Top Secret WWII Bat Bomber Program

At the outset of World War II, innovative plans were laid to send some talented fliers to the front lines.

The United States was engaged in a number of secret aviation projects during World War II. In 1941, Dr. Lytle S. Adams, a dental surgeon from Irwin, Pa., having just visited Carlsbad Caverns, N.M.—believed to house the world’s largest bat colony—was fascinated by the bats that emerged nightly to feed on insects. Later reflecting on his observation, he queried: Could bats be fitted with incendiary bombs and dropped from planes? What could be more devastating than such a firebomb attack?

Adams sent a letter to the White House on January 12, 1942, proposing that the government investigate this possibility. His suggestion was one of the few such well-meaning ideas that reached the desk of the commander in chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who directed further study, asserting, “This man is not a nut. It sounds like a perfectly wild idea but is worth looking into.”

A memorandum by the National Defense Research Committee (a short-lived organization created “to coordinate, supervise, and conduct scientific research on the problems underlying the development, production, and use of mechanisms and devices of warfare”) was drafted and titled, “Use of Bats as Vectors of Incendiary Bombs.” It described using “very large numbers of bats, each carrying a small incendiary time bomb. The bats would be released at night from airplanes, preferably at high altitudes and the incendiaries would be timed to ignite after the bats had descended to low altitudes and taken shelter for the day. Since bats often roost in buildings, they could be released over settled areas with a good expectation that a large percentage would be roosting in buildings or other inflammable installations… when the incendiary material was ignited.”

The author summarized his memo by saying that, although “this proposal seems bizarre and visionary at first glance… extensive experience with experimental biology convinces the writer that if executed competently it would have every chance of success.” He recommended an investigation “with all possible speed, accuracy and efficiency” by the U.S. Army Air Forces. Bomb development was passed on to the Army Chemical Warfare Service.

Following careful consideration of bat species and incendiary types, the teams settled on the Mexican free-tail bat for the project. “Baby incendiaries” made of thermite, weighing 6.4 ounces, were packaged in oblong celluloid cases filled with thickened kerosene. A time-delay fuse was attached along one side. Once ignited, the flame would burn for four to six minutes. In early May 1943, tests were performed at Muroc Dry Lake, Calif.

The project was later transferred to an auxiliary field under construction at Carlsbad, and secret tests continued. Drops of the bats were made with dummy bombs from a B-25 and a Piper L-4 Cub. As tests continued, more than 6,000 bats were used in the experiments. A report dated June 8, 1943, stated “testing was concluded… when a fire destroyed a large portion of the test material.” What he didn’t point out was that a barracks, a control tower and other buildings at the Carlsbad auxiliary field had been set afire by the bats on the not-yet-occupied base.

Bats from Carlsbad Caverns National Park that were turned into bat bombs almost helped the U.S. Marine Corp in fighting World War II. U.S. Army photo

The Army had had enough of the experiment by August 1943, and the project was passed to the Navy and assigned to the Marine Corps as Project X-Ray. Marines were assigned to guard four bat caves in Texas, and their first tests began on December 13, 1943. Improved experiments were carried out with new and more powerful incendiaries ordered. Full-scale tests were planned for August 1944, however, when the Navy learned that it would take until mid-1945 to complete the tests, the 27-month, $2 million project was canceled. According to the notice, the cancellation was “not based on any shortcomings of the incendiary and [test] units developed, but rather upon the shortcomings of the… opportunity of getting sufficient reliable data in order to plan a timely operation.”

Adams was very disappointed. He maintained that fires set by bat bombers could have been more destructive to Japanese cities than the two atomic bombs. He noted that bats had scattered up to 20 miles during the tests, adding, “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.”

Story excerpted from: HistoryNet

See related story: El Paso Times

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