II. Bats Away!

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Problems soon arose, not the least of them the confusion among those working on the bomb. Because of the project’s highly secret nature (even today the blueprints of the incendiary unit remain security classified by order of the CIA), researchers struggling with one aspect of the device were unaware of the activities of their counterparts. Adams himself turned out to be a problem, too. In December, 1943, Dr. William G. Young, a UCLA chemist and NDRC consultant, complained that the dentist skipped an appointment with him on November 19: “He did not arrive either that day or the next; and at the time I phoned his home I learned that he had left at five o’clock in the morning for parts unknown. Apparently, he just chases around from one part of Southern California to another without staying put long enough for anyone to corner him.

“Last Saturday Lieutenant Charles J. Holt of the Marine Corps Air Station at El Centra came to Los Angeles to see me, and we had a very interesting talk. … Everyone in the project seems to be in agreement that Adams cannot accept responsibility for the project and have it function. For example, he ordered Lieutenant Holt to prepare for a test to be held on the desert in which ten thousand assemblies were to be used. When Holt pointed out the tremendous hazard involved to the whole of Southern California by such a program, Adams was most indignant, and the lieutenant finally had to tell him that such an experiment would not be performed even if he, Holt, had to stand in front of the arsenal with a machine gun to prevent it.”

By the middle of December, Adams had been squeezed out of the Adams Plan—which the Navy then renamed “Operation X ray.” Further tests, held at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah on December 15, were quite promising. In fact, on a weight-to-weight basis, the tiny bat incendiary was more effective than any other such bomb in our arsenal; one estimate had it that a typical planeload of bat bombs would set anywhere from 3,625 to 4,748 fires, as opposed to from 167 to 400 with a planeload of regulation incendiaries.

It finally seemed that the time had come to use the bat bomb against Japan. The last day for all design changes was March 15, 1944; extensive tests of the finished product were scheduled for late April, and large-scale production, as many as 1,000,000 units, was set to begin in May.

But then, in March, 1944, Operation X ray came to an abrupt end, twenty-seven months and $2,000,000 after its conception. After the war, rumor had it that X ray had been terminated for fear the Japanese would charge the United States with having waged biological warfare. In fact, the chief of naval operations called a halt to X ray because of what he termed the “uncertainties” surrounding the behavior of the bats and the length of time before an actual strike could be launched.

So the bats of war never got there.