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Flying Weapons of Mass Destruction

Posted by Failed Success on 04/25/06 at 11:50 PM

Bat BombThere was a time of desperation, when the military sought to turn one of nature’s nocturnal creatures into a deliverer of fiery doom.

On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a successful strike against the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Millions of Americans were shocked and outraged by the attack. It also left many inventive Americans contemplating ways to strike back against the distant enemy.

One such person was Dr. Lytle S. Adams, a Dental Surgeon from Pennsylvania. What did a Dental Surgeon know about strategic modern warfare? Not a great deal, but he did have a thing for bats.

The Stage was Set for Desperate Measures

Dr. Adams, who had recently visited the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico while on vacation, had been extremely impressed with the flight patterns of the bats in the area. He was also captivated by the sheer numbers in which the bats would travel as they left their caves. Naturally, he began to wonder; “Couldn’t millions of bats be fitted with incendiary bombs and dropped from planes over the strongholds of the enemy”? Millions of intelligent, free-flying firebombs would surely make for a devastating attack.

Carlsbad CavernsDr. Adams decided to begin some independent research on bats, collecting as much data on the different species of bats that he encountered. He wanted to determine whether the idea of bats being used as a weapon was even in the realm of possibility. In addition to that, he knew that he would need some hard facts if he was going to take this idea to the government.

Eventually, Dr. Adams submitted his proposal to the War Department. At the time, Dr. Adams wasn’t the only inventive citizen putting his mind to the task. The White House was being inundated with inventions and warfare ideas from civilians involving everything from the plausible, to the utterly ridiculous. Very few of these homegrown ideas would ever see the light of day.

Dr. Adams proposal, which was obviously one of the more impractical ideas at first glance, began to garner serious attention by military officials. After being thoroughly analyzed by government research scientists, his project was given the green light and turned over to the Army Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) and the Army Air Forces.

Time to Draft Some Tiny Soldiers

Armed with government funding and a research team, Dr. Adams began visiting locations where bats would be available in plentiful quantities. For the bat bombs to be effective, there would need to be a lot of them. From a later interview, Dr. Adams explains: “We visited thousands of caves and three thousand mines. Speed was so imperative that we generally drove all day and night when we weren’t exploring caves. We slept in cars, taking turns driving. One car in our search team covered 350,000 miles”.

Choosing the proper species of bat to be the harbinger of fiery doom was of the utmost importance. The bat needed to be strong enough to fly quickly with a small bomb attached to its body, as well as be available in very large quantities. After sorting through 1000 species of bats, they managed to narrow it down to the “Free Tailed Bat”. The “Free Tailed Bat” weighed only a third of an ounce, but was hearty and strong and could fly well, even while encumbered by a bomb weighing three times its body weight.

As far as being available in sufficient numbers was concerned, Dr. Adams and his team found a single colony of the “Free Tailed Bats” in the Ney Cave near Bandera, TX that contained more than 20 million bats; more than enough to build their dangerous armada. They were able to easily capture the bats by placing large nets over the mouth of the cave, after which they would transport them in refrigerated trucks.

Turning Ordinary Bats into Flying Weapons

Bat BombOnce final authority to proceed with the experiment was granted by the War Department and the U.S. Army Air Forces, the National Defense Research Committee set out to design the perfect payload for the tiny soldiers, as well as a delivery system that would get them where they needed to go.

Dr. L.F. Fisser designed two different sizes of incendiary bombs that could be surgically attached to the loose flap of skin on the chest of the bat with a surgical clip and some string. One model weighed seventeen grams and would burn for four minutes with a ten inch flame. The other weighed twenty eight grams and would burn for six minutes with a twelve inch flame.

The explosives were oblong shaped cases filled with a type of thickened kerosene. A tiny time delay igniter was attached to the side of the casing, serving as the means to detonate the explosive. When the bomb was ready to use, a copper chloride solution would be injected into a cavity through which steel wire was passed. The solution would corrode the wire, which held the firing pin under tension. Once corroded away, the firing pin would spring forward, igniting the kerosene.

Special bomb style cases were designed as the delivery system. The case contained 26 stacked trays, each with compartments that could hold up to 40 bats. When dropped from a plane, the case would expand very much like an accordion, opening up each of the compartments to the air giving the 1040 bats room to fly free of the case and towards their intended targets.

Bat BombThey began testing the Bat Bombers in May of 1943. Several thousand bats were collected and flown to the testing facility in California where they would be test dropped. The bats were placed in a series of refrigerators, which caused the bats to hibernate, making them much easier to transport and handle.

The hibernating bats were then taken one by one, a dummy bomb of the appropriate weight was surgically attached, and then they were hand loaded into the individual compartments of the case. The cases were loaded into a B-25 and dropped at an altitude of 5,000 feet. The initial results did little to bolster confidence. Most of the bats were slow in coming out of their hibernation as the case fell through the air and died on impact. Subsequent tests showed more of the same, along with other complications such as malfunctioning cases and bombs tearing free of their carriers.

Despite the bad results, testing continued and the process was gradually refined. Eventually a test using live explosives was carried out. The researchers built a mock Japanese village simulating Japanese structures, which at the time were comprised of mostly wood and paper. It was their hope that the bats, upon deploying from the case, would spread out and find their way into the buildings of the mock village, after which their firebombs would detonate, immersing the highly flammable buildings in flame. The researchers would soon learn that their weapon was a little too destructive.

Talk About Your All Time Backfires

Bat Bomb DestructionThe live explosive test with the mock Japanese village turned out to be one of the rare successful drops. The Bat Bomber cases opened perfectly and a majority of the bats made it out of their cases, making it one of the most successful deployments they had witnessed up until this point.

A few of the Bat Bombers found their marks and good portion of the mock Japanese village was set ablaze. However, many of the bats found other targets. These other targets turned out to the research facility and its adjoining buildings. Many of the research facility’s warehouses were destroyed by the resulting fires, burning up most of the testing materials for the project.

One of the adjoining hangars, which just so happened to contain a car belonging to one of the Army Generals, was set ablaze and burned to the ground. The hangar and the General’s vehicle were completely destroyed. This disaster, along with what I’m sure was a very angry General, quickly led to the end of the Army’s involvement in the Bat Bomber project.

I Don’t Want the Bat Bombs, You Take Them

The Army saw fit to hand the project off to someone else, and that someone else would be the U.S. Navy. They figured, “Let the Navy get their cars and property burnt up, at least there will be plenty of water around”. The Navy continued the project, now re-dubbed Project X-Ray, only for a short time. Dr. Adams continued to work on the project along with the Navy, designing better methods of capturing the unlucky bats needed for the experiment. It wasn’t long before the Navy handed the project off as well, this time to the U.S. Marine Corps.

Bat BombThe Marine Corps dove in to conducting full fledged experiments, burning up more bats and buildings. Orders were placed for stronger incendiary bombs to increase the damage potential and, in one of the final tests, the improved incendiaries caused fires so powerful that they had to be left to burn because they were impossible to extinguish with the firefighting equipment they had available.

Everyone involved with the project quickly realized that much work was still needed to refine the process, and estimates indicated that the weapon would not be combat ready until mid 1945. That information, coupled with the much more promising success of another secret weapon, the Atomic Bomb, led the War Department to shut the project down. Project X-Ray had lasted two years, had cost more than $2 million, and an estimated 25,000 bats had made the ultimate sacrifice for Uncle Sam.

Dr. Adams continued to believe that the bat bomb would have been an effective weapon. While they were difficult to control and had varied results since the bats had their own ideas about what targets needed bombing, no one could deny the sheer damage potential if the bats actually did make it to enemy buildings. Upon being dropped in an enemy territory, it really didn’t matter what they set on fire; as long as a fire was set. The War Department, though, felt otherwise. They had what they felt was a better weapon at their disposal now.

Dr. Adams maintained that fires created by the Bat Bombers could have been more destructive than the atomic bomb. He had found that the bats spread out in a twenty mile radius from where the case was dropped, which created a high potential for destruction. In his own words, “Think thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of forty miles for every Bat Bomber case dropped. Japan would have been devastated, but with a much smaller loss of life”. That is, of course, unless you count the bats.

Further Reading:

- Bat Bomb: World War II’s Other Secret Weapon (link goes to Amazon.com book listing)
- The Bat Bombers - Air Force Magazine
- Wikipedia.org listing on Bat Bombs
- More about species of “Free Tailed Bats” at Answers.com

A detailed account is also available on an episode of the History Channel show “Secret Weapons of the Allies”. Check your local listings

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Previous Comments

  1. Carlsbad Caverns is in Carlsbad, Ca not New Mexico.

    Posted by proof read  on  04/04/09  at  01:36 PM
  2. I feel kinda sd about the bats dying but at the same time it wouldve helped the army.

    Posted by Bat bomber foe  on  03/30/09  at  08:09 AM
  3. how do you make bat bombs

    Posted by kyanna  on  02/24/09  at  04:38 PM
  4. I believe that the bat bombing would have been succesful. I’ve been intrested in this topic for quite a while, although few people here took me seriously. I wish, however, that the bats wouldn’t be killed during the bombing.

    Posted by Tarpolis  on  01/17/08  at  06:10 AM