Monday, September 13, 2010

Bat Bombers

A while ago, I wrote a story about “Project Pigeon”, a top-secret aviation project to teach pigeons to be suicide bombers during WWII.  While I was researching it, I discovered another project that was just as fascinating.  This one involved bats.

In December of 1941, Dr. Lytle Adams was visiting Carlsbad Caverns, NM, when he heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  He cut short his vacation to head home, but couldn’t stop thinking about the impressive bat colonies he had just seen.  As he was getting ready to leave, he suddenly thought that if each of the millions of bats flying around had a tiny incendiary device attached to its body and then they were dropped from a plane… well, they could cause an awful lot of destruction.  Adams stopped at the caverns before he left and captured some of the Mexican free-tail bats that lived there.  He took them home and started to study them.  He was convinced that they could be used as bombers.

In January of 1942, he sent a proposal to the government for his project.  His letter was one of a very few that actually made it to President Roosevelt’s desk.  Roosevelt sent a memo to Colonel Donovan, the coordinator of information, with the note, ‘This man is not a nut.  It sounds like a perfectly wild idea but is worth looking into.’

In April of 1942, the work began.  It was decided that the free-tail bats were the best ones to work with, as they were very common, hardy and could carry a payload significantly higher than its own body weight.  Thousands of bats were captured for the project.  They were put into refrigerated trucks to force them into hibernation and taken back to study and be fit with their devices. 

The first bombs they tried were tiny – only 18 grams (.63 oz.), but they packed a punch.  They were called ‘baby incendiaries’ and had a time-delay igniter fuse.  This way, the bats could be released over the target area at night and the bombs wouldn’t go off until they had roosted for the day in buildings.  The bombs were attached to the bats by clipping them to the loose skin on the bat’s chest with a surgical clip and a piece of string.

The first tests in May of 1943 were unsuccessful.  The bats had been placed into refrigerators to force them to hibernate then placed in boxes and flown to their target area.  The boxes were dropped from 5,000 feet, but the bats hadn’t warmed up enough from their hibernation and they weren’t able to fly.            More test releases were done, but the bats either wouldn’t warm up fast enough to fly, or they would warm up too quickly and escape from the boxes.

In June of 1943, a report was written that requested more research into better release methods, a better bomb and better way to attach the bomb to the bats.  There was also a note that said their testing had stopped because of a fire that had destroyed most of the testing material.  The letter neglected to mention that a barracks, a control tower and other buildings had been set afire by their own bats that had escaped.

The project was dumped by the Army in August of 1943 and handed to the Navy.  The Navy gave it to the Marines and testing continued until August 1944 (during which time 30 more fires were started by the bats).  That August, the government refused to continue funding the 27-month, $2 million project – it was all over.

In those years, over 6,000 bats gave their lives for this country.  If you want to learn more, check out a great site
Visitors at the WBS Nature Center watching Batty & Scar
While we may not have trained our Straw-colored Fruit Bats, Batty and Scar, to be bat bombers, they do ‘hang around’ at our Nature Center, where you can visit them from 8am to 5pm daily.

Submitted by Laura MacLeod, World Bird Sanctuary Education Coordinator

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