In 1942, American dental surgeon Lytle S. Adams was contemplating bats. As World War II raged on around him he looked into bats as a possible weapon, some kind of animal attack that could no doubt be harnessed in the fight, specifically the Empire of Japan. Four potentially useful biological features of bats were noted, each of which was essential to producing one of the least known, yet most deadly products of the war.
Firstly, they could be found in huge numbers in Texas. This would mean they could easily be ‘mass produced’ as a weapon. Secondly, they could carry more than their own weight in-flight – females can even fly whilst carrying twins. Thirdly, bats can hibernate and during this do not need food or indeed any kind of sustenance or maintenance. If this could be harnessed, they could be made dormant and stored for large lengths of time, then awakened and unleashed on an unsuspecting enemy. Lastly, they fly in darkness and seek out buildings in the day time, meaning that they are both a stealth weapon and would home in on vulnerable buildings. Along with this, bats held other natural advantages. They could defy conventional detection systems. They were difficult to destroy using existing air defences and could easily navigate the confines of cities. With these advantages, he came up with the perfect way to weaponise bats; and so he created the bat-bomb.
During World War Two, the United States was constantly seeking new ways to gain a technological advantage over their enemies, specifically ways to strike at opposing industrial and military capability. Therefore the idea of a bat-bomb, when submitted to the White House was quickly presented to President Roosevelt. He accepted it and work began immediately. As odd as it may seem the weaponisation of bats was taken seriously. Very seriously indeed.
You see, unlike the concrete and brick dominated construction of western cities, Japanese cities at this time were still mostly constructed from wood and paper; very flammable materials indeed. And therefore, a bat carrying a timed incendiary device which would seek to roost in these vulnerable buildings could potentially create city-destroying fires, damaging Japanese industry.
The project went ahead. Adams was appointed to research and locate a suitable species and supply of bats. By March 1943, Mexican free-tailed bats had been chosen as the preferred kind. Louis Fieser, the inventor of Napalm, was enlisted to design the incendiary device. He came back with two devices, one 17g and one 28g, that could be attached to bats.
The bomb itself was then created. A bomb-shaped canister containing 26 of trays of 40 bats, giving the canister a maximum capacity of 1040 bats, would be dropped from a height of 5000 ft. At 1000ft, the trays would separate but remain attached to a parachute. It was thought that over 1 million bats could be loosed over a city by just ten B-24 bombers with 100 shells each. The targets were the industrial cities in Osaka bay.
An accident occurred in testing however, resulting in a fire at an auxiliary army base in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The project was handed to the Navy and renamed ‘Project X-Ray’, and then handed to the Marine Corps. The life of the bomb was not yet over though. A national defence council report revealed that the weapon was still very much an effective choice, able to create as many as 4758 fires a strike, whereas a conventional bombs would offer a maximum of only 400.
Despite its possible utility, further tests in Summer 1944 were cancelled, as it looked likely that the bomb would not be ready until mid 1945. By this point, an estimated 2 million dollars (equivalent to roughly 25 million dollars after inflation in today’s currency) had been spent on the project though. I would like to think though, that this money was not wasted.
Rather, project X-Ray continued to explore applications of animals and their properties which has been responsible for many innovations today, as diverse as fish pedicures to shark-skin swimming suits. additionally, we must remember that the original concept and investigation into the project was not carried out by an industry bigwig but rather a relatively unknown dental surgeon. Perhaps then this indicates a forgotten wartime principle, that any man has the potential to transcend his role to come up with something new and something challenging, and a government that was willing to take risks on innovative ideas. Today, with banks and individuals constantly being encouraged to invest in small businesses and investors, perhaps the ethic of President Roosevelt and his bat bombs is one we would be wise to bear in mind.