Many of us have visited the Bracken Bat Cave to watch the wonder of the emerging bats at dusk in the summer months. What part did those bats play in World War II?
Just a 30-minute drive from Seguin on FM 3009 north of Garden Ridge is the Bracken Cave Preserve, home of more than 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats. The cave contains the world’s largest bat colony and one of the world’s largest concentrations of mammals on earth.
The town of Bracken is named for William Bracken, who owned more than 1,000 acres from part of an 1849 land grant. Bracken was originally known as Davenport, named for James Davenport, a landowner who settled in the area after the Civil War. As the community grew, there was the need to establish a post office. However, a Davenport Post Office already existed elsewhere, forcing the town to change its name to Bracken.
By 1890, saloons lined the town’s seven blocks along with a blacksmith shop, lumber yard and cotton gin. In 1915, a bowling alley opened along with a dance hall, which was the center of entertainment. Prior to World War II, the post office closed and by 1990 the towns population had dropped to 75 people.
The Bat Conservation International first purchased the land on which the cave is located in 1992 and now has more than 1,500 acres. In 2014, a local developer and conservation groups reached a $20 million deal to ensure development would not encroach on the bats.
The bats of Bracken Cave comprise the largest known bat maternity colony in the world, producing millions of young bats each year. In March and April, expectant females return to the cave after wintering in Mexico. In the latter part of June, females give birth to a single pup, nearly doubling the cave’s population.
These bats are very beneficial to our environment because each bat eats more than 4,000 bugs per night, saving farmers more than $23 billion per year in pesticides.
From March to October, between the hours of 6 and 8 in the evening, the bats emerge in clouds, flying southeast looking for bugs and will cover an area 20 miles wide and 30 miles long.
For perhaps thousands of years, millions of bats have arrived in late March. Recent studies indicate the bats are returning about two weeks earlier, near the middle or end of February. Researchers believe it is due to climate change.
The bat cave has been featured on National Geographic TV episodes, “World’s Weirdest” series and was the first episode of the “Dirty Jobs” TV series.
Now what part did these bats play in World War II?
In 1942, dentist Dr. Lytle Adams in Pennsylvania sold the idea of tying an incendiary bomb to bats so they could set Japan on fire. The bomb consisted of a bomb-shaped casing with more than a thousand compartments, each containing a hibernating Mexican free-tailed bat with a small timed incendiary bomb attached.
The package was to be dropped at dawn, then the casings would deploy a parachute in mid-flight and open to release the bats, which would then disperse and roost in eaves and attics in a 20- to 40-mile radius. The incendiaries, which were set on timers, would ignite and start fires in inaccessible places in largely wooden construction of Japanese cities.
The bat bomb project was assigned to the United States Army Air Corps and a team of workers was assembled consisting of mammalogists and engineers. One man also assigned was an actor named Tim Holt, a lieutenant in the Air Corps and star in many B western movies in the 1950s. The scheme became known as Project X-RAY.
The team had to determine what kind of incendiaries could be attached to the bats, as well as at what temperatures to store and transport them.
The original plan was to arm the bats with phosphorus. Chemist Louis Fiesser joined the team and the phosphorus was replaced with his invention, napalm.
Tests were conducted to determine how much napalm an individual bat could carry. It was determined that a bat weighing one-half ounce could carry a payload of about one-half ounce. The napalm was stored in small containers dubbed “H-2 Units.”
The bomb carrier was approximately five feet long and contained 26 circular trays, each 30 inches in diameter. Each bomb carrier was to be dropped from an airplane, descending to an altitude of 4,000 feet when it would deploy a parachute. the sides of the carrier would then fall away, releasing the bats.
Tests were conducted using a mock-up village. There were mixed results. Bats from the bat bomb set fire to an airfield hanger and one bat hid under the commander’s car setting it on fire. In one test, the firebombs carried by the bats started 30 fires, four were large enough to call in the fire department.
More tests were schedule but the program was cancelled by Fleet Admiral Earnest King when it was decided the project would not be combat ready until mid 1945. The two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945.
So our local free-tailed bats could have been used as a weapon in World War II.
Another idea was to kill rats, stuff them with explosives and drop them over the German factories. When the Germans found a number of dead rats, it was hoped they would throw them into the furnaces, causing an explosion and disabling the plants.
Today such military equipment is a little more sophisticated. The “Nano Hummingbird” drone is the latest flying spy machine, with a high resolution camera affixed to a featherweight 6.5-inch body that flies by flapping its wings. The drone can fly 11 mph and can stay in the air for up to 11 minutes. This drone is extremely valuable for scouting possible enemy ambush sites.