Vietnam-Era Zippo Lighters As Works Of Art

Zippo lighters in Vietnam
Zippo lighters bearing war-time insignias and supposedly used by US troops are seen on display at a shop inside the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, 25 April 2005.
In one Santa Barbara gallery, the portraits bring back memories for Vietnam vet Hap Desimone. But they're not portraits of soldiers, they're portraits of Zippo lighters.

CBS News correspondent John Blackstone asked him if it seems strange to see the lighters depicted as art.

"No," he says. "It doesn't seem strange at all."

In Vietnam, every soldier, it seemed, had a Zippo.

"I carried one," Desimone says. "I had it engraved."

With the engravings Zippos became the one place soldiers could express themselves.

"A lot of these sentiments I heard before, 'We're the unwilling led by the unqualified doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful'," he says. "It rings a bell."

Zippos by the thousands were left behind in Vietnam. Fifteen years ago artist Bradford Edwards began collecting them at Vietnamese flea markets.

"Here's an interesting one," Edwards says, "a broken peace sign on a bracelet."

In a new book chronicling his work, Edwards explains that each Zippo tells a story - the disgruntled soldier, the lonely soldier, the bored soldier. Edwards became captivated by the engraved Zippos and began recreating them in his own art: larger than life portraits in metal, in stone, in lacquer and mother of pearl.

"When they're done in this artistic fashion, I think they celebrate and extol the virtues and highlight the carving," Edwards says.

Just the sound of a Zippo opening is iconic, and Zippos sparked controversy in one of the most famous images from Vietnam.

After Morley Safer reported in August 1965 that a village was lit on fire with lighters, the Zippo became an image of a war going the wrong way. But to Edwards the Zippos are not about the big issues, but about the individual soldier.

"You had people who were discontent people who wanted to express heartfelt emotions," he says. "And here was a small canvas."

"They look like a collection of tombstones," Edwards says. "And they maybe the last thing some of these guys had to say."

While some of the soldiers may never have made it home, now their Zippos are here illuminating the past.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.