Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The U.S. tried to win World War II with a bat bomb

Illustration for article titled The U.S. tried to win World War II with a bat bomb
Photo: Mondadori Portfolio (Getty Images)

This week’s entry: Bat bomb

What it’s about: Holy ordinance, Batman! During World War II, American scientists raced to develop crucial technology that would win the war: The B-29 bomber. Radar. The atomic bomb. And, a somewhat less crucial technology, the bat bomb: a bomb canister that contained live bats, each of which would carry an incendiary device and (in theory) start devastating fires across Japanese cities.

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Biggest controversy: The part where we tried to defeat Imperial Japan with an army of bats. The idea came from a dental surgeon named Lytle S. Adams. An acquaintance of Eleanor Roosevelt, he wrote to the White House a month after Pearl Harbor suggesting the idea, which came to him during a trip to Carlsbad Caverns. Adams was “intrigued by the strength of bats” and believed they could carry an incendiary device, which could do serious damage to Japan’s largely wooden architecture.

With FDR’s approval, Adams led up an Air Force project to develop a bat bomb. His team for some wonderful reason consisted of a movie star (more on that later), an unnamed former gangster, an also unnamed former hotel manager, and chemist Louis Fieser, who developed the first synthetic vitamin K and cortisone, and more relevant to the war effort, napalm.

Their eventual prototype was a bomb-shaped metal canister with separate compartments for 1,040 Mexican free-tailed bats. The bomb would be dropped and then at 4,000 feet deploy a parachute, then open to release the bats. The bats would naturally roost in the eaves of buildings, but each one had a 15- to 18-gram payload of napalm (slightly heavier than the weight of the bat itself) on a timer. After several unsuccessful attempts at strapping the bombs to the bats, Adams’ team ended up gluing the devices directly to the bats.

Strangest fact: The only target destroyed by bat bombs was an American air base. Adams’ team made several tests of their bat bomb, but at Carlsbad Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base in New Mexico, napalm-armed bats were accidentally released, roosted under a fuel tank, and set the base on fire. The project was then passed to the Navy and then the Marines and was renamed Project X-Ray.

Thing we were happiest to learn: America didn’t end up incinerating thousands of bats for the war effort. The Marines were surprisingly enthused about the bat bomb, believing the countless small fires the bats would start would be harder to fight and would spread more quickly than a smaller number of large fires caused by conventional bombing. But by mid-1944, with $2 million already spent on the project and at least another year until the bats would be combat-ready, the project was canceled. As for Fieser’s invention, the U.S. dropped napalm on Berlin and Tokyo without any animal intermediaries.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: In a letter to FDR, Lytle S. Adams insisted that we need not worry about the morals of incinerating countless bats, as the bat is the “lowest form of animal life” and “reasons for its creation have remained unexplained.” At least, until Adams provided an explanation: God made bats to carry out Adams’ bat scheme. Or as he put it, they were created “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.” Reader, He works in mysterious ways.

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Roosevelt insisted, “This man is not a nut. It sounds like a perfectly wild idea but is worth looking into.” Sure, FDR was a four-term president who got us out of the Depression, led the Allies to victory in WWII, built the bulk of this country’s infrastructure and the most prosperous middle class any country has ever had, but those five words—“this man is not a nut”—seriously call his judgment and place in history into question.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The movie star on Adams’ team was Tim Holt, who starred in countless Westerns, as well as The Magnificent Ambersons and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. Orson Welles, who cast him as the lead in Ambersons, called him “one of the most interesting actors that’s ever been in American movies.” When he enlisted in the Air Force, RKO had him film six Westerns in quick succession before he was shipped out. His deployment was delayed long enough for him to star in a propaganda film called Hitler’s Children. Apart from his involvement with the bat bomb, Holt flew combat missions in the Pacific until the last day of the war, earning him the Distinguished Flying Cross. He returned to the screen, playing opposite Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine, and Humphrey Bogart in Sierra Madre, before settling into a steady stream of formulaic Westerns, often playing a hero named Tim Holt, and with Richard Martin as his sidekick in 25 films.

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Further down the Wormhole: One of the more remarkable parts of the bat bomb story is that, with war raging around the world, one could turn a bat-related scheme into reality simply by sending a letter to the White House. The seat of presidential power since 1800, it’s the most recognizable among countless iconic Washington, D.C. landmarks, including museums, monuments, and the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier, which has been under ceremonial military guard continuously since July 2, 1937. The tomb is a symbolic resting place for soldiers lost in the two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam, whose bodies were never recovered. More recent wars aren’t represented at the tomb, because they had no unknown casualties, owing to advances in body identification. Body identification is the use of forensic science to identify a deceased person, which is essential in both honoring fallen soldiers and solving murders. Despite this, Wikipedia lists countless “unidentified decedents” who died and were never identified. One such unfortunate is immortalized in one of the rare Wikipedia pages whose title is a question: Who put Bella in the Wych Elm? We’ll look for answers next week.

Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in fall 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.