Effectiveness, and End of Project X-Ray
Work on Project X-Ray picked up the pace in 1942, starting with confirmation that bats could actually carry the weight of small incendiary bombs. Female bats routinely carry their young, and load bearing tests conducted at Moffet Field Naval Air Station in Sunnyvale, California, confirmed that the species can, indeed, carry its body weight or more in sustained flight. It was now time for the next step, so teams were sent to delve into caverns throughout the American 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 affixed to the bat by a wire.
When the bat was released, the bomb would dangle from the critter by the wire, and its weight would activate the timed fuse, which would eventually trigger the incendiary. The 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 connecting 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 induced into hibernation, then the tiny incendiaries were attached 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 5000 feet above a Japanese city, then deploy a parachute and break open at 1000 feet, releasing the by-now awakened bats to fly off and find roosting places.
There were some testing mishaps, most notable of which occurred on March 15th, 1943, when armed bats, accidentally released at Carlsbad Army Air Field, New Mexico, 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“.
Notwithstanding the promising test results, 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 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