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Futility Closet

Feb 12, 2018

During World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with a bizarre plan: using live bats to firebomb Japanese cities. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the crazy history of the bat bomb, the extraordinary brainchild of a Pennsylvania dentist.

We'll also consider the malleable nature of mental illness and puzzle over an expensive quiz question.


Ever since George Washington, American presidents have hated the job.

Harpsichordist Johann Schobert composed a series of "puzzle minuets" that could be read upside down.

Sources for our feature on the bat bomb:

Jack Couffer, Bat Bomb, 1992.

James M. Powles, "Lytle S. Adams Proposed One of America's Battiest Weapons," World War II 17:2 (July 2002), 62.

Robert M. Neer, "Bats Out of Hell," MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 25:4 (Summer 2013), 22-24.

C.V. Glines, "Bat & Bird Bombers," Aviation History 15:5 (May 2005), 38-44.

Stephan Wilkinson, "10 of History's Worst Weapons," Military History 31:1 (May 2014), 42-45.

"Holy Smokes, Batman!" Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 49:2 (March 1993), 5.

Alexis C. Madrigal, "Old, Weird Tech: The Bat Bombs of World War II," Atlantic, April 14, 2011.

Toni Kiser, "Bat Bomb Tests Go Awry," National WWII Museum, May 15, 2013.

Joanne Grant, "Did They Have Bats in the Belfry? WWII Team Created Novel Bomb to Defeat Japan," [Bergen County, N.J.] Record, Oct. 27, 1996, A31.

"Air Force Scrapped Top Secret 'Bat Bomb' Project in Carlsbad 70 Years Ago," Carlsbad [N.M.] Current-Argus, May 26, 2014.

Curt Suplee, "Shot Down Before It Could Fly," Washington Post, Nov. 16, 1992, D01.

T. Rajagopalan, "Birds and Animals in War and Peace," Alive 401 (March 2016), 92-93.

Cara Giaimo, "The Almost Perfect World War II Plot To Bomb Japan With Bats," Atlas Obscura, Aug. 5, 2015.

The total loss due to the Carlsbad fire was $6,838, nearly $100,000 today, and the cause was listed as "explosion of incendiary bomb materials." Base fire marshal George S. Young wrote to the base commander: "In-as-much as the work being done under Lt. Col. Epler was of a confidential nature, and everyone connected with this base had been denied admission, it is impossible for me to determine the exact cause of the fire, but my deduction is that an explosion of incendiary bomb material cause the fire."

Listener mail:

Ethan Watters, "The Americanization of Mental Illness," New York Times Magazine, Jan. 8, 2010.

Neel Burton, "The Culture of Mental Illness," Psychology Today, June 6, 2012.

J.J. Mattelaer and W. Jilek, "Koro -- The Psychological Disappearance of the Penis," Journal of Sexual Medicine 4:5 (September 2007), 1509-1515.

Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Shaped the Modern World, 2016.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Alexander Rodgers. Here are three corroborating links (warning -- these spoil the puzzle).

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!