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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Saltpeter and Bat Bombs

by Clay Coppedge

Some enterprising Chinese alchemists invented gunpowder in the 9th century, which made a big difference in that country's fortunes until people in other countries figured out how to make it, too. It's not hard. All you need is saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal.

It also helps if you have millions of bats because guano (dried bat feces) breaks down into saltpeter - or potassium nitrate to you chemists.

Texas has millions and millions of bats and hundreds of bat caves. Bracken Cave, near San Antonio, is home to 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats every summer. It's the largest Mexican free-tailed bat colony in the world that's open to the public. The second largest such bat colony in the world is west of Bracken, near Concan in Uvalde County, where the Frio Cave is home to another 10 million or so bats.

These two caves and as many as a couple of dozen others in Texas became defacto ammunition plants during the Civil War because 30 million bats produce an awful lot of guano, which produces a lot of gunpowder, which the Confederacy needed in the worst way after a Union blockade cut off supplies of gunpowder and everything else.

The Hill Country was well-suited to produce saltpeter (also spelled saltpetre) for the lost cause not only because of its millions of bats and the tons of guano they produced but because enterprising souls in the Hill Country made charcoal by burning cedar. An item in the Richmond Times Dispatch of Dec. 30, 1861 noted the sudden interest in saltpeter: "The Houston (Texas) Telegraph learns that an effort is being made in Burnet to manufacture gunpowder, and that it is likely to prove successful. A cave was discovered, not long since, in Burnet County, which was said to contain saltpetre in an almost pure state. A. Mr. Foster of Burnet visited the cave, taking with him a few pots, and in about two weeks he returned with 150 pounds of pure saltpetre. He at once set about the manufacture of powder, and we are promised a specimen of the result."

Frio Cave is an interesting example of how the "local industrialists" of the day mined saltpeter, and it's one place where you can see evidence of this particular enterprise in the form of ruins from the drying kilns used in the process. A narrow-gauge railway with mule-drawn cars hauled guano from the cave, and workers dug pits to make charcoal. They saved one room of the cave as a corral for the mules. Local farmers later mined the cave's guano for fertilizer until cheaper and more efficient fertilizers came along that didn't require mucking around in guano all day.

Eighty years after the Civil War, the U.S. Army eyed the Hill Country caves as proving grounds for a new secret weapon in the war effort - bats. The idea was to see how feasible it would be to turn bats into tiny incendiary bombs that could then be dropped on Japan, setting much of the country on fire and thus demoralizing the Japanese people. Bat bombs. You can't make this stuff up.

The plan involved refrigerating the bats into hibernation and then outfitting them with tiny parcels of napalm and itty bitty parachutes and then dropping them on Japanese cities, which would burn to the ground as the bats flew hither and yon, sparking small explosions wherever they went. It would've worked if only…actually, it never had a chance.

The first problem was getting the bats to go into and emerge from hibernation on schedule. Also, the itty bitty napalm bombs needed to be even smaller and the parachutes needed to be bigger. During a trial run in the states, most of the bats hit the ground without ever waking up. A few bats survived the free fall and flew into the nearest buildings just like they were supposed to.

Unfortunately, the nearest buildings were airport hangars at a brand new U.S. airfield. One disrespectful bat flew into a general's car, incinerating it and putting an end to the whole batty idea. So the army turned its attention to another secret weapon called the atomic bomb.

If you still think I'm making this up, check out the fascinating and funny book "Bat Bomb: World War II's Other Secret Weapon" by Jack Couffer, a documented and first-hand account of the project by the youngest member of the World War II bat team.

And remember this: it's non-fiction.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" September 3, 2017 column

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