During World War II, a Pennsylvania dentist named Lytle S. Adams had an outside-the-box-thinking brainstorm: incinerate Japanese cities with tiny incendiary bombs attached to bats. Although the concept sounds batty, once people got over the fits of chuckles and thought of it seriously, it turned out to have some logical legs to stand upon. So a project was set up to test the effectiveness of Bat Bombs as weapons of war. It turned out to be a viable idea that might have actually worked, had the project been supported through the research and development phase, and then deployed.
As things panned out, the weapon did not make it out of R&D, and the project was shelved, with the Bat Bomb never getting deployed and put to the ultimate test. Thus, there there is no way to tell just how effective it might have been in real life combat. Still, how different would history and our world be if the iconic image of WWII’s end and the start of our current era had not been atomic bombs and mushroom clouds, but clouds of bomb bearing bats?
Birth of the Bat Bomb
Like many Americans, Pennsylvania dentist Lytle S. Adams was mad as hell when he first heard of the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor, and like many of his countrymen, he fantasized about payback. In his case, he got to thinking about what was then commonly known about Japanese cities: that most of their houses were flimsy wooden constructs. Wouldn’t it be grand, he thought, if somebody could take advantage of that?
That idea in of itself was neither revolutionary nor original. It was common knowledge that the Japanese usually built their houses out of bamboo and paper, and in 1923, an earthquake had struck Tokyo, triggering fires that devastated the city, killing and wounding hundreds of thousands. So the vulnerability of Japanese cities to flames was well known. What set Adams apart was the creative method he dreamt up for igniting such fires: bats.
Adams had recently returned from a trip to New Mexico, where he was impressed by the clouds of migratory bats that visited the state each year, roosting by the million in Carlsbad Caverns. He was particularly impressed by the Mexican Free-Tailed Bats – a smaller but hardier species than common bats. So the dentist, who apparently had as much free time as he had initiative, returned to Carlsbad, and captured some bats to study.
Between reading, observation, and experimentation, Dr. Adams realized that his nebulous idea of weaponizing bats might actually be doable. Bats – particularly Mexican Free-Tailed Bats – were hardy, could travel long distances, were capable of surviving in high altitudes, and best of all, could fly while carrying loads greater than their own body weight. Loads such as tiny, incendiary bombs. In theory, if bats with incendiary bombs were released over Japanese cities, they would naturally fly into and roost in the nooks and crannies of the mostly wooden buildings. Then the incendiaries would go off, starting numerous fires that would overwhelm firefighters, and cause widespread devastation.
Within weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Adams had drawn up plans, and on January 12th, 1942, he wrote up a proposal and sent it to the White House. There, the idea would probably have been laughed off and dismissed out of hand, if not for the fact that Lytle Adams was a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife. With help from the First Lady, the proposal made it to the desk of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and thence to the country’s top military brass. FDR thought it was “a perfectly wild idea but is worth looking into“. So he sent Adams to see William J. Donovan, Roosevelt’s chief intelligence advisor and eventual head of the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor, with a note advising him that “This man is not a nut!”