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