Fire as a weapon has a very long tradition. Notably, in the 7th century AD, Greeks created Greek fire. The flamethrower truly rose to prominence during World War I, and the Germans were the first reported widespread users of flame weapons. By the time World War II came around, everyone was shooting fire at each other, and the flamethrower was a common sight on battlefields.
The military flamethrower utilizes liquid fuel to propel a flame anywhere from 50 to 100 meters. Other flame shooting tools use gaseous fuels like propane and should be considered torches. When Elon Musk says his “not a flamethrower” isn’t a flamethrower, he isn’t lying; it’s a torch.
The military variants were used mounted to the backs of infantrymen, on vehicles, and even tanks. These weapons allowed soldiers to flush out entrenched enemies, often better than grenades or machine guns would allow them.
Plug the tip into a bunker and unleash a wall of flame, and you could kill a bunker without the risk of clearing it. In the Pacific campaign, the flamethrower became a common sight and was extremely useful against fanatical Japanese stuck in bunkers. They could be ‘burned out,’ and the Marines and Soldiers could keep moving forward.
Being the Flamethrower Man
Carrying a living demon on your back was quite dangerous. If the wind blew the wrong way, you risked getting nipped and burned by your own weapon. Also, you’re just feet from the blazing fire, and I’d imagine accidental burns were common.
The weapon was quite heavy and long. Carrying it was a chore, and you had only a few seconds of fuel. This forced flamethrower men to be smart and conservative with their fuel. Due to the relatively short range, the flamethrower man had to get close in order to employ his weapon.
Because the weapon was so effective, a man carrying a flamethrower would often be targeted. Hiding a backpack of fuel was tough, and snipers would often single them out. However, shooting the tank and it exploding and killing the man wasn’t something that occurred very often, if at all. When a tank ruptured, it might knock a man down but wouldn’t explode. The fuel was difficult to light, and a hot bullet wasn’t enough to get it done.
Flamethrower tanks often exploded due to grenades or other explosives hitting the flamethrower man. Often in this situation, the grenade or artillery shell would have killed the man regardless of the weapon on his back.
How the Flamethrower Kills
A weapon shooting a burst of flame powered by liquid fuel can clearly kill by exposing an enemy to a flame. Immolation and fire were the most obvious lethal effects and are what people consider to be the lethal edge added to a flamethrower. While immolation certainly killed the enemy, the flamethrower could kill in a multitude of other ways.
Hyperthermia was another common cause of death. Hyperthermia is caused by the body’s inability to regulate its temperature in the presence of high environmental heat. The flame could fill a room, never touch its victim, and still be as lethal. The intense heat and the enemies’ body temperature rising extremely high as a result would also spell doom.
A Mercy Killer?
The last way a flamethrower killed was rather misunderstood for some time, or at least during World War II. Sometimes a bunker was hit with a stream of fire and silenced. Everyone inside would die but their bodies would remain unburned. This led to many believing that the flamethrower was a humane weapon. In fact, a Lt. Col. named Orbe Bostick wrote a paper proclaiming the flamethrower to be a mercy killer.
This turned out to be quite wrong. While some could die quickly, the flamethrower could also kill slowly.
Another way these weapons killed was through a mixture of carbon monoxide poisoning and asphyxiation. This became especially true when thickening agents were mixed into the fuel. The thickening agent introduced more carbon dioxide and burned up all the oxygen in the room. This would leave bodies seemingly untouched by flames.
The same could be said due to death by pulmonary edema, which is a condition caused by excess fluid in the lungs.
While the REMF lieutenant colonel might assume the flamethrower was a mercy killer, the Marines and Soldiers knew different. First-hand accounts often remark on the screams of a flamethrower’s victims. Although maybe that lieutenant colonel’s report gave some of these men some peace at the end of the war.
Flamethrowers in 2021
Ever since the 1980s, flamethrowers, and flame weapons in general, have been banned as a weapon of war. The United States military still utilizes flamethrowers as a tool and not a weapon. They can be used to clear brush and have been used to clear fields of fire and refuse concealment to the enemy. They aren’t used as weapons but kick back brush very efficiently.