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  Current Newsletter  
Issue No. 41

A Mexian free-tail bat hibernating with incendiary device attached.

The World War II Top-Secret project of the Bat Bombs – You Can't Make This Stuff Up!

Recently I've been researching World War II secret-at-the time weapons and while fussing with the thousands of bomb-bearing high altitude balloons that were sent by Japan to set fire to North American forests (I'll share that story after we return from Japan later this month) that I remembered reading a magazine story when I was a kid about a wartime project to set fire to Japan. 
My Hollister family subscribed to three magazines which I read faithfully – Life, Look, and National Geographic.  Just a little Googling landed me on the very article – it was a relatively brief illustrated article in life, February 16, 1948.  I read that article when I was eight and the ingenious idea stuff in my head until now. 
Wartime inspires the military to look back to the last war, but it inspires everyday citizens to think outside the box.  The Bat Bomb story is so outrageously hilarious and sad that it could have been written by a team of comedy writers.  And when they finally pitched it to a producer, they would get a "Nahh! Not possible!  Make it more real." 
On December 7, 1941, a Pennsylvania dentist named B Lytle Adams was paying a holiday visit to the Carlsbad Caverns, the famous "bat caves" in New Mexico.  That evening as the millions of bats poured out into the evening sky, he had an idea.  He was prone to unusual ideas and had already invented several things including an air mail system where the aircraft swooped down and snagged an outgoing mail sack while dropping the incoming bag along the way.  No landing necessary.

A cloud of bats leaving Carlsbad Cavern.  It was a vision of bats at Carlsbad that inspired Dr. Lytle Adams to propose a project to turn those bats into a wartime weapon.  

The Carlsbad bats got him to thinking about a way to deliver fire to the Japanese who had just attacked the U.S.  When he got home, he laid out his plan in writing and then began to work on a way to get the US military's attention about it.  The government was already being inundated by dozens of screwball schemes. 
"This man is not a nut!"
Then he remembered that one of the high-level people who had been taken by his airmail scheme was the United States First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.  Maybe SHE would pitch the idea to her husband?  So, he contacted then met with Mrs. Roosevelt, and she took Adams' scheme to FDR.  He read it over and wrote a brief memo to William Donovan (yes, THAT "Wild Bill Donovan, the founder of what became the CIA).  The main sentence in the memo should be emblazoned on the walls of every bat cave in America:

"This man is NOT (underlined in red) a nut!"

And that, boys and girls, is yet another lesson in Government:  It's WHO you know.
That memo from the Commander-in-Chief is dated January 12, 1942, the official launch date of what came to be known as the "Adams Plan."
Thus, running in parallel to other top-secret wartime projects such as the more well-known Manhattan Project was the "Adams Plan" where a mixed team of civilians, including scientists, began working together with military personnel to design a delivery system to drop bats out of airplanes and set Japan afire.  (Please get all the bat-crazy metaphors out of your system – you know, belfries, batty, etc.)
That this was a top-secret program at least spared the team members from having to explain what they were working on.
The short version:  The bat species of choice became the Mexican free-tail bat which inhabited the New Mexico caverns by the bazillions.  Throughout the entire two-year lifetime of the project, there was no "Friends of Mexican free-tail bats" organization.  In fact there were no organized Friends of Bats.  And Jack Couffer later noted in his definitive Bat Bomb book (see sources below) that at no time during the entire life of the project (and deaths of thousands of bats during experiments and trials) did anyone in the project or government express any compassion for the bats.  None. 

One of the bat bomb team members had a pet mastiff bat that went with him to meetings and became well-known to the bat bomb crew.  He named the bat "Flamethrower" and unlike many of the bats used in testing and research, Flamethrower survived the project and was released back into the wild in 1944.

Dr. Adams helped design the delivery system.  A stack of trays were shaped like a conventional bomb and when the parachute on the bomb deployed it would jerk the trays apart, and the "hibernating" bats would fall out and hopefully awaken sufficiently before reaching the crowd to then flutter away to find shelter.

On May 15, 1943, a small colony of loaded bats accidentally escaped and did exactly what they were designed to do—flew into an adjacent airfield and burned it down. Fortunately, the complex was newly-constructed and no one was living there.

A section of Tokyo devastated by the firebombing on the night of March 9, 1945.  That air raid killed an estimated 100,000 people and is considered to be the deadliest air raid in history even deadlier that either the atomic bombs on Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

This is made doubly curious because Jack Couffer himself had a pet bat that rode around in his clothing during the life of the project.  A large creature (3-foot wingspan mastiff bat) Couffer named him Flamethrower.  Even though Flamethrower was of a larger species than the Mexican free-tail (2 foot wingspan) Couffer would often let his pet bat loose (after making sure the windows were closed) in meetings where the team was pitching their idea to military brass.  Flamethrower would swoop around the room scaring the bejabbers out of the assembled non-bat officials. 
The Mexican free-tail bat was ideal because it carried up to three times its own weight when hauling its young around.  So, the next challenge was to develop a tiny incendiary device that would be attached to the unsuspecting bat. 
The operative biology in this story is that bats roost under eves, in attics, under bridges and wherever it could find security.  Then, snuggled up to their tiny explosive payload they would roost.  About thirty minutes after they had settled in they would explode along with the other bats in the same payload, setting Japanese village, towns and even cities on fire.
I'll spare you the technical details, but their challenges included:
· How to get the bats to put up with all this?  Answer cool them down into an induced hibernation.
· How to get them delivered to ground level?  I mean you couldn't just fly over at 5,000 feet and throw them out the door.  Answer: Adams designed a bomb shaped stack of bat-trays which would separate when a parachute deployed.
· How to coordinate the cremations…er…explosions? Answer: devise a timing device on the incendiary device.

Over weeks of testing they seemed to solved most of the challenges.  American ingenuity at its best.  Meanwhile, in other labs scattered around the country scientists are working on a device that would be able to blow up the world.
Testing.  But, despite FDR's initial assertion that Adams was not a nut, the Adams Plan was treated with skepticism by the military.
The first major testing was done at Carlsbad Air Force Base, New Mexico,  a top-secret classified location where the Army Air Force had just finished building a brand-new airfield complete with tower, barracks, officers quarters, etc.  The base was unoccupied, and on May 15, 1943, while trying to shoot a training film of the project, some of the bats – fully armed – woke up and dispersed into the new air base, tucking themselves up under the eaves and shingles, and proving that the little creatures could do the job – they burned the brand-new air base flat.  (See accompanying photograph…) 

The Second test – Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah.  You may know the Dugway name from postwar suits brought by sheep ranchers whose flocks roaming in the adjacent countryside died of mysterious diseases. 
The Army established Dugway as the top-secret home of chemical and biological  weapons testing.  Far inside the barbed wire fences, the Army  had built two life-size villages – one a German town, and the other a Japanese village.  Completed in 1943, the Japanese Village as it was called provided an ideal place to test the bat bombs.  The tests were successful, but the military officials were still skeptical.  Meanwhile, as  the Allies continued their successful march ever-closer to the Japanese home islands, the Army Air Force was developing incendiary bombs and tactics that would deliver fire to Japan more predictatably than the bats.
Bat Bomb program terminated, February 1944. In February 1944, the Adams Plan was terminated, while the more conventional firebombing picked up momentum in the summer of 1944, and the Manhattan Project was also moving ever closer to the development of the atomic bomb. 

During the two year-long project the US spent over two millions dollars on Adams' plan, along with uncounted numbers of bats.  When the bat bomb team disbanded, Couffer carefully returned Flamethrower to the church belfry in Pasadena where he had originally captured it. 

Firebombing Japan was no jokd.  Though the Adams Plan had the feel of a comedby about it, the objective of burning down Japan was very serious. Deadly serious. Using bombs perfected on the same Japanese Village at Dugway, on March 9, 1945 over 300 B-29 bombers dropped over 1,600 TONS of incendiary bombs on Tokyo, creating a firestorm that killed more than 100,000 people in what is still the deadliest air raid in history.  That one raid killed more people than the atom boms at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  Rivers and canals boiled in the resulting firestorms, and Tokyo was destroyed.  The incendiary raids continued up to (and actually one day after the Emperor announced their surrender) August of 1945 killing an estimated 900,000 Japanese civilians.  As General George Marshall was quoted as saying 3 weeks before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, if the U.S. were to go to war with Japan bombers "will be dispatched immediately to set the paper cities of Japan on fire. There won't be any hesitation about bombing civilians—it will be all out."

And it was. 

Bat Bomb Sources
One of the best on-line articles is on the National WWII Museum of New Orleans website:
And if you want some perspective on the March 9, 1945 Tokyo air raid, here's a start:
The definitive bat bomb book – written by Jack Couffer, one of the Bat Bomb project's surviving team members: Bat Bomb, published in 1992 by the University of Texas.  This is a laugh-out-loud read.  Flamethrower was Couffer's pet mastiff bat.