Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bat missiles

Just finished reading Natural Acts by David Quammen. In it there is a bizarre story about the US spending $2 million during World War II on research into a plan to use thousands of Tadarida brasiliensis, the Mexican free-tailed bat carrying a small payload of napalm for firebombing Japan. It was dreamed up by a dental surgeon from Pennsylvania named Lytle S. Adams.
Seems that Dr. Adams was driving home from a vacation in New Mexico, where he had gazed wide-eyed at millions of T. brasiliensis, like one continuous pelt of lumpy brown fur, covering for acres the ceiling of the Carlsbad Caverns, when news of Pearl Harbor reached him. In first froth of patriotic outrage and desirous of doing his bit, Adams thought of those bats. In less than two months, as the American Heritage article has it, Adams "somehow got the ear of President Franklin Roosevelt and convinced him that the idea warranted investigation." Under the circumstances, "somehow" seems rather tantalizingly elliptical, but maybe FDR needed a little dental surgery and Dr. Adams pitched his idea before the gas had entirely worn off. Next he managed to interest an eminent Harvard chiroptologist (a bat expert, not a foot doctor) named Donald R. Griffin, and before long the National Defense Research Committee had signed on as a sponsor. By now it was known as the Adams Plan. Eventually the army's Chemical Warfare Service, the NDRC, and the navy (no reason submarines couldn't release bats too) were all implicated in the buffoonery.
A test was conducted where groggy bats with tiny parachutes and a load of napalm were dropped from planes. The testing failed due to a variety of reasons and only resulted in the 'waste of innocent animals'.
Yet there was poetic justice. A few other bats, armed on the ground with live napalm units but spared the lethal jump, escaped from their handlers. These escapees flew off toward the nearest buildings - as indeed they were supposed to do, though preferably in Japan - which happened to be the airport hangars. The hangars thereupon burned. So did a general's automobile.
People do become batty in wartime.

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