Written by Kevin Jennings
One of the main sources of innovation throughout history has been war. Efforts to outgun and outwit the opponent demand intensive research and ingenuity. Even when technology is already in development, war can dramatically accelerate the timeline, allowing great feats to be accomplished in mere years that would normally have taken decades. Along those lines, World War II is to thank for advancements such as radar, computers, and wide access to penicillin. But not all ideas pan out the way that inventors and other such dreamers hoped they would. Today we’ll be looking at some of the strangest attempts at military innovation from the second World War.
Imagine being able to start thousands of fires simultaneously across an area of 40 miles (64 km) and the devastation it would cause. Loss of life may be minimal, but destruction to buildings and infrastructure would be immense, compounded by overloading the firefighting capabilities of a nation that is not prepared to fight so many fires at once in such close proximity. This was the theory behind the United States’ attempt at bat fueled incendiary devices.
The idea did not come from the military itself, but rather from Lytle S. Adams, a dental surgeon from Pennsylvania. He was an acquaintance of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, most likely the reason his letter to the president was read at all. Barely a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Adams wrote to President Roosevelt with a crazy idea full of anti-bat propaganda. In his letter, Adams stated that bats were the “lowest form of animal life” and that “reasons for its creation remained unexplained”. He went on to claim that bats were created by God for this very moment in history, so that his insane plan of unleashing bat powered terror on Japan could be realized. Despite the ridiculous nature of the idea, Roosevelt stated, “This man is not a nut. It sounds like a perfectly wild idea but is worth looking into.” And with that, the project was approved to be tested by the United States Army Air Force.
So what exactly was the plan? Adams knew that most of the buildings in Tokyo were built using wood, rather than concrete. The plan was to drop a canister containing over 1,000 hibernating bats, each with a timed explosive glued to their chest. As the canister fell, the sides would detach, releasing the bats that would then fly off and roost in attics around the city. The original plan was to use white phosphorous, though it was eventually replaced with the newly invented napalm.
Tests were conducted at Carlsbad Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base, chosen because of its proximity to Carlsbad Caverns from where the bats were harvested. On May 15, 1943, armed bats were accidentally released and roosted around the base, particularly under a fuel tank. The errant bats ignited a conflagration across the military base. While this accident could have been taken as a positive proof of concept, the bats also destroyed a general’s car. None too pleased with this development, the Army transferred this project to the Navy, who then transferred it to the Marines later that same year.
After 2 years and around $2 million dollars in research and testing ($32 million dollars today) the project was finally shelved in 1944. It was believed that the bat bombs would not be ready until mid 1945, and that this time and money would be better spent trying to develop nuclear weapons as fast as possible. With the project never coming to fruition, Lytle Adams sadly died without ever figuring out why God created bats.
Pigeon Guided Missiles
It would seem that mankind has no qualms with filling military weapons with animals that are generally considered pests. Electronic guidance systems for missiles had not yet been developed during World War II, so American behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner set to work putting those pesky pigeons to work. Carrier pigeons date back to the 5th century B.C., so the notion of training pigeons for aid in mankind’s endeavors had a proven history of success.
Called “Project Pigeon”, the idea was to house one to three live pigeons inside a missile carrying an explosive warhead. The missiles were not powered, and instead operated as small gliders that would be controlled by trained pigeons. The National Defense Research Committee thought the idea was impractical and eccentric, contributing only $25,000 to the research. Despite this, Skinner did see some level of success in training the pigeons.
The pigeons were trained by being shown images of bombing targets on a screen. When the pigeon pecked at the target, birdseed would dispense. The training was nearly as simple as the construction of the gliders themselves. The glider contained a screen that would show the pigeon where the bomb was headed. This screen was attached to pivots so that it could be moved. The pigeon would continually peck at the target, and if the missile started to drift thus causing the image to move towards the edge of one of the screens, the pressure from the pigeon onto the screen would make it pivot, which would in turn adjust the wings of the glider. As the missile’s course was readjusted, the pigeon would peck back at the center of the screen, bringing the screen back to its normal orientation.
While this reasonably should have worked with a fair level of efficacy, the results were not immediate enough for the military’s liking, and they felt that funds were better directed towards projects that would yield more immediate results. There was a practical issue as well. While bat bombs would have required a constant supply of bats, they simply had napalm explosives glued to their bellies. Beyond that, the bats were only intended to do what bats normally do. These missiles would require not only a steady supply of pigeons prepared to take a one way trip, but also to continually be training new pigeons to properly steer the missiles. Regardless of any other obstacles, Skinner commented that their biggest problem was that “no one would take [them] seriously.”
Despite Project Pigeon being canceled in late 1944, the Navy did see the promise that this project had. In 1948 the program was revived under the name “Project Orcon”, short for organic control. This project was also canceled in 1953, on account of the creation of reliable electronic missile guidance systems rendering militarily trained pigeons obsolete.
Fu-Go Balloon Bombs
Wouldn’t it be nice to bomb your enemies from the comfort of your own home? Introducing the Fu-Go Balloon Bombs, the world’s very first intercontinental weapon, although we do have to use the term “weapon” a bit loosely. The Fu-Go, or “fire balloon”, was designed to be a cheap weapon that could evade radar because of its tiny size and utilize the jet stream as a delivery system.
The 33 foot (10 meter) balloons were filled with hydrogen and equipped with either an antipersonnel bomb or incendiary bomb. The plan was to release the balloons beginning in November of 1944 when the jet stream was at maximum velocity, capable of carrying a balloon across the Pacific Ocean in just three days. Not only was this the best time in terms of speed, but North American weather conditions also meant it was the time these balloons would be the least likely to cause forest fires. The goal of the balloons was to instill widespread terror among the citizens of the United States, not to burn down the nation’s wildlife. If the Japanese had any idea what was going to happen the following August, they may not have chosen to be so courteous.
Over 9,000 of these paper balloons were sent into the sky and, as the Japanese predicted, roughly 10% of those made their way to North America. Despite the bombs successfully crossing all the way across the Pacific, they did not have the desired effect and caused no real serious damage. A few news stories were run on the mysterious balloons, but the Office of Censorship quickly reached out to media outlets requesting that they no longer print or broadcast any stories regarding the balloons both because they did not want the Japanese to hear the news and believe that their plan was successful, and because they did not want to stir public panic.
Unfortunately, there was a single fatal incident resulting from these balloons that could have been prevented had people been warned. Pastor Archie Mitchell, his pregnant wife, and five of their Sunday school students ages 11-14 had traveled to the Gearhart Mountain in Oregon for a picnic. Archie let the others out of the car to find a picnic spot while he went to park. While looking for a spot, the group stumbled upon one of the Fu-Go balloons that had landed in the mountains and began playing with it. It exploded killing the pregnant woman and all five children. Following this incident, the media was allowed to report on the balloons to prevent any further harm to civilians.
While the bombs did not rain fire and explosions down upon North America as the Japanese intended, the American military was not going to let these attacks stands. It was known that the Japanese were experimenting with biological warfare, and in fact the Imperial Army’s Norobito Institute had produced enough cowpox to infect the entire United States, as well as cultivating other biological weapons like anthrax. Fortunately, Emperor Hirohito rejected the deployment of biological weapons in the balloons.
The Americans were unaware of that last point, but it didn’t matter. Aerial reconnaissance missions were able to quickly identify two of the three hydrogen production plants that were fueling the balloons, and they were destroyed in raids from B-29 bombers.
As crazy a plan as this may sound, the Japanese were not the first to use balloons in World War II. Britain had previously used balloons to bomb Germany. Their balloons were much more crude, but they were also much more successful, particularly because they had a lot shorter distance to travel.
The Wind Cannon was one of Nazi Germay’s “Wunderwaffe”, or “wonder weapon”. The term was used by the propaganda ministry to describe some of the incredible and revolutionary weapons being developed for the war, such as the V-2 rocket. As the name might imply, it was a cannon designed to shoot wind.
Three feet in diameter and 35 feet long, the wind cannon was essentially just a giant cast iron tube that curved at the end. A shell of hydrogen and ammonia was packed into the tube, and once detonated it would create a massive blast of air that the Nazi scientists hoped would be able to take down low flying aircraft. Tests on ground structures showed that the wind cannon was able to do some damage, so the only way to test its effectiveness was to try it out in the field.
The cannon was installed on a bridge over the River Elbe, but it failed to have any effect on planes, even low flying ones. The turbulence created was not enough to knock a plane out of the sky, and there is no indication it was even enough of a disturbance for the pilots to feel. This was unfortunate for the soldiers operating the wind cannon, because while the blast of wind may not have been enough to be felt, the 35 foot pipe pointing into the sky was certainly enough to see.
Even if the wind cannon had been an effective weapon, its giant size was a massive liability. It was easy to spot from a long distance away, which meant that those manning the cannon were easy targets for enemy soldiers.
Along the same lines as the wind cannon was the vortex gun. It also intended to use wind to shoot down planes, but the vortex gun was going to do it by creating small tornados. Shockingly enough, in perfect laboratory conditions the weapon seemed to be effective to a range of 300 meters. It was a longer range than the wind cannon, but still only suitable for low flying aircraft. The vortex gun may have been effective in perfect conditions, but neither war nor nature are prone to providing perfect conditions, least of all at the same time, and the weapon was never tested against enemy planes.
Originally developed in 1943 by chemist Private Ernest Crocker, the “Who, Me?” was a military grade stink bomb developed by the United States to be sent to the French Resistance for use. While originally working on poisonous gases, an undoubtedly more effective weapon, Crocker was recruited to work on stink bombs instead. The project was being headed up by the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA.
Their plan was for the French to spray German soldiers with these stink bombs, leaving them embarrassed and lowering their morale. It took months testing the worst smells in the world for Crocker to come up on the final combination that would be deployed in the Who, Me? The formula was a cocktail of disgusting odors including vomit, rancid butter, urine, feces, foot odor, and rotten eggs.
Producing the spray proved problematic, and the technicians at the Maryland Research Laboratories who were responsible for designing the packaging found themselves covered in the stench on a daily basis. The person spraying the aerosolized scent frequently wound up smelling worse than their target, and after less than two weeks the project was deemed a failure and scrapped. Some 600 cans had been produced and were still intended to be sent to the French, problematic design and all, but the war ended before they were ever used.
As silly a weapon as fart spray may seem, it is actually something still employed by the United States military in their arsenal of non-lethal weapons. The U.S. Government Standard Bathroom Malodor is designed to smell of human feces, but much stronger. In some laboratory tests, subjects would start to scream after being exposed to the scent for even a few seconds, despite it being harmless.
Geoffrey Pyke was an English journalist and inventor. While never serving actively in the military, he was heavily involved in both the first and second world wars. In World War I, Pyke traveled to Germany as a war reporter. Unfortunately, he did so with falsified credentials and wound up arrested. After spending time in three different prisons, he was finally sent to an internment camp from which he and another Englishman would successfully escape over a year later.
During World War II, he proposed many plans and inventions for the British military, but none was more famous than his namesake, pykrete. Pykrete is ice with bits of wood pulp frozen inside it. Specifically, if it is six parts water and one part wood pulp. While ice is brittle and easily broken, Pyke discovered that, for reasons he did not understand (though modern science does), the pykrete was immensely strong. Despite being 84% ice, the material was bulletproof and was over twice as strong as concrete while weighing less than half as much.
That is, if Pyke’s numbers are to be believed. There is a lot of debate over the actual durability of pykrete. Both the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters and the BBC’s Bang Goes the Theory tested the material and made their own stronger versions using newspaper and hemp respectively. Pykrete was indeed much stronger than ice and even bulletproof, and both shows versions displayed improved durability over Pyke’s original wood pulp design. But could Pyke’s crazy plan actually work?
His plan was to construct a giant aircraft carrier entirely out of pykrete. When we say giant, the design was closer to that of a floating island than of a naval vessel. Pykrete was cheap, easy to produce, and incredibly strong. Surely nothing could go wrong with this plan. Fortunately, the military decided that the existing compliment of carriers and auxiliary carriers could perform the same tasks that this single glacier would perform, and more efficiently. It’s a good thing they didn’t move forward with his plans, because when the Mythbusters created a ship out of their super pykrete, it took all of 20 minutes in real world conditions to melt enough that they needed to quickly return to shore.