December 07, 1992 12:00 PM

THEY WERE THE FOOT SOLDIERS OF World War II, shivering in the snows of the Ardennes, slogging through the jungles of Leyte or, in the case of the Army’s Pvt. Jack Couffer, up to his ankles in bat guano.

Now, fighting for shelf space with more heroic 50th-anniversary books about the war, comes Couffer’s Bat Bomb (University of Texas Press), detailing one of the weirdest footnotes in the annals of combat. Couffer, a 17-year-old high school student in Glen-dale, Calif., was recruited in 1942 to take part in top-secret Project X-Ray, the brainchild of Lytle S. Adams, an oral surgeon from Irwin, Pa. Adams’s notion, basically, was to devise a featherweight incendiary bomb that could be attached to thousands of bats, which would be released over the Japanese industrial city of Osaka, where many of the houses and buildings were built of paper and lightweight wood. The bats, doing their bit for the war effort, were to nest in rafters, explode and leave the city in flames. “It seemed crazy even at the time,” says Couffer, a bat enthusiast who would go on to a career as a film producer and director (The Incredible Journey and Living Free). “But people born after the war don’t realize the sense of desperation that pervaded the country.”

Couffer’s role was to procure thousands of bats, which he cheerfully did, plucking them from reeking caves in Texas and New Mexico. Far from being a crackpot scheme, X-Ray worked only too well. When a half-dozen bomb-equipped bats escaped at a New Mexico air base in June 1943, they headed for the control tower and, 15 minutes later, set it ablaze. But in 1944 the Navy, which had taken over the project, mysteriously abandoned it. Couffer, now 68 and dividing time between his home in Corona del Mar, Calif., and a hideaway in Kenya, believes it was because of progress in developing the atom bomb. “We never knew the whole story,” he says. “It’s hard to speculate whether X-Ray could have ended the war, but I do know this—it was definitely a one-shot deal.”

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