WEAPONS OF THE WORLD WAR II GYRENE

Flamethrowers

The Flamethrower, Portable, M2-2

Empty weight: 43 pounds
Filled weight: 68 pounds
Fuel capacity: 4 gallons
Range: 20-40 yards
Fuel type: Gasoline
Propellant: Nitrogen
Burn time: 10-20 seconds

Flamethrowers were first developed by the US Army Chemical Warfare Service in 1940-41. The early models were undependable and cumbersome. Testing continued and the M1 flamethrower was introduced into service in early 1942. This weapon was first used in combat by Marines of the 2nd Engineer Battalion on Guadalcanal in January 1943.

The M1 used gasoline or a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel and used hydrogen as its propellant. This caused too-rapid burning of the fuel, which was mostly consumed just beyond the nozzle and meant the operator had to approach to within 10-15 yards of the target. Another problem was that the flame tended to roll off the target.

Testing continued on improved delivery methods for flame weapons. In 1942, the Chemical Warfare Service developed a revolutionary concept–a thickening agent for gasoline. This agent, called napalm, improved the range, tightened the flame stream, and increased target effect. The M1 flamethrower was modified for use with napalm in 1942. The improved model was standardized as the M1-1. This weapon was used in the Pacific campaigns of 1943— early 1944. Though it was better then its predecessor, the M1-1 was still not a completely satisfactory weapon.

In late 1943, the 1st Marine Division received some M1-1 flamethrowers just prior to the New Britain campaign. The legendary Marine, LtCol Lewis "Chesty" Puller, observed a demonstration of the new flamethrower. Afterward, he asked, "Where do you put the bayonet on the damned thing?"

(above) Tarawa–22 November 1943 Marines of 1stLt Alexander Bonnyman's assault group on top of the large Japanese bombproof shelter near the Burns-Philp wharf. USMC Photo

In the summer of 1944 the M2-2 flamethrower was introduced into service. This weapon was first used in combat on Guam and was subsequently employed in all Pacific campaigns. The M2-2 offered improved reliability and a better ignition system than previous models. It still had drawbacks–it was too heavy and had a high silhouette. This model used nitrogen as its propellant.

(Left) The Blockhouse by Tom Lea

A flamethrower team of the
1st MarDiv on Peleliu

"Looking up at the head of the trail I could see the big Jap blockhouse that commanded the height. The thing was now a great jagged lump of concrete, smoking, I saw our lead man meet a front line detail posted by the blockhouse while the other troops advanced down the hill with the three tanks and the flamethrowers. Isolated Jap snipers were at work on our slope, small groups of marines fanned out on both sides of the trail to clean them out, while we climbed toward the blockhouse." - from Tom Lea's notes

US Army Art Collection

The Marine Corps realized the tactical value of the flamethrower. The D-series Marine division had 24 flamethrowers, all organic to the divisional engineer battalion. By 1944, the F-series division carried 243 flamethrowers into combat, spread throughout the division. Each Marine regiment was assigned 81 flamethrowers.

In combat, assault groups were formed with flamethrowers, demolition men and BAR men. They used a technique sometimes called "corkscrew and blowtorch" to destroy Japanese emplacements. Various methods were used in this tactic. BARs would suppress enemy positions with a heavy volume of automatic fire while the flamethrowers approached to within effective range. Then, flame was used to wipe out any pockets of enemy resistance.

After the enemy position was neutralized, demolition men would use explosive charges to destroy the emplacement, typically a cave mouth. Since flamethrower operators had to approach very close to enemy positions, effective suppressing fire by BARs and riflemen was critical. Flamethrower operators were extremely vulnerable to enemy fire since they effectively had a napalm bomb strapped to their back.


(above) Corporal Hershel Williams (copyright 2000) by Jim Laurier
Corporal Williams was a demolition man and flamethrower operator attached to C 1/21, 3rd MarDiv during the Iwo Jima operation. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions on 23 February 1945. This painting depicts one of his acts that day. Corporal Williams (in the right background) mounts a Japanese pill box and fires a stream of flame at point blank range into the aperture. His buddies provide covering fire in the foreground.
Courtesy of the artist, Jim Laurier


(Left) A flamethrower operator of Co. E, 2nd Bn, 9th Marines, runs under fire on Iwo Jima–February 1945.

The flame gun can be seen in this Marine's right hand. It had two pistol grips. The rear grip had a lever that released the fuel from the tanks. The front grip had the trigger that ignited the fuel. USMC Photo


(left) Into the mouth of hell. A USMC-HC flamethower team in action at a public event (2003) USMC-HC Photo


"We kept up a steady fire into the pillbox to keep the Japanese pinned down while the flamethrower came up, carried by Corporal Womack from Mississippi. He was a brave, good-natured guy and popular with the troops. He was big and husky… [and] I was glad we were on the same side.

Stooped under the heavy tanks on his back, Womack approached the pillbox with his assistant just out of the line of our fire. When they got about 15 yards from the target, we ceased firing. The assistant reached up and turned a valve on the flamethrower. Womack then aimed the nozzle at the opening made by the 75mm gun. He pressed the trigger. With a whoooooosh the flame leaped at the opening. Some muffled screams, then all was quiet.…

Amid our shouts of appreciation, Womack and his buddy started back to battalion headquarters to await the summons to break a deadlock somewhere else on the battlefield–or lose their lives trying. The job of flamethrower gunner was probably the least desirable of any open to a Marine infantryman. Carrying tanks with about seventy pounds of flammable jellied gasoline through enemy fire over rugged terrain in hot weather to squirt flames into the mouth of a cave or pillbox was an assignment that few survived but all carried out with magnificant courage."

With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa
E. B. Sledge


(above) A US Marine Corps Historical Co. flamethrower team operates the M2-2 flamethrower at a public demonstration
of World War II tactics.
USMC–HC Photo


(above) Flamethrower operators move back up the line after refilling their tanks with fuel. Iwo Jima–1945 USMC Photo

(above) A flamethrower team in action on Iwo Jima. Riflemen provide security for the flamethrower operator while he engages a target. USMC Photo


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