The Pentagon's Plan to Fight Zombies and Other Unusual Military Schemes
The Pentagon’s Plan to Fight Zombies and Other Unusual Military Schemes

The Pentagon’s Plan to Fight Zombies and Other Unusual Military Schemes

Khalid Elhassan - August 7, 2021

The Pentagon’s Plan to Fight Zombies and Other Unusual Military Schemes
Zoologist Donald Griffin gave the bat bomb plan a boost. The Rockefeller University

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 body weight – 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.

The Pentagon’s Plan to Fight Zombies and Other Unusual Military Schemes
Dr. Lytle Adams. True Ink

4. An Eclectic Team’s Bat Collection Trip

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 was 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“.

The Pentagon’s Plan to Fight Zombies and Other Unusual Military Schemes
A bat house, full of recruits for the bat bomb plan. Ripley’s

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 Pentagon’s Plan to Fight Zombies and Other Unusual Military Schemes
A bat with a 9 gram bomb. Leombrik

2. The Nuts and Bolts of the Bat Bomb Plan

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 flamed 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.

The Pentagon’s Plan to Fight Zombies and Other Unusual Military Schemes
Bats, cannister, loading process, and air drop. Beach Back Packing

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 induced 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.

The Pentagon’s Plan to Fight Zombies and Other Unusual Military Schemes
Carlsbad Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base in New Mexico, after it was accidentally set on fire by accidentally released weaponized bats. Wikimedia

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 cancelled 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“.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Air Force Magazine, Journal of the Air Force Association, October 1990, Vol. 73, No. 10 – The Bat Bombers

Atlantic, The, April 4th, 2011 – Old, Weird Tech: The Bat Bombs of World War II

Atlas Obscura – The Almost Perfect World War II Plot to Bomb Japan With Bats

Cave Brown, Anthony – Bodyguard of Lies (1975)

Couffer, Jack – Bat Bomb: World War II’s Other Secret Weapon (1992)

Disciples of Flight – Napalm Bats: The Bat Bomb

Foreign Policy – Exclusive: The Pentagon Has a Plan to Stop the Zombie Apocalypse. Seriously

History Collection – Mao’s Plan to Exterminate Sparrows, and Other Bad Ideas From History

Holt, Thaddeus – The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War (2004)

Howard, Michael – Strategic Deception in the Second World War (1995)

Latimer, Jonathan David – Deception in War (2001)

Macintyre, Ben – Operation Mincemeat (2010)

Military History Now – Operation Wandering Soul: Ghost Tape Number 10 and the Haunted Jungles of Vietnam

NPR – Dead Man Floating: World War II’s Oddest Operation

Royal Australian Navy – HMAS Abraham Crijnssen

Smithsonian Magazine, August 10th, 2015 – Bats and Balloon Bombs: The Weird Weapons That Could Have Won WWII

United States Strategic Command – CONPLAN 8888

US Naval Institute News – Camouflaged Ships: An Illustrated History

Warfare History Network – Bat Bombs: WWII’s Project X-Ray

War History Online – The Ship That Disguised Itself as an Island to Evade the Japanese in WWII

Washington Post, February 24th, 1987 – Edward Lansdale, Prototype For Ugly American, Dies

We Are the Mighty – That Time a Dutch Warship Pretended to be an Island to Evade the Enemy

Wikipedia – Bat Bomb

Wikipedia – Edward Lansdale

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