Animals have often been used in battle throughout history, mostly as a means of transportation. But what happens when you use them as transportation for bombs? Though good for giving members of the SPCA apoplectic fits, the benefits of animals used in the military have an interesting history. What follows are two rather unique uses for animals during World War II.
Pigeons as Bomb Guidance Systems
During World War II, the U.S. air force developed a new type of bomb – a glide bomb. Instead of falling straight on a target, it would instead float at an angle towards its target, guided by a variety of tools (such as infrared, radar, or flare targets). Burrhus Frederic Skinner, a well-known behaviorist, thought of a brilliant new way to guide these missiles during World War II using pigeons. He’d already trained them to dance, do figure eights, or play tennis – why not guide bombs?
Starting in 1942, PROJECT PIGEON aimed to get specially trained birds to guide a bomb within six meters of its target. It worked thus: First, three pigeons would be informed of a glide bomb, each compartment containing a little lens to view its target. Via classical conditioning, the pigeons would peck the center of the screen if it saw the target – otherwise, it would peck towards the target. Successful pecking would be rewarded with grains of seed. (It turned out that if fed marijuana instead of normal grain, the pigeons would be less easily disturbed from their task). If two of the three pigeons “agreed” to re-aim the bomb, the bomb would change direction. Then, of course, the bomb would explode…
So, was Skinner able to train his pigeons to pull off one more feat?
Yes, but thankfully for the pigeons, it was never used in combat. He demonstrated the power of his system in New Jersey to the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, only to find that no one took him seriously. Rather than realizing the awesome power of his guidance system, they simply thought it was amusing. Dubbed as ludicrous, the project was scrapped. The 24 pigeons that Skinner had trained went home with him to live in his garden.
Believe it or not, this was not to be the end of the idea of using pigeons as a targeting system. In 1948, the original PROJECT PIGEON files were declassified and unearthed by the U.S. Navy. Interested in the concept, they started Project Orcon, which ran for five years. Simulations showed that pigeons could be used to guide missiles, though they could become distracted by objects like clouds or waves. In 1953 the project was scrapped when electronic guidance systems were proved to be reliable. Since then, pigeons have not been used in any bombs or missiles.
Bats as Bombers
While Skinner was off training pigeons, a dentist by the name of Lytle S. Adams had a similar dream of aerial attacks via animals. Adams animal of choice was the bat. He theorized that you could put a large population of bats into a state of hibernation, strap an incendiary bomb to them, then drop them over a city. As the bats woke up, they would seek out a dark place to rest – preferably, the nooks and crannies of houses. A few minutes later, the bombs would explode, setting the whole city on fire.
Unlike Skinner’s plan, this one was somehow taken seriously. The program was okayed in 1942 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and soon the project went into development. Within a year a species of bat was picked, and Louise Fieser (the inventor of military napalm) had created a napalm bomb small enough to be strapped to the bat. The bats were to be dropped in little trays – 40 in each – that would float using parachutes. During this time, the bats would hopefully wake up.
Unfortunately, during initial tests many bats died due to failure to wake up and get out of the failing tray in time. In an ironic act of revenge, an auxiliary army base in Carlsbad, New Mexico was set on fire due to the accidental release of armed bats. By 1944 there were a few partially successful test runs of the bat bombs. However, the program was scrapped when it was discovered that it would not be usable until 1945 – and hopefully there would be an atom bomb at this point.
An estimated $2 million was spent on this project, in comparison to about $25,000 of funding for Skinner’s pigeons (not counting the funding that went into Project Orcon). Sometimes, governments fund the craziest things.