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
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
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
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
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
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