The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, shattered American security and brought us into World War II. This first major attack on American soil meant that everyday citizens were coming up with warfare attack ideas, and they were actually being taken seriously. On January 12, 1942, dental surgeon Dr. Lytle S. Adams had a bat-shit crazy idea that nearly became a bat-shit reality.
After a trip to Carlsbad, New Mexico, home to millions of bats, Adams became fascinated with the creatures, the way they fly, and the fact that they could carry nearly three times their own weight. Adams’ idea was to use the bats as bombers. In a letter to the government, Adams wrote bat bombers would “frighten, demoralize, and excite the prejudices of the Japanese Empire.”
His letter continued: “The. . . lowest form of animal life is the bat, associated in history with the underworld and regions of darkness and evil. Until now reasons for its creation have remained unexplained.
“As I vision it the millions of bats that have for ages inhabited our belfries, tunnels and caverns were placed there by God to await this hour to play their part in the scheme of free human existence, and to frustrate any attempt of those who dare desecrate our way of life.
“This lowly creature, the bat, is capable of carrying in flight a sufficient quantity of incendiary material to ignite a fire. . . . The effect of the destruction from such a mysterious source would be a shock to the morale of the Japanese people as no amount of [ordinary] bombing could accomplish. . . . It would render the Japanese people homeless and their industries useless, yet the innocent could escape with their lives.”
It was one of the few citizen ideas that passed scientific review, and the project was given a green light. Adams assembled a group of naturalists, including Donald R. Griffin, the discoverer of echolocation. They set out on a quest across the country to collect bats. With nearly 1,000 different species of bat worldwide, the group settled on the Mexican Free-Tailed bat, which happened to be the same species Adams originally observed in Carlsbad Caverns. They captured thousands of the bats and sent them back to Washington D.C.
Dr. Louis Fieser, the inventor of military napalm, handled the construction of the mini-bombs attached to the bats, while the Crosby Research Foundation (founded by Bing Crosby and his brothers) designed the canister that would transport the bat-bombs.
Fieser’s mini-bombs were the shape of a pill, filled with kerosene. A separate capsule on the side held the firing pin, was separated with a thin steel wire and injected with a corrosive solution before attaching the mini-bombs to the bats with string. The bomb housing contained cardboard trays to hold 1,040 bats, and once the bats were loaded in, the container would be cooled to encourage the bats to hibernate. The “bomb” (which looked much like a standard bomb) would be flown to Japan and released over the target city like any other bomb. But this bomb would break apart mid-air, releasing the trays containing the bats. The trays would be attached to parachutes, allowing the bats enough time to warm up and de-hibernate. Once awake, the bats would fly across the city, settling into “nooks and crannies” of buildings. There, the bats would chew through the strings and fly off to safety, leaving the tiny bombs in their stead. The corrosive material would eat through the steel wire, snap the firing pin, and ignite the capsule – then the building on which it was resting.
Testing began in May 1943 at the Carlsbad Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base. The bats were released accidentally and set the field on fire. The project was passed off to the Navy in August 1943, where it was nicknamed Project X-Ray, then passed off to the Marines that December. Promising tests were held in “Japanese Village,” a mockup of a Japanese city in Utah that was used for various weapon testing. Observers noted that “the main advantage of the units would seem to be their placement within the enemy structures without the knowledge of the householder or fire watchers, thus allowing the fire to establish itself before being discovered.” It was concluded that bat-bombs were more effective than standard incendiary bombs of the time.
More tests were scheduled for the summer of 1944, but Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King canceled the project because it was moving too slowly, and he wanted to refocus efforts on the atomic bomb. By that point, around $2 million had been spent on Project X-Ray, and it would not be combat-ready until mid-1945 at the earliest. Adams maintained that his bat bomb could have devastated Japan, with minimal loss of life and no nuclear fallout.