Most people in New Mexico would generally know what the Manhattan Project was. However, there was another secret project being investigated during WWII that involved research in the Carlsbad area, known as Project X-Ray, the bat bomb. The bat bomb project refers to an experimental weapons delivery concept involving the Mexican freetail bats that seasonally reside in southern New Mexico.
The concept was to use bats to deliver incendiary devices into structures that the military wished to destroy. The bats would be kept in colder than normal temperatures and confined inside the bomb. The bomb would release them over enemy territory and the bats would revive, take flight and then do what they normally do, which is to find a place to roost. A time delay switch would trigger the incendiary devices attached to the bats, starting fires wherever the bats happened to be. The bats would be killed in the process of igniting the fires, in all likelihood, although one account opined that the bats would chew their way loose and survive. Such a project would be considered cruel today, and if research like this were to be discovered, it would generate an outcry that would cause it to be halted, if it were ever allowed to begin.
According to an article on the website of the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Dr. Lyle S. Adams of Pennsylvania conceived the idea. Adams was a practicing dentist and also an inventor who happened to be visiting southern New Mexico around December 7, 1941, the date of the Pearl Harbor attack. Adams saw hundreds of thousands of bats emerge from Carlsbad Caverns and had the thought that they could be fitted with devices and introduced into enemy territory to start random fires. He presented his concept to the government and in early 1942, the research study (The Adams Plan) was approved by President Roosevelt.
Research began and by the summer of 1942, it had the support of the U.S. Army Air Corps. There were two teams selected to investigate the device. Preliminary tests using New Mexico bats were conducted in the Mojave Desert. There was initial resistance from Air Corps pilots who were skeptical of the safety of carrying such a bomb on their aircraft. After preliminary tests, it was agreed that further testing wold take place near Carlsbad Caverns and at the most nearby secure location to the bats’ habitat, the Carlsbad Army Air Field. Due to the secret nature of the plan, the Air Corps was allowed to use a new air strip that had its own barracks, hangers, control tower, offices and support buildings.
The first part of the testing involved the design of the bomb, in which the bats were to be delivered. The design involved a bomb shaped device perforated with air holes. Inside were strapped the bats to which dummy incendiary devices were attached. This part of the testing was successful. The bomb opened, the bats emerged and flew away as they were intended to do. The team tracked as many of the test subjects as they could locate, finding them in nearby outbuildings.
The second phase of the project involved the incendiary devices to be attached to the bats. The problems were to develop the device that needed to ignite and a delay mechanism that would not trigger ignition until the proper time. Dr. Louis F. Feiser, in charge of this phase, desired to film this part of the project and set out to document a controlled demonstration of the ignition. In the heat of the day, the six armed test bats awoke prematurely about five minutes prior to the desired fifteen minute delay. They accidentally escaped from the room and flew around the complex, where they roosted. The test devices ignited as they were designed to do, and the resulting fires burned the new buildings to the ground.
Despite this setback, research was allowed to continue, but ultimately the Adams Plan was discontinued in early 1944. An Albuquerque Journal article in the summer of 1961 relates that naturalist Ken Baker of Carlsbad Caverns had authored a book called “What About Bats.” In it, Baker discussed the history of the bats of Carlsbad Caverns. He estimated that 500,000 to 3,000,000 bats resided in the caverns at any one time over the years. At its height, the bats could each consume roughly half an ounce of insects each night. This would amount to 93,750 pounds of insects, enough to fill 47 one-ton dump trucks. Baker also discussed the bat bomb project and the fire on the Carlsbad military base. Baker’s book appears to be long out of print.
Tests were also conducted in the Hill Country of Texas, according to a 1982 article in The Paris News, of Paris, Texas. The locations given in the article were Devil’s Sinkhole, Braken Cave, Frio Cave and Ney Cave, all along the Balcones Fault. According to the article, these caves were chosen because together they have the largest concentration of freetail bats in the world. The Texas testing took place at nearby Hondo (Texas) Army Air Field in 1943 and 1944. The Texas caves were also the site of other research some seventy to eighty years prior to WWII, when Confederate soldiers investigated how they might develop explosives from the nitrogen-rich guano, but that’s a story for another day.
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