World War I became the first major conflict to use chemical warfare, and the effectiveness of these new weapons spoke for themselves. And twenty years later, when the world was once again plunged into mass conflict with World War II, the lessons learned from the first great conflict alongside two decades of experience, led to such weapons once again being used on the field of human conflict.
Some upgrades included faster and better-operating tanks, and the M1911 semi-automatic pistol, a gun so reliable and easy to use that it remains available to this day. Then there are the more creative weapons that belong in science fiction rather than on the battlefield.
One of the largest of these outlandish weapons was Hitler’s V3 cannon, which was pointed at London but was thankfully never was finished or used. But the United States was also developing, testing, and spending millions of dollars on some weird weapons.
One of the strangest weapons the US was working on was the bat bombs.
Dr. Lytle S. Adams
Dr. Adams was an eccentric dental surgeon who was also a part-time inventor. He created an airborne mechanism that could pick up and drop off bags of mail from planes without the need for a plane landing on a tarmac.
Some of his ideas were less practical, like a fried chicken vending machine and his bat bomb. The inspiration for the bat bomb came following a trip to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The Carlsbad Caverns are the home of between 200,000 and 500,000 bats, but during the migration season, the number of bats can soar to more than one million.
The thousands of bats gave Adams a “unique” idea. The attack on Pearl Harbor several weeks earlier made Adams even more determined to build a new kind of bomb. A bat bomb.
The Bat Bomb
In 1942, Adams sent a letter to President Franklin D Roosevelt in which he had attached “a proposal designed to frighten, demoralize, and excite the prejudices of people of the Japanese Empire.” The proposal was for the US military to use bat bombs.
It sounds like something out of the campy 1966 Batman TV show, but they were apparently deadly serious. Yes, that is correct, bat bombs. An incendiary explosive would be attached to a bat to be used against the Japanese. Adams was not joking: bat bombs seemed like a brilliant idea to him.
The proposal explained Adams’s idea in detail. The idea was someone would be sent to gather as many bats as possible. The bats would then be attached to tiny time bombs and then stored in canisters during air transit.
A bomber would then fly over Tokyo just before sunrise and drop the canisters full of bats. The bats would be released as the canister gently fell to the ground with a parachute. The bats were presumed to remain docile and in a state of hibernation in the canister because of the cold altitudes and would wake up as they fell from the sky.
As the sunrise continued and the canister dropped into warmer air, the bats would awaken and seek shelter in the attics of Japanese homes within a 20 to 40 mile (32 to 64 km) radius. . As the bats came to roost, the bombs would detonate, sparking thousands or millions of fires. With Japanese cities favoring wood and paper construction, this could spark devastation.
Adams chose bats for this plan because he considered bats to be “the lowest forms of animal life” but the real puzzle is how Adams managed to get approval. Adams had become acquainted with Eleanor Roosevelt when they shared a plane, which could have been why President Roosevelt opened and read the letter.
Shockingly, President Roosevelt approved the testing and production of bat bombs and gave the task to the United States Army Air Force.
A Host of Characters
Adams built a team of men who would help bring the project to life. The research group that Adams assembled was just as eccentric as he was.
The group included a mammologist from the Los Angeles County Museum, Dr. Jack von Bloeker, and the students working in Bloeker’s lab. A scientist who studied mammals such as bats and his lab assistants seem logical choices to create the bat bombs. Dr. Theodore Fieser, the creator of napalm, was added to the team later: his focus was obviously on the explosives side.
The rest of the team was composed of actor and pilot Tim Holt and two brothers, one a bodybuilder, and the other a former hotel manager. Another set of brothers joined the team as well but what these four brought to the table is something of a mystery.
Finishing out this strange team was former gangster Patricio “Patsy” Batista and a former lobster fisherman who became a member of the US Navy, because why not at this point. The team seemed less like a team building bombs and more like the most dysfunctional superhero team in existence.
Back to the Bat Bombs
The team tested different species of bats before selecting the Mexican free-tailed bat. These little bats were small, weighing only one-third of an ounce (8.5 g), and could still fly well carrying a bomb three times their body weight.
The bombs themselves were composed of a nitrocellulose case full of napalm. Objects made with nitrocellulose materials are incredibly flammable and can self-combust over time. The bombs would start an intense fire once the timer went off. After some experimentation, the team decided to attach the bombs to the bat’s front with glue.
In May 1943, around 4,000 bats were captured and placed inside refrigerators to cause forced hibernation, and tests with dummy bombs began. A cage was dropped from a B-52 bomber at 5,000 feet (1,500 m) in the air, and the results were terrible.
Most of the bats were still recovering from hibernation during the descent and couldn’t fly, instead falling out of the sky and dying on impact with the ground. After some reworking on the bombs, the experiment was repeated and tested with live bombs at the Carlsbad Army Airfield‘s auxiliary base.
This led to another accident. Some of the bomb-toting bats were accidentally released and went to roost under a fuel tank. The bombs detonated, and the testing range was engulfed in flames.
Following this latest screw up, the Army Air Force swiftly passed the bat bomb project to the US Navy. The Navy renamed the project “Project- X-Ray” and passed the project in turn on to the US Marine Corps.
The marines made changes and had surprisingly successful results during testing. The results were so successful that The National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) concluded that the bat bombs were effective and could start thousands of fires.
The End of the Batty Ordeal
The Marines arranged another test, but the Fleet Admiral canceled those plans upon learning the bats would not be prepared for combat until 1945. After spending $2 million, ($30 million in today’s money), the bat bomb project fell by the wayside.
After all, why waste resources and money on the still unfinished bat bombs when the country was in a mad dash to complete the construction of the atomic bomb? By that point, it’s useless to bring exploding bats to a nuclear weapon fight.
Even after the surrender of the Japanese and the end of World War Two, Dr. Adams continued to insist that his bat bombs would have caused far more destruction than the atomic bombs ever could. In his words, “Japan could have been devastated, yet with a small loss of life.”
If the bat bombs were used as intended, the resulting fires would still cause the loss of lives of soldiers, children, civilians, and Mexican free-tailed bats. Perhaps it was better that such a weapon was never used after all.
Top Image: It was hoped the bat bombs would cause widespread fires across Japanese cities. Source: Synthetick / Adobe Stock.
By Lauren Dillon
Drumm, P, 2011. A batman to the rescue. American Psychological Association. Monitor on Psychology. 24, 4. Available at: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/04/batman
Air Force Flight Test Center, 2021. May 2, 1943: A Team Headed by Dr. Lytle Adams Arrived to Conduct Air Drop Tests on Canisters for the “Bat Bomb” Project. Available at: https://www.aftc.af.mil/News/On-This-Day-in-Test-History/Article-Display-Test-History/Article/2555256/may-2-1943-a-team-headed-by-dr-lytle-adams-arrived-to-conduct-air-drop-tests-on/
Glines, C, 1990. The Bat Bombers. Air & Space Forces Association. Air Force Magazine. Available at: https://www.airforcemag.com/article/1090bats/