Not even Tom McGuane and Albertus Magnus and Richter C. Perky all brainstorming together with Jack Daniels and George Dickel could have dreamed up an idea so robustly demented as this napalm-bat thing. It took a dental surgeon from Philadelphia named Lytle S. Adams.~ David Quammen
I admit that the idea of tying incendiary bombs to bats and releasing them over Japan sounds like a hoax on the level of the War of the Worlds debacle but it is absolutely, stunningly true – and to the tune of $2 million U.S. worth of research in 1940.
Known as the Adams project, the dentist had just been visiting Carlsbad Caverns and seen the swarm of millions of Mexican Free Tailed bats flying out on their evening excursions when news of Pearl Harbor reached him. Perhaps because he had sniffed too much of his own laughing gas over the years he thought bats would be ideal for bombing Japan. He went to Washington and Roosevelt not only approved the idea but the various factions of the military, army and navy became actively involved (Quammen even suggested the navy could release bats from submarines).
This bat brained idea was based on four premises. I will be serious for a moment. First of all, there were several million bats in caves, so large numbers were available. Secondly, bats have been known to carry their young, even twins so can carry lots of weight. Thirdly, they hibernate and don’t need food or maintenance during that period. Fourth, they fly in the dark and find secluded places to roost at dawn.
The idea was to take a large ventilated bomb casing full of tiny compartments holding hundreds of trays of dormant bats (no explanation as to how they will be made to sleep or wake as wished) with teeny little bombs strapped to them. Each tray would contain 40 bats, each holding 17 or 28 g of napalm. Then, miraculously upon release, high in the air over Japan’s night sky, the well behaved bats would wake up and fly into the attics and ceilings of buildings in the city where the timer on the bomb would go off, setting fire to the buildings.
Well they spent $2 million on the idea and got to the point of a test flight. What any person with two brain cells to rub together would have expected, did indeed happen – and more. The bats as a whole did not wake up on command so when released fell to the ground breaking wings or flat out strewing bat corpses everywhere. The parachutes (yes, parachutes – did I forget to mention that detail?) were too small and the bombs a little too big.
Don’t mess with bats should be the lesson though because there was some poetic justice in the test flight. Some bats which had not been sent up, and were armed with bombs, escaped from their brilliant army handlers and flew away… right into some brand new airport hangers and one general’s car at the Auxiliary Army Base in Carlsbad, setting them on fire. Was that the end of this batty scheme? Not so fast! They renamed it Project X-Ray and handed it over to the Navy who handed it over to the Marines who built a mock up city to test it. Finally it was cancelled as it was “moving too slowly” and the atomic bomb was showing some promise.
Natural Acts – David Quammen