CARLSBAD, N.M. — A military experiment involving a dentist, a famous chemist and some Mexican free-tailed bats sputtered and died 70 years ago, but not before making an indelible mark on Carlsbad's military history.
On May 15, 1943 an enraged Col. William C. Lewis, commander of the Carlsbad Air Force Base, stood outside the gates of his auxiliary field with fire engine equipment and watched it burn. The commander, who was turned away by visiting Army officials, was even more aggrieved when asked to supply a bulldozer which could grind the burnt evidence into the ground wrote Jack Couffer, a young private visiting the airfield as part of a top secret project, in his book "Bat Bombs".
"It was a small field, maybe about five miles from the base. But it was used for training runs and so would have been a sore loss for them," said Bobby Lee Silliman, an amateur historian with an interest in the Carlsbad Army Airfield Base.
In the official report, base fire marshal George S. Young reported that the total loss was estimated at $6,838, listing the cause of the fire as "explosion of incendiary bomb materials."
"In-as-much as the work being done under Lt. Col. Epler was of a confidential nature, and everyone connected with this base had been denied admission, it is impossible for me to determine the exact cause of the fire, but my deduction is that an explosion of incendiary bomb material cause the fire," wrote Young to the base commander.
That was the day the top secret program, meant to turn the tide for the U.S. in World War II, came to a screeching halt.
Called the Adams Plan unofficially and Project X-Ray officially, the $2 million project proposed using "bat bombs" to force an end to the armed conflict that had spread worldwide.
In January 1942, a leading military operative received a note from President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the explicit order to follow up on what would later be called an "idea so idiotic it could possibly work." That idea, proposed by Dr. Lytle S. Adams, was to attach incendiary devices to the species Chiropera — bats — and drop them on the Japanese mainland. Adams, a dentist from Pennsylvania by trade, modeled himself a scientist and inventor. A previous inventions, a rapid air-mail drop process, had gained the respect of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who acted as the intermediary between Adams' new proposal and her husband. "This man is not a nut," read the missive sent by Roosevelt to Col. W.M. J. Donovan, who forwarded Adams proposal to the staff of the National Research Defense Committee.
Although having gained the president's tentative approval, the military's grudging interest and a nod from Harvard University bat specialist Donald Griffin, Adam's proposal was dealt a blow when technical personnel from the Chemical Warfare department of the National Inventors Council determined that no bat species would be able to support the weight of even the smallest incendiary invented at the time. Adams, who was dedicated to his plan to defeat the Empire of Japan, would not rest on the opinion of the NIC.
Adams would gather a rag tag bunch of scientist and military privates in his own "bat unit" to continue with the development of the "bat bomb" according to Couffer. The bomb, Adams postured, would drop hundreds of hibernating bats strapped with miniature incendiaries in Japan's airspace. The bats would wake from their suspended animation and roost, igniting hundreds of small fires; a tactic creating maximum damage with minimum loss of life.
The Mexican free-tailed bat is a medium sized mammal that they can weigh between 11 to 14 grams and have a wings span of 12 to 14 inches. But the attractiveness of the free-tailed for this mission was its ability to carry four times its weight efficiently — something that biologist Jack C. von Bloeker Jr., part of Adam's motley project crew determined would satisfy the naysayers.
The NIC's concerns over developing a lightweight incendiary device were eased when chemist Louis Fieser was assigned to the problem. Fieser brought to Project X-Ray a new, powerful incendiary called napalm.
Test Gone Awry
While collecting millions of free-tailed bats near Bandera, Texas, Adams got a letter from the head of the Army Air Force pledging to provide the "bat unit" with 14 stratoliners — pressurized, heavy bomber planes — and their pilots for test runs.
The first test run in Muroc, Texas, however, was a disaster. The container devised to hold the hibernating bats, made of heavy cardboard and glue, disintegrated in mid-air.
Adams promised a secondary test run at a small air field base in Carlsbad would provide better results to military officials who had begun to turn their attention to another top secret New Mexico-based research mission which would be come to called the Manhattan Project.
Still wrestling with problems of hibernation, but sporting a new mechanical payload design, Adams' team proceeded to the southeastern desert May 1943 in hopes of proving their project still had merit. Joining Adams and the "bat unit" was visiting Gen. Louis DeHaven, in addition to an Air Force captain and chemical warfare service colonel. Much to everyone's surprise the mechanical payload worked as designed, releasing a wave of free-taileds, freshly caught from the nearby Carlsbad Caverns, carrying dummy napalm bombs. Two more test flights gave similar results — thus the decision to try a small live payload was made, Some attribute the mistake to Fieser, who wished to visually record the live detonation of his clever new device.
In his book Couffer writes that as a few bats in hibernating state were being fitted with the live napalm device, some began to wake for unknown reasons and escaped their handlers.
"Fieser underestimated the desert heat's ability to warm and wake the bats from their torpor," writes Michael Barnhart, amateur historian. The incendiary device which had been constructed with a 15-minute delay gave Adam's team little time to recover them. However, the effectiveness of the time-delayed bomb was proven when 15 minutes later the combination Operations and Crew Chief building burst into flame.
Napalm, a mixture of a thickening substance, napthehenic and palmitic acid, had been developed by Fieser and used successfully throughout WWII. It fueled the flames that engulfed the 30-foot tower, pushing them toward the visiting Gen. DeHaven's car and other structures on the field. Couffer would call this the beginning of the end.
While the destruction of the base had been viewed as a disaster, the ultimate potential of Project X-Ray had been proven. Mexican free-tailed bats could deliver a timed incendiary device that would cause maximum fire damage. Ultimately, Adams would be pushed out of the project when it passed to the US Marine Corps for further testing. Fieser would inherit Project X-Ray — and the bat unit. In December 1943 official word from military commanders in the Marine Corps brought development of the bat bombs to an end, and the project was completely de-constructed by 1944. While the project's termination would be blamed on time-constraints and budget, history shows that a more destructive device, the atom bomb, had become the lead project and single hope of an American military determined to end a war which cost millions of lives on both sides of the fight.
Reporter Jessica Onsurez may be reached at (575)491-4682.