Somebody almost set us up the BAT BOMB

I just finished the book BAT BOMB by Jack Couffer. It’s the personal account of a member of Project X-Ray, the super-secret World War II effort to use bats as incendiary device carriers in the war against Japan. Seems to me, as outrageous as it sounds, that it could have worked.

batbomb.jpgThe basic idea was that a bomb-like canister filled with bats would be dropped from high altitude over the target area. The bats would be in a sort of hibernation, but as the bomb fell (slowed by a parachute) they would warm up and awaken. At the appropriate altitude, the bomb would open and over one thousand bats, each carrying a tiny time-delay napalm incendiary device, would flutter away and roost in various nooks and crannies, many of them in extremely flammable wooden Japanese buildings. The napalm devices would go off more or less simultaneously, and thousands of little fires would start at the same time. Many of them would grow into large fires, and the ability of the Japanese firefighters to contain them would quickly be overwhelmed.

Yes, it sounds outrageous. I’d heard of this idea before (though many people seem to the think the idea was simply to release bats in order to scare the Japanese, not to burn them out) but I never took it terribly seriously.

But, while I’ll agree it sounds outlandish, reading the book by a member of the team that worked to develop it has convinced me that they might have been on to something.

In fact, one afternoon while demonstrating the napalm devices, several bats woke too early in the lab, flew off, and ended up burning down the brand-new but uninhabited Carlsbad Auxiliary Army Air Base in New Mexico. Really.

Besides, a book with chapters entitled “This man is not a nut”, “The suggestion is returned as impractical”, “No questions will be tolerated”, and “The bat-shit man” has got to have something going for it, doesn’t it?

I’ll include two excerpts, neither of which is about the bat bomb itself.

The first regards one of the reasons that Project X-Ray was ultimately canceled:

“I heard the damnedest thing while I was in D.C.,” Doc said when he got back from Washington. “Some general I met regarding appropriations confused our secret project with another secret project that’s apparently going on somewhere. It’s the silliest nonsense you ever heard of. And evidently this project has got the backing of the president and they’re blowing millions of dollars on it.”

Von Blocker looked up through his smoke and frowned.

“This general practically threw me out of his office, he was so enraged at the waste of time and money. ‘Don’t tell me you’re the one promoting that crazy notion of making bombs out of atoms?'”

“I had a hell of a time convincing him that I had nothing to do with that kind of fraud,” Doc continued.

“What are atoms?” Frank Benish asked.

“The smallest particles of matter. You know, everything’s made out of cells. You break down cells and you’ve got something even smaller — atoms. Something like that.”

“And they think they can make bombs out of them?” Benish shook his head. “Man, they don’t know ‘sic ’em’ from ‘come here’.”

“Can you imagine such an idea?” Doc said. “They’re throwing away millions, and I can’t get a staff car and driver!”

“Where’s all this happening?” v. B. asked.

Doc shrugged. “As soon as he found out I had nothing to do with it he clammed up. But he first got the idea I was involved when I said we had some work to do in New Mexico.”

“Unbelievable!” v. B. said.

“Yeah! We got a sure thing like the bat bomb going, something that could really win the war, and they’re jerking off with tiny little atoms. It makes me want to cry.”

Adding to the humor of this chance encounter is the fact that the bat bomb people, at the time struggling to get their project the green light, are having trouble convincing superiors that a 15 or 20 ounce incendiary device will be effective. Then the team leader runs into someone who informs him that another secret project is building a bomb measured not in ounces but in atoms, and that the crazy idea is getting tons of money.

Sixty years later and it’s still funnier than Hades.

The next excerpt takes place after an early test of the bat bomb release mechanism. They didn’t take the wind at altitude into account, and they ended up chasing the swarm of flying creatures (each carrying a dummy incendiary device) miles across the New Mexico countryside. It’s long, but I’m pretty sure you will be glad you read it.

Von Bloeker watched for a moment, then shouted: “We’re going to have to chase ’em. They’re going to touch down miles from here.”

We leaped into jeeps and with the observers—general, colonel, and captain—hanging on with white knuckles bounded wildly in the direction the bats were flying, driving across country, dodging around larger bushes, plowing through smaller ones head-on. The bats were being carried farther by the breeze than we had expected. They had been hard enough to see through binoculars with two feet planted solidly on the ground. From a jeep bouncing cross-country, it was nearly impossible to keep them in sight.

After half an hour of chasing, we lost them. Then, as we drove over a hill, to our dismay we saw buildings ahead, a ranch headquarters. Still driving flat out, we hit a graded dirt road and rumbled across a couple of cattle guard grids. Houses, barns, outbuildings, and corrals were ahead. I glanced at Fletch, who was driving my jeep. He shook his head, shrugged, and swerved into the wide yard between buildings.

A weathered rancher with brown blotches on his skin stood on the porch of the main house watching the three jeep-loads of soldiers and military brass careen through his gate and slide through a dust cloud to stop at the picket fence outside his door.

With what must have required the utmost control in the western pretense of nonchalance, he slouched sleepily against a porch pillar, looking out from under the sweat-stained brim of his Stetson, and coolly watched us disembark. The observation plane circled low, around and around, the noise of its engine and prop causing all sorts of agitation in the corrals.

A grimy general, colonel, and captain climbed out of the jeeps and slapped dust out of their uniforms. Bobby Herold slid up in another cloud of dust. Doc was still circling in the sky bothering the livestock.

Bobby approached the rancher, who was eyeing the plane with a great deal of mistrust. “Good morning, sir.”

A nod. “Mornin'”

“Ah, did you see anything, ah, that you might call unusual flying around here?” Because of the secrecy, Bobby wasn’t about to let anything out of the bag if he could help it.

“I see a noisy airplane.” The rancher watched Doc’s ship, still circling low.

“I don’t mean that. Something, ah, smaller.”

The rancher eyed Bobby warily. “Maybe.”

“We’re conducting experiments . . . ” Bobby glanced around nervously, not quite knowing how to proceed. All of us now stood listening at the picket gate. “We’re from the air base,” Bobby glanced in the direction of Carlsbad. “You know, over there.”

A nod, acknowledging.

“The United States Air Force.”

The rancher listened, unimpressed.

“Experiments with, ah–well, highly secret experiments. We didn’t expect them, that is, anything, to come this far. Probably didn’t. But if they did, ah, well… I hope we can depend on you to keep the confidentiality. You know, under your hat.”

The rancher listened, shifted his weight.

Again Bobby probed the non-committal air. “As I said–asked, that is–Did you see anything…? Unusual?”

At last a slow drawl: “Like bats flyin’ ’round in broad daylight? Unusual like that? What’d you give ’em? No-Doze?”

“Yes. No. You saw them, then… ? Bats?”

The rancher raised the brim of his hat, glancing up into the rafters overhead. “Like that one?”

Bobby looked aloft. “Yeah. Just like.” He waved toward the men at the fence. “There’s one here. Right on the porch.” To the rancher: “Mind if they have a look?”

“Go ahead. There’s another bushel of ’em flapped into the barn.” He squinted up to the bat, peering down from a crack between a roof joist and the ceiling boards. It straddled the dark dummy bomb still attached to its belly. The rancher squinted closer. “Looks to be serving a black filly.”

“Well, that’s the secret. The point of this whole operation, this test I was telling you about. Can we depend on your discretion?”

“Listen here, young feller,” the rancher said as if his patience could finally break. “I got two sons somewhere in Europe fightin’ the Hun. If you tell me that what yer doin’, however damned fool as it looks to me, is a military secret, nobody’s goin’ to get me to say a peep even by puttin’ bamboo splinters under my fingernails and alightin’ fire to ’em. You and these boys have a good look around as much as you like. You can have all your bats and their mounts back. I already got a few of my own and you can have them, too, if you want ’em. But I do wish you’d tell that blessed airplane to fly away and stop spookin’ my livestock.”

“Yes, sir. We’ll get busy on that right away. And thank you very much. You’re a great American.” Bobby turned to Williams. “Get down to the jeep and get on the blower and tell Doc we’ll meet him back at the air strip. Tell him he’s spooking the hell out of this man’s livestock.”

The rancher grinned. “And when you’re through with whatever you’re doin’, there’s a pot of coffee on the stove and plenty of beer and soda pop in the Frigidaire, so you can wash down some of that dust before you leave.”

Tell me that doesn’t make you love America.

In the end, the bat bomb never got off the ground. A quick look doesn’t turn up any great bat bomb resources on the internet, but if you come across something throw the link up in the comments section.

In the mean time, go ahead and read the book. My own copy was a Christmas gift, and I thank the person who gave it to me. Good reading.


  1. Thanks for a mighty good laugh. If your ever passing through Chitown and need a break let me know. Devs from Canaryville the last great old Irish Neighborhood on the South Side.

  2. Thanks for a mighty good laugh. If your ever passing through Chicago and need a break let me know. Devs from Canaryville the last great old Irish Neighborhood on the South Side.

  3. What a bunch of nuts. Bombs from atoms! What’s next, imaging that lets you see through walls, like Superman or Superbatman something?