Primitive devices for projecting fire on an enemy were used since ancient times, and both Germany and England experimented with flamethrowers in World War I. However, it was not until World War II that technology was available for a useful flamethrower as an infantry weapon.
Marine flamethrower operator moves forward to assault a Japanese pillbox at Motoyama Airfield, Iwo Jima, February 1945.
Chemical Corps flamethrower exhibit on the Defense Train, 10 November 1941. The train brought Army, Navy and Office of Production Management officials who would meet with local manufacturers to discuss military procurement contracts.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps used two types of flame throwers in World War II. First, the portable, carried on the soldier's back, and second the mechanized, mounted on an armored vehicle, usually a tank. These special-purpose weapons proved extremely useful in overcoming a determined enemy in strong, stubbornly held defensive positions.
The first U.S. Army flamethrower, the M1, was introduced early in 1942. It consists of a flame gun, pressure tank and fuel tank holding 18 liters of gasoline, enough for approximately five bursts of two seconds each. The electric ignition system provides sparks to ignite the fuel, but this system often failed and the operator would use his Zippo. The M1A1, introduced in 1943, uses napalm fuel for increased range but is otherwise similar to the M1. The Technical Manual was TM 3-375.
Soldier of 129th Infantry Regiment, 37th Division, uses flamethrower on a pillbox occupied by Japanese, Bougainville, March 1944.
The M1A1 required an operator to carry and aim the flamethrower itself, and an assistant to open the fuel source valves and carry extra fuel, tools, and their weapons. Approximately 14,000 M1A1s were produced until it was replaced by the M2-2. The weapon weighed aboout 70 pounds and had a range of 45-50 yards.
The M2-2, introduced in 1944, was lighter and the troublesome electric ignition was replaced with a more reliable system that used special cartridges in a revolving cylinder to ignite the fuel.
Use of the Flamethrower in World War II
The U.S. Army made little use of flamethrowers in Europe, but both the Army and Marine Corps found them invaluable in the Pacific Theater. The tenacious Japanese defended island strongholds from every pillbox or cave and the flamethrower was often the only effective weapon. During 1944 each rifle squad was issued one M2-2, but eventually mechanized flamethrowers mounted in M-4 Sherman tanks replaced use of the portable M2-2.
The M2 series flamethrowers were superceded by the M9A1-7 in 1956. The lighter weight M9A1 is very similar to the M2s, but has a redesigned squeeze trigger replacing the forward pistol grip, and a holster for the flame gun on the harness.
Flamethrowers in Vietnam
The flamethrower continued to be used in Vietnam where Viet Cong use of tunnels created the same problems as Japanese caves in World War II. The flamethrower was also effective in offensive operations against buildings made of dried materials.
The M9A1-7 and other flamethrowers have been replaced by the M202A1 Incendiary Rocket launcher.
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