Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Bats in the Bomber Belly (redux)

Sharon Wildwind

Life has gotten more than a tad crazy in the past week, so I'm doing something I've never done before: reposting a previous blog that I originally wrote in 2007. I figured since yesterday was Halloween, a bat-theme blog was still appropriate.

During World War II there was an experimental program to use bats to burn down houses in Japan. The plan was to strap incendiary devices to thousands of bats, then drop them from airplanes flying over Japan. So the theory went, the bats would attempt to nest in crevices in the houses, which were made of wood and rice paper. A timer would activate the fire-starter in the device, thus setting fire to both house and bat.

I couldn’t do justice to the scope and strangeness of this project any better than Wikipedia has already done, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bat_bomb so if you’re really interested in this $2 million dollar—those were 1940s dollars, folks—project that succeeded in burning down it’s own research station, read the article.

Even though this is the second blog I’ve written about bat creatures—the other one was about Batman—I am not enamored of bats. In fact, I know virtually nothing about mammals in the order Chiroptera. Were I to turn this into a mystery, extensive research would be needed. I'd have to find a bat expert and send them a letter something like this.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am a mystery writer and am currently doing research about incendiary-carrying bats during World War II. My protagonist is a technical sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, who is responsible for experimental bat deployment. Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

1. Could thousands of bats be housed in an Army Air Corps hanger?
2. Would they be satisfied with fruit, or would they have to be fed live creatures, such as mice? How much fruit/how many mice would be needed per bat per day?
3. Do bats need exercise? If they were released from the hanger each night for a bat fly-by, are they like homing pigeons? Would they return to the hanger at dawn, or would my sergeant have to go out and capture new ones?
4.How do you tell a male bat from a female bat, and would it be a prudent to provide separate hangers for each gender? How do you tell if a bat is pregnant? What is the gestation period for a bat?
5. What is the colony structure? Is there an alpha bat?
6. For each test bomb, my sergeant will have to arm and package 1,040 bats into 26 trays, each of which will contain 40 bats. I envision this as a little like wrapping tortillas: attach miniature incendiary device to bat’s body, roll bat’s wings around body, stuff into compartment on the tray. Could you make a time estimate of how long it would take to do this 1,040 times.
7. Is it possible to die from acute guano poisoning? What are the symptoms? Is there any antidote or treatment?

Thank you in advance. I remain
Confused in Canada

If that letter were sent to real bat experts, I know I’d get a thoughtful reply. As mystery writers, we are the recipients of such largess. If you don’t believe me, check out the acknowledgments page of any mystery and you’ll see kudos to lawyers, scientists, forensic technicians, physicians, police officers, reference librarians, and an unending array of specialists.

These busy professionals take time to answer our questions, and we can ask pretty scary questions. Ask a farmer questions about his placid duck pond, and he knows we're going to drop a body into it. Ask a cook for a tasty dessert recipe, and she knows we're licking our lips not because of her creation, but because we know the spices will conceal the taste of poison. Ask a police office what's hardest about his job, and if he trust you, he'll give you an answer so exquisitely heart-breaking tht you know you'll never do justice to it in fiction—but you're sure going to try.

Our "sources" answer our questions with charm and grace. All they ever ask in return is that we get it right. That our arraignments and preliminary hearings flow with due legal process. That our obscure poisons display the correct equally-obscure symptoms. That evidence chain-of-custodies remain unbroken. In short, that we honor and respect in our fiction the work that they do as professionals in the real world.

So kudos and a great-big thank-you to all of the people who take time to make us better informed writers. We literally could not do it without you.
Writing Quote for the Week:
So where do you go to find a researcher who is intelligent, imaginative, skilled in the use of computers, devoted to discovering the truth, and knowledgeable about science, technology, history, and literature, and who usually works for dirt and gets credit for nothing? After lunch, I drove to the city library on Main and asked the reference librarian...
~James Lee Burke; Last Train to Elysian Fields

Bat image courtesy of Jacci Howard Bear, About Desktop Publishing, http://desktoppub.about.com.

1 comment:

Sandra Parshall said...

I *like* bats! And I hate the thought of them being used as incendiary device transport systems.

Bats don't eat mice, so no need to worry about that angle. Most species eat insects caught on the fly. Some drink nectar or eat fruit (and the fruit eaters are pretty!). We won't talk about the vampire bat's habits -- why let one species with revolting dietary preferences color our perception of all bats?