During the Vietnam War there were several cases of napalm canisters igniting prematurely, causing damage to USMC F-4 Phantom II aircraft.
No fewer than 11 US Marine Corps squadrons flew versions of the F-4 Phantom II in Southeast Asia from May 1965 through to early 1973. Although one deployment was from an aircraft carrier, and included a successful MiG engagement, most missions were flown from land bases at Da Nang and Chu Lai, in South Vietnam, and Nom Phong, in Thailand.
As told by Peter E Davies in his book US Marine Corps F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War, rather than the air-to-air missiles that were the main component in the original F-4 armament, these aircraft carried an ever-expanding range of weaponry. Some toted 24 500-lb bombs and others strafed with up to three 20 mm gun pods, while most flew daily sorties delivering Snakeye bombs, big Zuni rockets and napalm.
As the main image of this article shows, on Feb. 8, 1970 during a typical low-altitude napalm delivery, Mal J B Leonard and 1Lt J C Coon of VMFA-314 hit North Vietnamese Army troops near Duc Pho, close to Route 1A and 40 miles southeast of Chu Lai. During one pass a napalm canister under the jet’s port wing suddenly started to burn, possibly because of a hit on its magnesium igniter by the 0.50-cal AAA batteries or small-arms fire in the area. When the port wing of the crew’s F-4B-11- MC (BuNo 149467) caught fire Maj Leonard coaxed the aircraft out over the coast and the crew ejected 25 miles southeast of Da Nang. They were quickly rescued by helicopter, having suffered only minor injuries in the ejection process.
There were several cases of napalm canisters igniting prematurely, causing damage to aircraft. In fact, in February 1970 another F-4B belonging to VMFA-314 was downed by its own napalm conflagration when Mk 77 tanks were ignited on the aircraft, possibly by small-arms hits on the fuses.
However, the weapon was highly valued as a deterrent to enemy forces in close contact with Marines on the ground, even though the low-altitude delivery required to place it accurately put the crew at greater risk to enemy ground fire than a bombing pass at higher altitude.
US Marine Corps F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Image: Gareth Hector via Osprey