from the November 2, 1943 raid on Rabaul.

White phosphorus bombs were also used as air-to-air bombs by the Japanese against Allied air raids, but these were far less effective than ordinary flak bursts. Some of the more famous photos of exploding phosphorus bombs are from 1944 and 1945. Thanks to someone shooting a video of these explosions, we can show you several examples of phosphorus bomb bursts as seen from the air.

As we were digging up videos for this post, we found a video from 1943 of a test to see if phosphorus or standard explosives created more casualties in the field. Watch that video here. At the time, incendiary weapons were a regular part of warfare, but excessive civilian casualties due to fire-bombing during and after World War II led to a ban on any incendiary device used in any region near civilians (cities, for example) in 1980. Despite this, white phosphorus is still used to this day, primarily to create smokescreens. Whether or not the chemical should be banned altogether is still a matter of international debate.

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