The batty, explosive history of bats in the military — and why this new idea just might work

The U.S. military has a long history of enlisting the help of animals in warfare. The bottlenose dolphin’s sophisticated bio sonar enabled the Navy to detect and clear underwater bombs during the Iraq War, and homing pigeons played a vital role as secret messengers during both world wars, with some awarded medals for bravery.

But there is one animal that the military has had significantly less success in conscripting, and that is the bat.

In the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941, hundreds of Mexican free-tailed bats were recruited as part of a harebrained scheme to blow up Japanese cities by arming the flying insectivores with bombs and releasing them from planes. The idea was that the bats would roost in buildings and explode, killing the enemy as they slept. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a lot. The plot was riddled with flaws. No one had invented a bomb smaller than a can of beans, which would be impossible for an animal the size of a mouse to carry. And, most crucially, bats — unlike dolphins and pigeons — cannot be trained to follow orders.

Despite its imperfections, the batty plot was nevertheless given the green light. Its creator, a maverick Pennsylvania dentist and inventor named Lytle Adams, had some friends in high places. He had persuaded first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to check out one of his earlier ideas — a plane that delivered mail without landing. So when he detailed the bat proposal in a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it didn’t immediately wind up in the trash. Instead, it was forwarded to the National Research Defense Committee — the group from which the Manhattan Project was spun off — with a presidential note of recommendation.

“This man is not a nut,” Roosevelt wrote. “It sounds like a perfectly wild idea but is worth looking into.”

The bat bomb plan was stamped “top secret” and assigned the suitably sci-fi code name Project X-Ray. A crack team of senior Army types, arsenal experts, engineers and biologists was assembled. Together, they set about vaulting the scheme’s more vertiginous hurdles.

The first stage was to capture thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats from caves in the Southwest, where they roosted in the tens of millions. Then a bomb had to be developed that was light enough for half-ounce bats to transport. In a quintessentially American twist, parts for the diminutive bomb were manufactured in a factory owned by crooner Bing Crosby.

With bats and bombs sorted, it was time to conjoin them. The miniature explosives were to be attached to the bats with twine, the presumption being that the bats would gnaw through it and leave the bombs behind. Then came the issue of controlling the bats. They were placed in refrigerators, forcing them into torpor for easy handling and transportation. But timing their thaw proved tricky. Several early tests with dummy bombs were a dud because the bats woke too late (causing them to plummet ingloriously to the ground once released) or too soon (before their cargo had been attached and allowing them to escape the base).

Undeterred, the scientists ran a test using real incendiary devices in June 1943. Things did not go as planned. A report on the experiment stated somewhat evasively that “testing was concluded . . . when a fire destroyed a large portion of the test material.” It failed to mention that the barracks, control tower and several other buildings at the auxiliary field station in Carlsbad, N.M., were set spectacularly ablaze by escapee bat bombers. The need to maintain military secrecy prevented civilian firefighters from entering the scene, and fire leaped from building to building, incinerating most of the base. As a final insult, a couple of winged missiles went AWOL, taking up roost under a general’s car before exploding.

The project never recovered from this ignominious retreat, and it was canceled in 1944. Having set up some 30 tests and spending a couple million dollars, the United States put its focus behind developing a bomb that exploited the power of atoms. This proved to be easier to control than bats.

Today, the U.S. military is again interested in bats not as front-line attackers but as defenders against a potentially devastating threat: Russian bioweapons.

By |2018-07-09T11:09:32+00:00July 9th, 2018|

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