18. The Plan to Turn a Ship Into a Tropical Island
Navies made various stabs at ship camouflage during World Wars I and II. In the 1914 – 1918 conflict, vessels were painted grey to help reduce visibility, but that did not always work in the ever-changing environments and sea conditions. The British eventually pioneered “Dazzle” camouflage paint schemes that used bold stripes and bright colors. The patterns did not hide the ship but disrupted its outline to make it more difficult to judge its size, speed, and heading. That made it more difficult for the enemy to accurately target it.
Dazzle and other camouflage schemes were also employed in WWII, but their use declined as the war progressed. Steady advances in radar and range finding technology steadily reduced the effectiveness of ship camouflage. However, early in the Pacific War, the crew and captain of one Dutch warship, the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen, came up with an unusual camouflage plan, and successfully pulled it off. They disguised their ship as a tropical island. That allowed the Crijnssen to sail undetected for hundreds of miles through Japanese-controlled waters, until it reached safety in Australia.
17. If You Can Neither Fight Nor Flee, You Had Best Hide
The Abraham Crijnssen was a Royal Netherlands Navy minesweeper that was built in 1936. She ended up stationed in the Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia, which is where WWII in the Pacific found her when Japan commenced hostilities in 1941. By warship standards, the Crijnssen was a minnow. She was 184 feet long, 25 feet wide, had a draft of 7 feet, and displaced a mere 525 tons. She was crewed by only 45 men and was armed with a single 76mm gun plus a pair of 20mm cannons.
The Crijnssen was wholly outmatched by the powerful Imperial Japanese Navy ships that descended upon the Dutch East Indies. Her weak punch was complemented by low speed: her engines could propel her at a maximum speed of 15 knots. In short, she could neither fight nor flee if the Japanese caught sight of her. When you can neither fight nor flee, your best bet is to hide. So the Crifnssen put all her eggs in the basket of a plan to camouflage herself and avoid detection at all costs.
The Abraham Crijnssen was based in Surabaya when the Japanese kicked off WWII in the Pacific. Things started off bad for the Dutch and the Allies, and soon went from bad to worse. By February 1942, after they were humiliatingly defeated in the naval battles of the Java Sea and the Sunda Strait, all Dutch and Allied ships were ordered to evacuate the now-inhospitable region and withdraw to Australia. The Crijnssen was ordered to sail away as part of a four-ship Dutch convoy.
Unfortunately for the small Dutch minesweeper, the Japanese Navy sank the other three vessels. That left the Crijnssen to make her way to safety as best she could, alone. Too weak to fight off Japanese warships or Japanese airplanes, the Crijnssen’s sole hope for survival lay in figuring out a way to sneak past the enemy without being spotted. The lush Dutch East Indies were dotted with tropical islands, so the ship set out to camouflage itself as a tropical island.
The plan of the Abraham Crijnssen’s crew and captain to camouflage their ship as a tropical island was not as nutty as it seems at first glance. The Java Sea, through which the small minesweeper had to wend its way to safety, has over 18,000 islands of varying sizes. Quite a few of them are mere specs, with just a few trees growing on them. The Crijnssen, which measured only 184 feet in length, was not a huge ship, but it was still big enough to pass itself off as a tiny island if properly camouflaged.
So the minesweeper stopped off at the nearest island, and its 45 man crew began to cut down vegetation with a will. The main detection threat faced by the Abraham Crijnssen was getting spotted from the air by Japanese planes. So to effectively camouflage the ship, its crew needed to cover its entire surface area with tropical vegetation and foliage. The result was one of the more fascinating WWII survival stories. It was hard and backbreaking work, but where there is a will, there is a way.
With their lives on the line, if the Japanese spotted them, the Abraham Crijnssen’s crew had all the incentive in the world to do whatever it took to avoid detection. The ship’s deck was completely covered with vegetation, which was arranged in such a way so as to imitate a jungle canopy. The hard work of the Dutch sailors paid off. They covered the entire deck with foliage and painted any exposed metal in shades of gray to imitate rock formations. By the time they were done, the Dutch minesweeper actually resembled an island.
Or at least it resembled an island if seen from a distance. A key difference between a ship and an island is that the former moves, while the latter does not. The camouflage plan was intended for the daytime, during which the Crijnssen remained stationary, anchored as close as possible to actual islands. Once darkness fell, the small ship would raise steam and carefully wend her way through the dangerous waters of the Java Sea, headed for the safety of Australia.
13. The One Thing That the Crijnssen’s Camouflage Plan Could Do Little About
The Crijnssen’s flight was an agonizingly slow and terrifying ordeal. While they spent the daylight hours at anchor, the Dutch ship’s crew hoped and prayed that their camouflage would hold up, and avert detection by the numerous Japanese ships and airplanes crisscrossing the Java Sea. Once the sun went down and the tropical night descended, the small vessel weighed anchor and resumed her journey to safety. As they inched their way towards Australia, there was one thing that the Crijnssen’s crew could do little to camouflage: the sound of her engines.
All the sailors could do was pray that the noise would not attract the attention of nearby enemy ships or watchers. Luck was with the plucky Dutch minesweeper. After one of the more hair-raising journeys of WWII, which lasted for eight frightful days, she finally reached safety. On March 20, 1942, the Crijnssen arrived in Freemantle, Western Australia. The Abraham Crijnssen was the last Allied vessel to successfully escape the disastrous defeat in the Java Sea and the Dutch East Indies, and the only ship of her class to survive the debacle.
12. From the Dutch Navy to the Australian Navy, and Back to the Dutch Navy Again
Once in Australia, the Crijnssen underwent a refit, which included the installation of underwater detection equipment. In September 1942, she was commissioned into the Australian Navy as HMAS Abraham Crijnssen, an anti-submarine convoy escort. She also served as a submarine tender – a depot ship that supplies and supports underwater vessels – for Dutch submarines. Her complement was beefed up with the survivors of the British destroyer HMS Jupiter, sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea, plus Australian personnel. Commanded by an Australian lieutenant, the ship and its mixed crew made it to war’s end.
At the end of WWII, the Crijnssen was returned to the Royal Netherlands Navy and patrolled the Dutch East Indies until they gained their independence. She then returned to Europe and continued in service with the RNN until she was decommissioned in 1960. Over the next few decades, she served as a training ship, then as a storage hull, before she was finally donated to the Dutch Navy Museum in 1995. She was restored to her WWII configuration and can be visited today at anchor in Den Helder, in Northern Holland.
Per Vietnamese folklore, dead people who are not properly buried wander the earth as tormented souls, unless and until their corpses receive the appropriate last rites. Furthermore, those tormented ghosts can supposedly communicate with the living on the anniversary of their demise. So US forces in Vietnam decided to use such superstitions against the Viet Cong. Known as Operation Wandering Soul, the plan sought to “frighten and demoralize the enemy â¦ and compel many to desert their positions“. To accomplish that, high decibel speakers on helicopters and backpacks were used to blast recordings of wailing “ghosts” in areas infested with insurgents.
The tapes used had messages in eerie-sounding Vietnamese, purportedly from dead Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army soldiers. They warned their comrades in hair-raising voices: “My friends, I have come back to let you know that I am dead â¦ I am dead! It is hell! I am in hell! Don’t end up like me. Go home, friends, before it is too late!” Other creepy recordings included a bewildered “ghost” asking: “Who is that? Who is calling me? My daughter? My wife?” That was followed by another damned soul responding: “Your father is back home with you, my daughter“. Eeriest of all might have been the ethereal voice of a child wailing “Daddy, daddy, come home with me. Daddy! Daddy!”
Most VC and NVA troops who heard Operation Wandering Soul’s sounds simply got ticked off and shot at the speakers, so the plan was not exactly effective on all listeners. However, the recordings did have an impact on at least some enemy personnel. In February 1970, for example, a patrol swept an area following the eerie broadcasts, and caught a trio of “trembling VC insurgents“. On the other hand, the recordings could backfire at times, demoralizing not only the Viet Cong but also “terrifying friendly South Vietnamese troops and civilians alike“.
Overall, the feedback from Wandering Soul was promising. That led the operation’s implementers, the US Army’s 6th Psy-Op Battalion, to seek opportunities to expand on their repertoire whenever possible, to tailor the recordings to local conditions. One such opportunity presented itself when a South Vietnamese allied army unit spread a rumor that a ravenous tiger was on the loose, and attacking North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops in the vicinity. So the 6thPsy-Op taped a tiger’s growls at the Bangkok Zoo, then amplified and blasted the recording near an enemy-controlled mountain. It reportedly frightened 150 VC and NVA into fleeing their positions.
After the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor catapulted America into WWII, a Pennsylvania dentist named Lytle S. Adams hit upon an outside-the-box plan: incinerate Japanese cities with tiny incendiary bombs attached to bats. Although the concept sounds batty, once people got over the fits of chuckles and thought of it seriously, it turned out to have some logical legs to stand upon. So a project was set up to test the effectiveness of Bat Bombs as weapons of war. It turned out to be a viable idea that might have actually worked.
As things panned out, the weapon did not make it past the research and development stage, and the project was shelved before the Bat Bomb ever got deployed and were put to the ultimate test. Thus, there is no way to tell just how effective they might have been in real-life combat. Still, how different would history and our world be if the iconic image of WWII’s end and the start of our current era had not been atomic bombs and mushroom clouds, but clouds of bomb-bearing bats?
8. Revenge Fantasies Swept the United States After the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor
The rage that swept America after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was unequaled until the 9/11 attacks. Like many Americans, Pennsylvania dentist Lytle S. Adams was mad as hell when he first heard of what the Japanese had done, and like many of his countrymen, he fantasized about payback. His mind began to drift towards what was then commonly known about Japanese cities: that most of their houses were flimsy wooden constructs. Wouldn’t it be grand, he thought if somebody could take advantage of that?
The vulnerability of Japanese houses to fire was no secret, as it was common knowledge that the Japanese usually built their houses out of bamboo and paper. In 1923, a powerful earthquake had struck Tokyo, and triggered fires that devastated the city. The numbers of killed and wounded were in the hundreds of thousands. So the vulnerability of Japanese cities to flames was well known. What set Adams apart was the creative method he dreamt up for igniting such fires: a plan that relied upon bats to deliver the devastation.
Dr. Lytle Adams had recently returned from a trip to New Mexico, where he was impressed by the clouds of migratory bats that visited the state each year and roosted by the millions in Carlsbad Caverns. He was particularly impressed by the Mexican Free-Tailed Bats – a smaller but hardier species than the common bats we are most used to. So the dentist, who apparently had as much free time as he had initiative, returned to Carlsbad, and captured some bats to study. Between reading, observation, and experimentation, Dr. Adams realized that his nebulous plan to weaponize bats might actually be doable.
Bats – particularly Mexican Free-Tailed Bats – are hardy, and can travel long distances. They can also survive in high altitudes, and best of all, they can fly while carrying loads greater than their own body weight. Loads such as tiny, incendiary bombs. In theory, if bats with incendiary bombs were released over Japanese cities, they would naturally fly into and roost in the nooks and crannies of the mostly wooden buildings. Then the incendiaries would go off, and start numerous fires that would overwhelm firefighters and cause widespread devastation.
6. The President Thought the Plan to Weaponize Bats Had Potential
Within weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lytle Adams had drawn up a plan of action, and on January 12th, 1942, he wrote up a proposal and sent it to the White House. There, the idea would probably have been laughed off and dismissed out of hand, if not for the fact that Adams was a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife. With help from the First Lady, the proposal made it to the desk of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and thence to the country’s top military brass. The president sent Adams to see William J. Donovan, his chief intelligence advisor and eventual head of the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor.
FDR remarked that: “This man is not a nut. It sounds like a perfectly wild idea but is worth looking into“. The connected dentist’s proposal eventually ended up with the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) – a 1940s version of DARPA, which investigated and coordinated research into ideas that might help the war effort. The NDRC forwarded the proposal to a zoologist named Donald Griffin, who had conducted extensive research into animal behavior, and who specialized in bats and their navigation methods. That was when the batty plan began to take wing.
5. From Loony Concept to Official Government Research Project
Lytle Adams’ concept was right up zoologist Donald Griffin’s alley, and he became an enthusiastic supporter of the plan. “This proposal seems bizarre and visionary at first glance,” he wrote in April 1942, “but extensive experience with experimental biology convinces the writer that if executed competently it would have every chance of success“. He went on to add that, if properly executed, Bat Bombs were “likely to cause severe damage to [Japanese] property and morale“. The proposal thus went from a seemingly loony idea, to an official US government research project.
A number of factors made the plan theoretically viable, and rendered it attractive to authorities. Bats fly at night, then seek dark and secluded places to roost in before dawn. Places such as attics, cubbyholes, and other nooks and crannies. Bats can also fly with loads that exceed their own bodyweight – loads such as tiny bombs. Also, during wartime, when resources were scarce and had to be carefully husbanded, bats were abundantly plentiful in the US. Finally, bats can be induced to hibernate, and while they are in hibernation, they do not need food, care, or much maintenance.
Lytle Adams gathered together an unusual team, that in addition to supportive scientists included a popular Hollywood Western actor, a former hotel manager, and a former gangster. He took them, along with naturalists from the University of California, on an expedition to collect bats. Studies and observations confirmed Adams’ hunch that the Mexican Free-Tailed Bat was the best candidate for the project. So the team netted hundreds of Free-tails, placed them in refrigerated trucks to induce hibernation, and sent them to Washington for further research.
There, Adams conducted an experiment in front of military brass with some Free-tails and dummy bombs. The results impressed his audience, and convinced them that the plan, which was designated Project X-Ray, warranted serious research. The US Army Air Forces were put in charge of the project, whose subject matter was described as a “Test of Methods of Scattering Incendiaries“. Testing and research were ordered so as to “[d]etermine the feasibility of using bats to carry small incendiary bombs into enemy targets“.
3. The Inventor of Military Napalm Designed Tiny Bat Bombs for Project X-Ray
The pace of work on Project X-Ray picked up in 1942. First, there was a need to confirm a key concept necessary for the plan to proceed: could the bats actually carry the weight of small incendiary bombs? Female bats routinely carry their young, and tests conducted at Moffet Field Naval Air Station in Sunnyvale, California, confirmed that the species can, indeed, carry a load equal to or greater than its body weight in sustained flight. It was now time for the next step, so teams were sent to delve into caverns throughout America’s southwest, to drum up bat recruits for large-scale testing.
The flying critters were captured by the thousands and transported to research centers, where they were placed in specially constructed “bat houses”. With the test subjects/ recruits in place, it was time to develop the tiny bombs that would transform bats into weapons of mass destruction. The job was given to Dr. Louis Fieser, an organic chemist best known as the inventor of militarily effective napalm. Fieser eventually settled upon a design for a light bomb made of a guncotton case, filled with kerosene. A capsule attached to the bomb contained a timed fuse and trigger assembly, which was attached to the bat with a wire.
The plan was that when a bat was released from an airplane, a bomb would dangle from it via a wire. The bomb’s weight would activate a timed fuse, which would eventually trigger the incendiary. Bat Bombs came in two models: a 0.6-ounce incendiary, which produced a 10-inch flame that burned for 4 minutes, and a 1-ounce model, which produced a 12-inch flame that burned for about 6 minutes. By then the critters, released over Japanese cities, would hopefully have roosted inside attics and other nooks and crannies. In theory, the bats would gnaw through the wire that connected them to their incendiaries before they went off, and thus survive their mission and go on to live happy bat lives.
If not, they would have the gratitude of Uncle Sam and the thanks of a grateful nation for their sacrifice. To deliver the individual Bat Bombs to their target area, the critters were first inducted into hibernation, then tiny incendiaries were affixed to them. Next, they were placed in a special bomb casing that contained 26 stacked trays, each with 40 bats, for a total of 1040 bat incendiaries per bomb. The bombs would be dropped at an altitude of 5000 feet above a Japanese city, then deploy a parachute and break open at 1000 feet, to release the by-now awakened bats to fly off and find roosting places.
1. Fortunately for Japan, the Plan to Torch it With Bat Bombs Was Never Carried Out
Project X-Ray experienced some testing mishaps, most notable of which occurred on March 15, 1943. That day, armed bats were accidentally released at Carlsbad Army Air Field, New Mexico, and they set the place ablaze. The silver lining was that it confirmed that weaponized bats can, indeed, start major fires. More controlled weapons testing at a specially designed “Japanese Village” confirmed that Bat Bombs were, pound for pound, between 11 to 21 times more effective than standard bombs. As the project’s chief chemist noted: “the regular bombs would give probably 167 to 400 fires per bomb load where X-Ray would give 3,625 to 4,748 fires“.
Despite promising test results, the authorities pulled the plug on Project X-Ray in mid-1944, when they were informed that it would not produce a deployable weapon until 1945. That was deemed too slow a pace, and since the Manhattan Project was on track to produce a war-winning bomb by then, X-Ray was canceled after a 2-year life and a $2 million expenditure. To his dying day, Dr. Lytle Adams insisted that his Bat Bombs plan could have won the war, with fewer horrors than atomic bombs. As he put it: “Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of forty miles in diameter for every bomb dropped. Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life“.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading