Hot! Whodathunkit? “Project X-Ray”

Whodathunkit is DidYouSeeThatSPORTS’s newest brand of article. If you see this prefix affixed to posts you will know that those articles will be centered on interesting yet little known historical, scientific, or popular culture tidbits of which everyone should be made aware. 

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Animals are no strangers to war. From bomb-sniffing dogs to mine-detecting dolphins, animals have been utilized by police and the military for years. But by far, the strangest usage of animals during wartime is the case of “Project X-Ray,” an experimental American weapon conceived for World War II.


Devised by a Pennsylvania dentist (and friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt), the “Project X-Ray” weapon featured a metal casing filled with bats with bombs attached to them. Yep, you just read that. The United States, a country with virtually unlimited resources, was building a bomb made of flying mammals. Here is how it would work: released at high altitudes, the casing would open and unleash a parachute. Then, the bats would be released, each one with a timed bomb attached to him. The bomber bats would find a dark place to nestle, ready for the dawn. These places would most likely be among the highly flammable Japanese buildings. The bombs would then ignite, sparking fires, panic, and disorder.

testrange fire

Most of the World War II-era buildings in Japan were made of wood, paper, and bamboo. As stated earlier, these are highly flammable, and would likely not stand a chance in a massive fire. Even non-wooden buildings would have had trouble standing up to this bat attack. For instance, during testing in Carlsbad, New Mexico, a few bats were accidentally let loose. They wound up incinerating the test range! Later on, a more successful standard test was performed on a mock-up Japanese village constructed in Utah, and the weapon was deemed effective. Everything was all set for more tests in 1944, but the project was cancelled. Why? Oh, a little thing called the atomic bomb. “Hey, cancel that bat bomb. We got something better.” All told, the government spent about $2 million on the project. That might not seem like a lot to us today, especially when a high school kid can grab more than that in a signing bonus, but it is nothing to sneeze at.

project pigeonIf you will allow me to indulge in a tangent, there was another animal-related bomb from World War II. The noted behaviorist B.F. Skinner devised “Project Pigeon.” This was an attempt at a basic missile guidance system. A pigeon was placed in a missile’s nosecone, where a picture of the target would appear on a screen. The pigeon would be trained to peck at the image on this screen. If the image was in any spot other than the center, the pigeon’s pecking would move the missile’s flight towards the target, thus steering the weapon. It was rudimentary, but seemed to work. Unfortunately for Skinner, the project was cancelled, revived, and then cancelled again once computers became more reliable.

Pigeon in Project Pigeon

Though these projects are weird, I really like the narrative because it illuminates the idea of a total war. With the wars the U.S. is engaged in today, we barely even notice that there is fighting going on. Unless you or someone you know is in the military, it is easy to forget that we are at war at all. However, in the days of World War II, there would be no confusion. This was an era of rationing, bat bombs, pigeon guidance systems, and women working. We pulled out all the stops in order to beat our enemies. That hasn’t happened in a while. Sure, we have drones and smart weapons now, but isn’t the idea of a bat bomb really crazy? It also really points out how far technology has come in such a short while. Just sixty years ago we were toying with the idea of using pigeons to steer missiles! I sometimes wish we had a historic do-over button. Then we could go back in time and wind up winning the war by these methods. It would be fun to explain to Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito that their designs were undone by bats and pigeons.

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Jerry Galante is a corporate cataloging librarian. He has a BA in History and a Masters in Library Science and is amazed at the lengths people will go to in order to kill each other. If you enjoyed this post, you should check out Jerry’s previous offerings, “If the World Ended, How Would It Happen?,” “Planets, Planets Everywhere,”  “Terrific TV Twosomes,” & “1800 and Froze to Death.”


Jerry Galante

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