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California and the West

Relegating Napalm to Its Place in History

War: The final cache of the deadly, controversial brew--in Fallbrook--has been removed. A Texas firm is recycling it for peaceful use.

April 01, 2001|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FALLBROOK, Calif. — More than a quarter-century after the end of the Vietnam War, a group of American military brass will gather here this week to declare victory over one of the war's most feared and tenacious combatants: napalm.

On a hilltop at the Naval Weapons Station, the acting secretary of the Navy, admirals from San Diego, Hawaii and the Pentagon, and other uniformed and civilian personnel from the Department of Defense will announce that the final cache of the liquid fire that became an enduring symbol of the Vietnam War is on the verge of being converted to peaceful use.

Like the war itself, the push to dispose of 34,561 canisters of napalm was protracted, expensive ($50 million) and politically controversial. Several times, the public was assured, prematurely, that the end was in sight.

But now the 10-foot cigar-shaped canisters, which once covered 67 acres, have been punctured, drained and shredded.

The final canister went through the process late last week. Two empties will be used symbolically for the "last canister" ceremony at this base 60 miles north of San Diego.

For two years, the smelly, sticky substance has been removed and shipped by railroad to a firm in Deer Park, Texas that specializes in the recycling of toxic materials. In all, 2.7 million gallons of the deadly brew of benzene, gasoline and polystyrene has been shipped to Texas.

The napalm that was once used to destroy enemy locations and protect advancing American troops has been processed into fuel for factories in Port Arthur, Texas, and Baton Rouge, La.

Aluminum from the canisters is being turned into airplane and automotive parts, and the wooden crates are being burned in Tennessee to produce electricity.

Fourteen of the empty canisters will be sent to a museum at the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, about 120 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Officials involved with the napalm removal project hope to interest the Smithsonian Institution in taking two or three of the olive-drab containers.

Given the military and political significance of napalm, "it would be a shame if they were not retained for history," said J.D. Brigance, remedial project manager for the removal operation.

As the Vietnam War ended, the Navy assumed custody of napalm that had been produced for the Air Force. By 1978, it was declared surplus and available for disposal.

Trainload Caught in Political Furor

The Navy's efforts in 1982, 1983 and 1992 to contract with private companies to remove and recycle the napalm failed because of the companies' money woes or inability to meet environmental regulations. But those failures were minor compared with the embarrassment of 1998 when a trainload of napalm left California for a treatment plant in East Chicago, Ind.

Political opposition to napalm-laden trains rumbling through East Chicago caused the plant to drop the contract. The napalm was diverted to China Lake because environmental regulations prohibited its return to Fallbrook.

A replacement contract was signed with GNI Group Inc. of Deer Park, Texas. Still, there was political opposition, both in that state and in Louisiana, where the napalm was to be used.

The House Republican whip, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), came to Fallbrook to see for himself that, as officials have long insisted, there is no threat of the napalm catching fire or exploding.

When dropped by low-level jets during the war, the canisters broke open and were ignited by the super-hot temperatures of white phosphorous. At lesser temperatures, napalm is impervious to ignition.

"Napalm is an emotional issue, not one usually based on rational thought," said Lee Saunders, an environmental official with the Navy in San Diego.

With DeLay satisfied, the removal to Texas began--under the direction of officials from the Richland, Wash.-based Battelle Memorial Institute, which has a long history of working with the federal government.

Navy officials call the removal, after many false starts, an environmental success story, with all components of napalm being recycled, the site soon to be returned to its natural condition, and the endangered Stephens kangaroo rat--which had taken a liking to the wooden crates and weeds surrounding them--unmolested.

Although the last drop of napalm will soon cease to exist, the word "napalm"--which comes from the chemical constituents naphthene and palmitate--is firmly embedded in the American psyche.

Douglas Pike, director of research at the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University, said napalm "has come to symbolize the horrific nature of war, particularly war that uses advanced technology."

Napalm dropped on thatched-hut villages became as controversial as the aerial bombardment during the Spanish Civil War, Pike said.

"To the anti-war movement, napalm stood for everything that was wrong with American involvement," he said. "To talk about Vietnam is to talk about competing impressions. To Americans who served in Vietnam, napalm helped save American lives."

For those who worked on the removal project, there is pride that it was done without injury and within environmental regulations. There is also relief.

"I'm glad we're coming to an end," said Eike Hohenadl, the site manager. "Napalm is a memory of a war that most Americans would like to forget."

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