Feb 16, 2021
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Project X-Ray

By

Eugene Burns with George Scullin

Early in the afternoon of December 7th, 1941, a mild-mannered, middle-aged surgeon and inventor named Lytle S. Adams was driving from his home in Irwin, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C.

He had the radio on, but was only half listening to the quiet music that came from it. His thoughts were on the small aircraft factory he managed, and on another project, having to do with the restoration of grass to the great American desert—he had just returned from an exploratory trip to Texas and New Mexico, and was eager to put his findings to work.

The Sunday symphony did not disturb the doctor’s private musings—but the fateful, devastating Pearl Harbor

news flash did, and in a way that was to radically affect his own way of life and bring into being one of history’s most fantastic super-weapons. The announcer’s words triggered in his mind a second flash so brilliant that he had to pull over to the side of the road while the glare faded. In those few seconds, Dr. Adams had reduced the islands of Japan to ashes.

Dr. Adams had to pause again in Washington; quite by coincidence, his route took him past the Japanese Embassy which only a half-hour before had issued its last peace bulletin. As he approached the front gate, a howling mob stormed up, enclosing him in its midst, and at the same moment a file of imperturbable Japanese issued from the mansion with baskets of documents, which they proceeded to burn in full view of the shrieking, cursing mob jammed against the fence. The scene jarred Dr. Adams as news of the attack had not—what had been far away in the Pacific abruptly became as immediate as the Boston Tea Party had been to his ancestor Sam Adams. When the police finally cleared a path for him, he drove, not to his hotel, but to the Capitol. Congressman Jennings Randolph of West Virginia, now the assistant to the president of Capital Airlines, has had some strange visitors in the course of his public life, but he regards the abrupt intrusion of Dr. Adams that afternoon with a special kind of awe. “He stood in the doorway, and he said, ‘Bats!’ ” Randolph recalls. “Then he said it again: ‘Bats!That’s the whole answer.’ Randolph seated his visitor and rushed out to get him a glass of water. “I had been out at a football game in Griffith Stadium,” he said recently in explaining that afternoon, “and when the loud-speaker announced the attack, I headed at once for my office. All the other congressmen were coming in, too. There was a great rushing around in the hall, all of us knowing we would be declaring war at any minute. Then in came Dr. Adams, his hair flying, and talking about bats.

“Well, I’d known and respected Dr. Adams for a long time. I knew about his many successful inventions, and I also knew about Samuel Adams, and John Quincy Adams, and Charles Adams—all of them—and what a family of super-patriots they were. So when Dr. Adams began talking about bats, I thought he had been super-charged on hereditary patriotism, and might possibly have become—ah—excited, to say the least.”

If Dr. Adams was excited, he was nevertheless not only lucid but eloquent. He started explaining at a rapid rate: “Feel free to think I’m crazy, but two months ago I was at Carlsbad Caverns with my family, and we saw millions of those Mexican free-tailed bats just pouring out of a cave at dusk. It’s almost frightening. It takes three hours for them to all get out, and they rise up like a column of smoke. Naturally I was curious about them, so I talked to the ranger there. Actually, I was thinking about bat manure, or guano, for a seeding project I had in mind, but he gave me a lot of’ other information. Did you know the bat was the world’s best flyer—better than birds or insects? That a female bat carries her young when she flies until they are almost full-grown—that  a mother with four large young clinging to her is supporting more than twice her own weight? And did you know that when a bat cave collapsed, millions of bats swarmed into the next town. collecting in belfries, barns, garages, houses, and every dark, dry spot they could find?”

At this point the doctor stood up and pointed a finger directly into Randolph’s lace. “And do you know what would happen to Tokyo if a million bats were dropped by parachute at night, each bat carrying a one-ounce incendiary bomb? Why those bats would scatter all over the city, and by daylight they would be hidden in every tinder-dry spot in town. Now listen! We would drop thousands of leaflets notifying the population that their city was to be burned down. We allow them twenty-four hours to get out—maybe we’ll have to burn down a village to prove we mean business—and then we come over. No houses, no barracks, no war plants—nothing left. They’ll have to quit!”

“He really stunned me,” Randolph admits. “Crazy? Yes, but whoever said there was any sanity to warfare? I asked a lot of questions, not all very sensible. To me a bat was just a mouse with wings that frightened women with long hair, and Dr. Adams had to grant he was no bat authority either. But he did have a general plan that had a certain fantastic appeal to it. Look at it this way: Two hours after Pearl Harbor has been hit—we still don’t know how hard—Dr. Adams is in my office with a complete plan for retaliation. He has in mind the airplane, a Boeing Stratocruiser, capable of delivering thousands of armed bats. He has conceived of a one-ounce incendiary bomb, and a parachute equipped with his own barometric-pressure device to open the bat cages at the proper altitude. He has prepared for the evacuation of civilians from the target area by the advance dropping of warning leaflets. Actually, in that brief time, he had the answer to all the questions but one: Could the bats deliver?”

Seventeen years later, both remember experiencing at this point a sudden chill of fright. Both were and are amiable, peaceful men, and both had been brought to a fever pitch of rage by the sneak attack. But now, in the abrupt silence of the Congressman’s office, they were face to face with millions of men, women, and children fleeing a flaming Tokyo from which billions of dollars were rolling skyward on black clouds of smoke. Like the black pall hanging over Honolulu and its dead. Solemnly they swore each other to secrecy, and then arranged their strategy.

The armed forces would be throwing all available manpower and equipment into a desperate effort to recoup what had already been lost.

In the confusion, any idea forced to go through the normal channels would be thrust aside in the more urgent need of utilizing everything immediately at hand. Yet Dr. Adams had a plan that might make all other measures unnecessary, and with an enormous saving of lives and money. It was against all military regulations, but Randolph determined to avoid clogged channels, and use his White House influence to start the plan at the top. Dr. Adams, for his part, was to devote his entire time to boning up on bats in preparation for the day when he would be called upon to explain his plan in more detail.

Randolph did not relish his assignment. Only too aware of his own first reaction to the odd nature of the weapon, he saw the problems in approaching the President at the moment he was under greater pressures than any man had ever endured before. Fervently he wished that bats weren’t so closely associated with the loony bin—but they were, so he faced up to the ridiculous and went on from there. Considering the crisis, few emergency measures have ever been rammed through with greater speed. President Roosevelt heard the plan through, and turned to his then coordinator and expediter, William (Wild Bill) Donovan. “I’m interested in this. I want to see what we can work out.” Wild Bill took the plan and farmed it out to the President’s hastily-collected board of experts. Dr. Vannevar Bush, head of the war-mobilized Inventor’s Council, said yes. Pres. James B. Conant of Harvard, chairman of the National Defense Research Council, said yes. So did Dr. Karl T. Compton of M.I.T., Res. R. B. von Kleinsmid of the University of Southern California, General Hap Arnold, Maj. Gen. Barney Giles, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Admiral of the Fleet Ernest King, Maj. Gen. Holland Smith—they all, with the exception of one admiral who refused to consider using his battleship as a transport for bats, said yes.  On January 12, 1942, less than five weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, the “Adams Plan” was officially launched, marked “Top Secret.”

The “Top Secret” label was to have a shattering impact on Dr. Adams’ life. He was so secret that he and his project were never revealed to the paymasters.

Dr. Adams went first to Harvard to see Dr. Donald R. Griffin, the world’s foremost authority on Chiroptera—the bat family. Luck was with him.: he got the advice he needed and learned of several research projects on the West Coast and in the Pacific that had been interrupted by the war. From those teams of biologists he was able to draft the very scientists who could help him most.

Although no money had been allocated to him—it was supposed to follow through channels—Dr. Adams had been giving top priority in everything else. He was authorized to command military personnel up through the rank of colonel, requisition materiel, use whatever means of transportation was fastest for his men and himself, and billet himself and stall wherever he could best expedite the project. In Washington, he shared an office with another crusader named Rear Admiral Richard Byrd. Assured that all was well, Dr. Adams drew upon his own bank account to keep matters rolling, thanking heaven he was temporarily rich; his aircraft plant had been closed, and he had been compensated to the tune of some $60,000. The Internal Revenue men had their eye on a goodly portion of this sum, but, naively, the good doctor assumed that what he owed the Internal Reveneurs and what the War Department owed him was a little bookkeeping matter Uncle Sam would solve by shifting the money from one pocket to another.

By telephone and telegram, Dr. Adams assembled his staff, directing them to meet him in Texas. Figuring that one car in hand was better than two in a motor pool, he drove his Buick from Boston to El Paso without sleep, shrugging off a couple of blizzards on the way. From that point on it was all bats.

From his experts Dr. Adams learned there were 230 different kinds of bats in the United States, of which his small Mexicali free-tails were the most numerous, but not necessarily the best for the job.

“I was thinking of the mastiff bat,” announced one mammalogist. “There are thousands of them about twenty miles south of San Francisco. They have a twenty-inch wing spread, and a full-grown female could carry a full stick of dynamite with a timing device and detonator attached.” “

“No good,” was the quick interruption of a biologist. “The mastiff avoids lighted cities. They collect in trees. Drop them, and all we’d blow up would be a deserted forest. Besides. how would you catch a million of them—if there are that many—in secret?”

Another hour of discussion only proved the doctor’s original hunch correct. Of all the bat families available, the Mexican free-tail seemed the most likely as an incendiary bomb carrier. It gathered by the millions in the most isolated caves in the country, and thus could be captured in quantity and in secrecy. A one-ounce bat could carry at least a one-ounce capsule of incendiary material–surely the scientific arsonists in Washington would be able to produce a one-ounce scorcher. There remained the acid test—could it survive an airlift at 25,000 feet and 60-below temperature, and still fly after a parachute drop to a thousand feet above Tokyo?

The security-minded scientists decided to bypass Carlsbad where the tourists were almost as numerous as the bats. Instead, they bounced in Dr. Adams’ car to Devil’s Sinkhole, Texas—to find that the isolated cavern was 200 feet straight down, and that they had only a tow-rope in the car.

Fortunately, nearby was an old, sagging boundary fence. They were able to fashion a ladder from the rusted strands of barbed wire, thrusting tough branches of dwarf mesquite through the twists for rungs. Through some miracle, the bomb builders descended on this safely, suffering only the loss of their clothes and a few yards of hide to the barbs.

Down below the air was as foul-smelling as the inside of a rotten egg. The accumulated droppings of centuries formed a layer of manure on the cavern floor into which they sank up to their knees. Above them, revealed by the beams of their flashlights, the expedition members could see bushel-basket-sized clusters of bats—thousands of them, hundreds of thousands of them. Maybe millions. They were high up, possibly a 100 feet above the floor, but enough were within reach of the ladder to fill a couple of sacks. Only a few twitters of protest were heard as they plucked the bats from their claw-holds on the rough sandstone roof.

These two sackfuls of bats were the pioneers. Some were shipped off to Dr. Griffin at Harvard for flight testing under load-carrying conditions. The rest were subjected to all manner of tests in Texas, and from the first they proved to be fascinating subjects.

The bats of today are little changed from those of the Eocene period; their name, chiroptera, is Greek for “hand wings.” During the Eocene period the loose-skinned little creature was able to stretch its hide between its outstretched arms and legs and between its fingers. In time, as the fingers grew longer and the webbing wider, the bat turned gliding power into true flight. The arms and hands took over the power department, and the legs, with some support from a membrane stretched to the tail, took over the sustained lift department. In some families the membrane stretched out to include all of the tail, but Dr. Adams and his associates were concerned with the Mexican free-tail, whose membrane covers only enough of the tail to provide adequate flaps, leaving the rest of the mouse-like appendage free. Slow-motion pictures quickly revealed that this free-swinging tail was used not as a rudder, but as a remarkably fast counterbalance. Whipped to one side or the other, it assists its owner in making quick turns. The bat is not blind; it has excellent night vision, to which has been added an incredible form of aural radar. As it flies, the bat emits high-frequency sound waves that echo back from all objects in its path, large or small. These are picked up by the animal’s huge super-sensitive ears, giving it ample time to twist and turn in total darkness. Thus equipped, it catches in a single night up to 12 times its own weight in insects, and digests them at the same rate.

When that information was made known, the project nearly ended: a million one-ounce bats being readied for an air raid 300 tons of insects a day. The whole Navy couldn’t carry enough food to bring a plane-load of bats to within striking range of the Japanese—assuming the insects could be caught.

Then tests uncovered another startling fact: when the temperature was reduced to 50° F, the bats went into temporary hibernation.

At 40°, they entered a state of arrested death. As Dr. Adams explains it, “The heart-beat slows from a normal of about 2,000 a minute to six. Breathing is reduced to four shallow inhalations a minute. The circulation of blood is so nearly reduced to a standstill that in conducting my tests I had to sever a major artery before, after waiting several minutes, I was able to collect a single drop of blood for a sample. Mind you, the bat must do all this on an empty stomach. Should he be chilled into hibernation with a full stomach, his circulation would not be fast enough to provide elimination of the spoiling food, and he would die of poisoning.” So far so good. At a temperature of 50°, the bats would hibernate indefinitely, and there would be no food problem.

But then came another disaster—the bats at Harvard had flunked their flight tests.

Stunned, Dr. Adams used his top priority to clear a line through to Boston.

“That’s right, Dr. Adams,” reported the glum voice of Dr. Griffin. “I’ve tried everything. I used your idea of fastening the capsules on with surgical clips, just as the young hang on with their nursing teeth. I built trick harnesses for them, trying to adjust the load to their centers of gravity. I tried flexible adhesive tapes, rubber cement —everything I could think of. And every time I turned them loose, they crashed.”

“That just can’t be,” Dr. Adams remembers protesting. “With my own eyes I’ve seen them carrying three times their own weight in young.”

“Well, that’s the way it is,” said Dr. Griffin. “They can’t carry a bean. Maybe the young adjust to the flight maneuvers some way, while a dead weight . . .” “

Say!” It was another of those revealing flashes. “What height are you dropping them from?”

“I thought of that, too.” A very discouraging answer. “I had a ladder brought in, and I’ve been dropping them from the ceiling of the lecture room. A full twenty feet.”

Dr. Adams distinctly remembers a vast sigh of relief. “You biologists might know all about the life cycle of bats, but you’re weak on aviation. Your bats are crashing before they can’t get up to flying speed. Remember their caves—a hundred feet high and more. I’ll bet a mother bat carrying a full load of young has to drop thirty feet before she can pull out of her dive. Did you ever watch an airplane come out of a stall? Well, your bats are in the same spot—they take off from a dead stall.”

An hour later, Dr. Griffin called back to report complete success on flight tests conducted from a newfound launching platform: a belfry. The disposal of the fire bomb was of special concern. Dr. Adams’ plan called for the bats and warning leaflets to be dropped simultaneously. By dawn the bats would have dispersed to hiding places all over the city, dragging their capsules with them. The citizens would then have until midnight to evacuate the city before the time bombs ignited. But this entailed its own problems. By midnight the nocturnal-feeding bats would once more be aloft, and unless they had freed themselves of their bomb loads while in hiding, they would make a spectacular display of night fireworks, and consume only themselves. Closed-room tests had shown the bat could and would rid himself of his capsule by turning over on his back and chewing and clawing away the undesirable encumbrance the instant it had crawled into a safe hiding place. But could it do the same after a long, exhausting flight? A young scientist from San Francisco made a rueful suggestion. “The Navy has those enormous hangers just down the peninsula—the ones built for dirigibles that crashed—the Macon and the Akron. Must be a thousand feet long by three hundred feet high, and they can be closed airtight. But can’t you just see the Navy turning them over to us for test-hopping bats?”

Dr. Adams could. Fifty phone calls and 24 hours later, the project and several thousand bats were on their way to Moffett Field and the cavernous dirigible hangars. It was one of the fastest acts of inter-service cooperation on record, and strong to proof of the esteem in which Dr. Adams’ project was held.

Speed. Speed. Speed. Hours had no meaning. Scientists who for years had lifted nothing heavier than a test tube wrestled huge aircraft packing cases about to build a miniature city in the gloom of the sealed hangar. Biologists who had climbed nothing higher than a stepladder raced around on lacy cat-walks 300 feet above the floor, dropping loaded bats. Below, others strained their eyes to follow the flights of bats carrying blue, red and yellow capsules, tracing them to their hiding places in the packing boxes. Every day there was a hunt for capsules successfully discarded, and a count of the bats still wearing theirs.

Two encouraging facts emerged from this research. A fully armed bat could fly about for at least an hour, indicating a range of some 20 miles in the open air, or in terms of a million bats, enough to cover all of Tokyo and the suburbs for 10 miles around. The second discovery was just as important. In the free state the bats were gregarious, clustering together by day and through the long winter, and hunting together in happy packs during the summer nights. But the bomb load was mortifying. Once in harness, the bat felt like a freak, an outcast, and he tended to slink off by himself until he could get rid of the human-imposed burden. No two were ever seen flying together, an no two capsules were ever found in the same packing box. The implications were obvious: a city like Tokyo offered a million different hiding places— there would be a million separate, deadly fires to engulf the city in complete devastation.

In the meantime, other scientists were working on the project at the same furious speed.

Dr. Louis Fieser, head of the department of chemistry at Harvard, and Dr. W. G. Young, his counterpart at U.C.L.A., were directing research on the bomb’s incendiary fuel and its timer device. For the fuel they decided upon a form of jellied gasoline that has since become famous as napalm. Contained in a fragile aluminum or magnesium capsule —fierce-burning fuels in their own right—the napalm shot out a 22-inch flame that had all the intensity of a blowtorch. Further-more, the jelly had the fiendish capacity of sticking like glue to whatever it touched. There would be no wasteful falling away to paved street or dirt basement. The duration of the high-intensity flame was from eight to 10 minutes—eight in open surroundings and 10 if confined in a small crevice. Considering the bamboo tinder of Tokyo, it was more than ample.

The timing device was a greater problem. Cost of production and weight and space requirements—it could be no bigger than a pencil eraser—automatically eliminated a mechanical device. The bomb-makers turned to chemistry, and came up with a steel spring held at full-cock by a steel wire. Next to the wire was a drop of acid enclosed in a glass bubble. When the bubble was shattered, the acid would eat through the wire in 24 hours, give or take three minutes. The wire would snap, the spring would smack down on a cap, and the napalm would flare.

Elsewhere a team of parachute experts was working on the dropping arrangements. The first obstacle was the bat container. At 25,000 feet and 200 miles per hour, 1,000 bats loosely confined in a single container were so buffeted by turbulence that almost all of them were grounded by bruises and contusions. Scores of experiments ultimately produced a cartridge-like container into which trays were stuffed like so many pies in a bakery truck. Each tray held three dozen bats, and each bat had its own tight-fitting, rattle-proof compartment made of thin strips of wood. Some 720 to 1,080 bats could be packed in a single container, and 100 containers could be carried by each plane. Each container would float down on its own parachute. Fourteen planes to deliver total destruction, as compared to the 1,000 plane raids of later months.

Still elsewhere other teams—all told some $2,000,000 was to be spent on development—were putting bats through a series of high-altitude tests. Others were devising methods of capturing the required millions of the little creatures. Still others were working on the best means of preserving them in a state of artificial hibernation.

The altitude chamber tests proved that, to bats in hibernation, there is no difference between 20,000 feet and 60,000 feet. That was good, but a question remained: if they were still in a deep sleep when popped out of their containers at 1,000 feet, would they simply fall to earth like so many dried peas? Hundreds of more hours had to be spent in discovering the rate at which bats revived when brought down to lower altitudes and warmer air. Once again the remarkable animals showed amazing cooperation. When dormant bats were dropped at a 300-feet-per-minute rate from 25,000 feet, with a corresponding increase in temperature, they were not only fully activated at their “bursting point” but super-charged. After that it was only a matter of figuring out the size of the parachute that would provide the required rate of descent. Now was introduced a matter of more immediate concern. A veteran pilot was consulted, and while he had no objection to flying a cargo of 72,000 bats, he had decided objections to flying 72,000 ounces of napalm, any one ounce of which might get touchy if kicked around by a restless bat. If one ounce shot a flame two feet high, and the next bounce was only one inch away . . . “My mother raised me to be a ball of fire, but not a fireball.”

Dr. Adams himself invented the safety factor on the spot. Into each compartment he added two brads to separate bat from capsule. One of the nails was attached directly to the timer, serving the dual purpose of holding the timer secure in flight and during the drop, and shattering the acid capsule when the whole container popped open at the 1,000-foot level. Possibly a thousand tests were made on this safety device alone, with containers being rolled, tumbled and dropped from as high as 50 feet with not one premature ignition. Until the bottom was yanked out of the container, and the trays distributed to the wind, the timers could not function.

There were other difficulties. In mid air, a bat could easily shed a harness that was even a sixteenth of an inch too loose. On the other hand, should the harness be too tight, he was quick to become discouraged and resign himself to wearing it forever. The combination of surgical clips and thread had to be just right: difficult to discard in flight, but easy to chew through and claw away when in hiding. Probably no mammal in history has had its intelligence quotient more thoroughly tested than the bat, and it is the united opinion of the scientists involved that the bat has the character and personality traits to make him an endearing pet but for one exception. Try to win his or her affection though they might, the scientists discovered that as far as friends were concerned, bats prefer bats.

By June, Dr. Adams was ready for the first field test. It took place at El Paso, with a limited squadron of 1,000 bats, each carrying a brightly painted mock-up of its war-load. They were dropped from an Air Corps bomber at 95,000 feet, and it was a complete success. For weeks afterwards mystified citizens of El Paso and suburbs within 40 miles were finding the brightly wooden dowels in attics, garages, and other unlikely places. Dr. Adams’ small team of researchers, augmented by men from the gas and electric company, found enough “bombs” to scare hell out of anybody possessed of common sense. One sleuth came across a “bomb” behind a gas meter located within a foot of the largest gas main in the heart of El Paso.

As soon as the reports of the dry run had been analyzed, a test was run with live ammunition. For this, the vast, empty area south of Carlsbad was chosen, the drop being made over 1,250 square miles of scrub-mesquite and cactus. Into to this area had been trucked thousands of crates, some closely packed to simulate villages, others scattered over a radius of some 40 miles.

“It was the strangest thing,” says Dr. Adams with a wondering air. “We were all gathered on a butte the following night, waiting for midnight. Then, just as if I had pressed a button, fires all over the desert, as far as you could see. Bright fires, fact pure white at first, and then turning red as the napalm burned out. It was beautiful, and terrible.”

A survey the next day revealed that 50 percent of the packing cases had been destroyed, some of them 40 miles apart. “And those were packing cases in a desert,” says Dr. Adams. “Start that number of fires in a city. The flames in one burning building suck in cold air and release furiously burning gases. The next building catches, pulling in more air and releasing out more flaming gases. You have an inferno. Super-heated air ignites buildings a half-mile away, leaping over anything you might have in the way of fire-fighting equipment. And besides, my bats have set fire to everything in between anyway. There’s no escape from it. Once my bats have started a million fires, the city itself provides for its own combustion.”

You might advance the argument that the Germans dropped hundreds of thousands of incendiary bombs on London without destroying the city. A hell of a lot of it, yes, but not the city. Scoffs Dr. Adams, “So much concentrated dead weight. But what if those incendiary bombs had taken wing on the way down, and had an instinct to hide themselves in the darkest, driest places in that congested city? Not on easily reached rooftops. Down in the basements and subways. Up in belfries and under the eaves. What then?”

The project had now reached the point where it was out of the experimental stage and ready to be activated. To enlighten the brass in the Pentagon, the Army sent a team of photographers to the auxiliary airfield near Carlsbad where the field tests were being conducted. They dutifully photographed bats, containers, personnel, aircraft, and bombs. Then they went into the frosty hibernation room, picked up a score of dormant bats, armed them with live ammunition, and posed them hanging outside on a wire, high against a cloud-flecked sky.

They had overlooked only two things in their earliest efforts at realism. In assembling the bomb they forgot about Dr. Adams’ safety device on the timer, and they forgot what a hot, desert sun could do to a chilled bat. Even while the photographers were focussing their cameras, the bats twittered, stretched their cramped wings, and peeled off.

A frantic search involving every man at the field failed to reveal a single bomb.

That night all fire stations were manned, and all buckets and containers were filled with water. The precautions were practically useless. The main hangar went first. Then the administration building, a warehouse, and an open-air storage area. The last straw came when the high water tower caught fire, leaving the firemen with empty hoses. It was a perfect demonstration of what the bats could do, even to the disruption of the water supply, but the bats had overdone it. Along with destroying most of the air base, they had burned all of Dr. Adams’ records, and in Washington they had ignited a lot of tempers. If a squadron of bats would attack its own hangars. .

In a letter spluttering with indignation, and with no reference to the fool mistake that had caused the damage, Maj. Gen. Giles wrote: “It has been decided to immediately discontinue all further work on the project. It is desired that all personnel …  be returned to duty with their respective organizations . . . and that any government equipment loaned for use on this project be returned to the proper agency.”

It was a crusher. This was now the spring of 1943, and for some 16 months Dr. Adams had been working to the point of exhaustion. Worse, he discovered now that he was a fugitive. The Internal Revenuers were after him to put the bite on his no-longer existent $60,000, and were regarding as utter nonsense his wife’s plea that she could not reveal his whereabouts because he was on “a secret mission.” Dr. Adams was indeed broke. His car was a barely perking junk-heap. Unbeknownst to him, four of his colleagues added their own personal funds to Dr. Adams’ cash box in the community safe. That got him to Washington for the next insult: able to account for only $20,000 of what he had spent from his own funds, he agreed to settle for that, plus his consultant’s pay for 15 months. He was offered a flat $2,500 for salary, travel time, and “expenses.” Take it or leave. The old fire of the Adams clan flamed anew, and Dr. Adams stalked out.

At this low ebb, the Navy leaped to the rescue. Its experts had been following his progress carefully, and now Gen. Howlin’ Mad Smith whipped off a letter to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox: “Dr. Lytle S. Adams will present this note. He has a most interesting and highly efficient scheme for burning homes, factories, etc. . . . At first it might appear fantastic, but I am morally certain that you, too, will see the merit of the scheme. Kindest personal regards. Holland S.”

Knox was already familiar with the plan in outline, and no time was lost in transferring the plan to the Navy under its new name, “Project X-Ray.”

With old Howlin’ Mad at the helm, Dr. Adams at last discovered what full cooperation could mean. Experts worked out the production problems on containers, parachutes, and container releases. The release designs had offered a few bugs. Originally, a barometric device released the bottom of the container at 1,000 feet, leaving the bat compartments to drop out under their own weight. To this was now added a small charge of compressed air, to be released when the bottom dropped away—trays which might otherwise stick would be firmly but gently blown out. As fast as production plans were completed, the items were farmed out to sub-contractors. One snag that threatened to hold up the manufacture of bomb capsules was licked by Larry Crosby of Bing Crosby Enterprises when he discovered he had just the right machinery in their war-production plant under the grandstand of the Del Mar Race Track.

In the meantime the Navy leased four caves in Texas which offered a total population of some 75,000,000 bats, and proceeded to enclose them in saboteur and spy-tight fences. To trap a million bats when they emerged from their caves with empty stomachs, it was only necessary to dip small nets into the spiraling horde as it whooshed out with a powerful roar. Project X-Ray had started late in July. By September, after one false start, three successful “bombing runs” were completed over the El Centro, California desert under the personal supervision of Howlin’ Mad and Area Commander Brig. Gen. Lewis Merritt. So jubilant were the Marines that the chief of ordinance wired Dr. Adams: “This is the greatest weapon every dropped from an airplane.”

And with that glowing praise, the ax fell again: an order came down to suspend the project indefinitely. Howlin’ Mad lived up to his name, and would not quit when his sizzling letters to Washington were answered with polite evasion.

“I can’t go myself,” he told Dr. Adams, “but you get back to Washington and straighten this out. Somebody there doesn’t realize what this project means. I’ll give you a letter to Admiral of the Fleet King himself.”

“My clear Admiral,” it read “This letter will introduce Dr. Lytle S. Adams who has been concerned with what we term Bat Incendiary for approximately I8 months. Members of my staff and I have observed the development of this baby, and we feel wholly confident that Dr. Adams has a powerful weapon. I beg of you to give Dr. Adams an interview and give him every assistance possible. Sincerely yours, H. M. Smith.”

Dr. Adams was sustained by one conviction on his trip to Washington. “Just one plane-load of my bats to the island, and all the fantastic waste of life will be over. The bats will find their way into caves, ammunition dumps, fuel tanks, barracks. There will be no more Guadalcanals. Then the Tokyo raid, and the war will have to end.”

But Admiral King’s door was closed. For two weeks, Dr. Adams bombarded him with letters and phone calls—all were ignored. As the days slipped by, the silence seemed to deepen…until the last letter came. Signed by the Admiral himself, it concluded: “With reference to your suggestion of a personal discussion, it appears no useful purpose could be served thereby, inasmuch as the matter has been disposed of on the basis of military considerations, which could not of course be altered by anything that might be said in such discussion. I therefore consider the matter closed.”

And closed it was. Just to make sure it was closed, another letter came from Vice Admiral McCain, deputy chief of naval operations: “My dear Dr. Adams: You are hereby notified officially that your services are no longer required by the Navy Department. You are requested to turn over to the commanding officer, Marine Corps Air Station, El Centro. Cal., all Navy property in your possession, particularly official photographs, moving pictures, and any letters setting forth your status with the project with which you were recently connected.  You are further notified that you are not to disclose further anything regarding this project to anyone not now connected with this project.”

Officially then, Dr. Adams and Project X-Ray were wiped out, with not even a document to prove he and it had existed. The debts were there, but no paymaster had ever heard of them. On the day Dr. Adams got his cold letter, bulldozers plowed under the the accumulation of empty bomb cases and equipment, leaving not one stone to mark the grave of Project X-Ray.

What had happened?

For the next two years Dr. Adams went frantic with worry. Came Saipan, Tarawa, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima, each one easy prey to a plane-load of bats, and each one an appalling cemetery for American troops.

Then came Hiroshima and Nagasaki to shed some light on the sudden death of Project X-Ray. The all-out, definitive weapon had arrived at last. Too late for the dead on all the islands and all over the world, but in ample time to avert an invasion of japan itself.

Was “The Bomb” the answer to the shelving of Project X-Ray?

The answer is apparently buried as deep as the dead, and as permanently.

This story ends in bitter anti-climax. For his services to the nation and the expenditure of more than $60,000 of his own money, Dr. Adams was rewarded with exactly $1,600. His home in Irwin had to be sold to settle debts and tax claims, and his wife, driven frantic by worry, collapsed and died. His country gives no sign that she is ready to repay him.

Dr. Adams is a resilient and resourceful man, however. When he was 65—he is now 76—he started all over with a new invention, a system of aerial pellet-seeding that has brought rich growths of grass to barren grazing land. Success in his endeavor did not come cheaply—debts forced Dr. Adams back into active dental practice six years ago. He has another project underway, too—the Long-Bell Lumber Company will manufacture and sell his recently-patented home-heating system—and has taken a young wife. Their three-year-old son, the good doctor’s ninth child, is 49 years younger than his oldest son. For all of the Adams clan, young and youthfully mature, the future looks bright …

… but somewhere in the background one can hear the mutterings of firebrand Sam Adams, and acid-tongued John and eloquent Charles. “In our day,” they seem to be saying, “we didn’t treat patriots like this. We might have been slow with the cash. but at least we always said ‘Thank you.'”

Eugene Burns with George Scullin

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