Monday, July 22, 2013

Bomber Bats?

Believe it or not, that was the directive from the White House as the U.S. tried to develop secret weapons during World War II.

On December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Lytle S. Adams was visiting Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. As the implications of Japan’s act began to sink in, Adams’s thoughts turned to retaliation.

Adams was amazed by the hundreds of thousands of bats that emerged from and returned to the caverns every night and wondered if they couldn't be used as weapons—fitted with incendiary devices and dropped from planes. He realized that if bats could be “weaponized,” they could be released to roost before sun up, when built-in timers would ignite the incendiaries, creating thousands of fires simultaneously.

By January 1942, Adams’s idea made it to President Franklin Roosevelt’s desk, and within days, Roosevelt had dispatched instructions regarding the plan to an Army colonel. Roosevelt wrote, “It sounds like a perfectly wild idea but is worth looking into.”

The “bat bomb” project was soon off the ground, and the effort appeared promising. Bats generally congregated in large numbers, could carry twice their weight in flight, would fly in darkness and roost in secluded places and, perhaps most important, could be manipulated to hibernate and, while dormant, did not require food or maintenance.

By March 1943, the Mexican free-tailed bat had been chosen for the operation, and Louis Fieser was designing miniature incendiary devices for the bombers. The bats were being collected from large caves in Texas.

Two months later, 3,500 bats were tested in California but even after several failed attempts, testing continued with mixed results.

By early June, the bat bombers had burned down the new Carlsbad Airfield’s control tower, a barracks and several other buildings, all while in various stages of construction. They soon realized they had a lot of additional developments to make before a final conclusion could be drawn.

In August 1943, the project was passed on to the Navy and assigned to the Marine Corps thus becoming known as Project X-Ray. An incendiary specialist at Dugway reported that the bat bombers were effective because the small units were capable of creating a reasonable number of destructive fires without being detected. A National Defense Research Committee observer concurred, concluding that Project X-Ray had indeed produced an effective weapon.

After some positive results and optimistic accounts, more advanced and effective incendiary devices were ordered and an expanded Project X-Ray test regimen was scheduled for August 1944. But by then, Project X-Ray was racing against the Manhattan Project, and when Navy Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King was informed that the bat bombers would probably not be combat ready until mid-1945, he canceled the project.

For the original article from Texas Co-op Power magazine, click hereFor more on Texas bats, check out Loren Ammerman’s book Bats of Texas.

-Paige Bukowski

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