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The World War II Blogathon: «Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo» (1944)

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) begins in early 1942, when Lt. Col. James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy) calls for volunteers for a top-secret Army Air Force mission, following the surprise Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. One of the many men to offer his services is pilot Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson), who is sent for training at Eglin Field in Florida, along with his B-25 Mitchell crew, including gunner Cpl. David Thatcher (Robert Walker) and navigator Lt. Charles McClure (Don DeFore).

Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
During the first of many briefings, Doolittle informs the men that the mission they are about to undertake will be tough and dangerous, and encourages anyone with doubts to drop out. Ted's friend and fellow pilot Lt. Bob Gray (Robert Mitchum) suggests that he withdraw from the mission, since he recently got married, but Ted remains determined to go through with it.
Once their training ends, the men are sent to San Francisco, where the B-25 Mitchell bombers are loaded abroad the Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet. Doolittle finally reveals to the men that they will be conducting the first ever bombing mission on Japan, as retaliation for the raid on Pearl Harbor, and that the planes are to take off from the deck of the carrier.
Spencer Tracy as Lt. Col. Doolittle and the crew of «The Ruptured Duck».
As the Hornet approaches the Japanese mainland, it is spotted by an enemy picket boat, forcing the mission to start earlier than initially planned. Ted's aircraft, «The Ruptured Duck», has trouble with the left engine during takeoff, but manages to complete the task of dropping its bombs over Tokyo, before heading to their designated landing spot in the free Chinese coast.
As they are flying to China, a storm causes «The Ruptured Duck» to crash-land, resulting in a badly-injured crew. Soon after, sympathetic Chinese villagers carry the Americans to safety and they are then reunited with another crew at the local hospital. Ted is told that his leg, which has developed gangrene from being severely cut in the crash, must be amputated. Later, having recovered enough to be moved, Ted is evacuated to Chungking, before returning to the U.S. with his men. Ted's pregnant wife, Ellen (Phyllis Thaxter), receives a phone call from Doolittle, now hailed as a hero, and reunites with her husband at the hospital.
«We'll be back. Maybe not us ourselves, but a lotta guys like us, and I'd like to be with them. You're our kind of people.» (Lt. Ted Lawson)
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 came as a profound shock to the American people and led the U.S. to effectively enter World War II. By early 1942, the United States had surrendered major areas of the Philippines, lost Guam, admitted defeat at Wake Island and was preparing for the worst in Hawaii and on the West Coast. The American armed forces could not stop the Japanese, and the nation seemed paralyzed by the prospects of major theatre campaigns from Europe to the Pacific. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had revived people's spirits and lifted the nation out of economic depression, now had to regain the public's confidence to overcome the recent string of military disasters. The primary mission was to avenge Pearl Harbor and boost the American morale by bombing Japan as soon as possible.

On January 2, 1942, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle was assigned to Army Air Forces Headquarters to plan and lead the first retaliatory air raid on the Japanese main islands after Pearl Harbor. Doolittle assembled 16 volunteer flight crews, which were to take off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet aboard B-25 bombers and target the cities of Tokyo, Kobe, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya. The concept for the attack had come from Navy Captain Francis S. Low, who had heard about using aircraft carriers to transport land-based planes to North Africa. Once they were in range of a friendly airfield, the aircraft would fly off the carrier. Low thought American forces could exploit this idea, but instead of delivering planes, they would be used to attack Japan. Government, Army and Navy worked together to ensure the success of the mission.
LEFT: B-25 Mitchell bombers abroad USS Hornet on the day of the Doolittle Raid. RIGHT: Doolittle (front row, first from left) and his flight crew on the deck of Hornet.

On March 1, the B-25 crews flew to Eglin Field, Florida to received intensive training in simulated carrier deck take-offs, low-level and night flying, low-altitude bombing and over water navigation. Three weeks later, they proceeded to California for inspection at the Sacramento Air Depot, followed by a short final flight to Naval Air Station Alameda to be loaded onto USS Hornet. In total, there were 71 officers and 130 enlisted men aboard the Hornet. The carrier and her escorts, collectively called Task Force 18, got underway from San Francisco Bay in the morning of April 2.
Two weeks later, on April 18, while the task force was still about 650 nautical miles (1,200 km) from the coast, it was sighted by a Japanese patrol boat, which radioed an attack warning to the mainland. After the boat was sunk by gunfire from USS Nashville, one of Hornet's escorts, Doolittle decided to launch the B-25s immediately. Although they encountered anti-aircraft fire and a few enemy fighters over Japan, no B-25 was shot down and they all bombed their respective targets. Fifteen of the planes then proceeded to their recovery airfields in China, while one crew chose to head instead to the Soviet Union due to low fuel. 
LEFT: A B-25 Mitchell taking off from USS Hornet for the raid. RIGHT: Doolittle (center) with his flight crew and Chinese officials after their bail-out near Quzhou, China.
The raiders faced unforeseen challenges during their flight to China — it was nighttime, the weather was stormy and they were unable to locate their landing fields. After about 12 hours in the air, the fuel was running low and there was no real possibility of a safe landing. In the end, all 15 crews managed to reach the Chinese coast by either crash-landing or bailing out. Most men were helped through the Japanese lines by Chinese civilians and soldiers, but others were not so fortunate: seven crew members lost their lives, four as a result of being captured and tortured by the Japanese and three due to a plane crash or while parachuting. 
Upon his return to the United States, Doolittle was hailed as a hero and received the Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt at the White House. Although the damage done was minor, the raid showed the Japanese that their homeland was vulnerable to air attack and forced them to withdraw from several Pacific war zones. Most significantly, Japanese commanders considered the raid deeply embarrassing and their attempt to strengthen their defensive position in the South Pacific led directly to the decisive American victory at the Battle of Midway in June 1942.
LEFT: Doolittle receiving the Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt. RIGHT: Maj. Gen. Milliard F. Harmon giving the Distinguished Flying Cross to 1st Lt. Charles L. McClure. Next to him is 1st Harold F. Watson of  the «Whirling Dervish» and 1st Lt. Ted Lawson.

One of the pilots that took part in the Doolittle Raid was Lt. Ted Lawson, who flew an aircraft nicknamed «The Ruptured Duck». Lawson and his crew were forced to crash their plane off the coast of the small island of Nantien due to an engine failure. All five crew members survived the crash, but four sustained serious injuries. Lawson was thrown through the windscreen of the bomber, suffering severe facial injuries, a compound fracture of the left leg and a lacerated left bicep. After he was transported to safety by friendly Chinese, his infected leg had to be amputated. He was eventually repatriated back to the United States, where he had to undergo a second amputation of his leg and reconstruction of his lower face. During his recuperation, Lawson was made a Captain in accordance with Doolittle's recommendation that all raiders be promoted one grade. Doolittle himself was promoted two grades to Brigadier General.
LEFT: Ted Lawson (front row, first from left) and the crew of «The Ruptured Duck.» RIGHT: Ted Lawson shaking hands with Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau after receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross, which was awarded to all 80 Doolittle Raiders.

In January 1943, Lawson and newspaper columnist Bob Considine decided to write a book about the Doolittle Raid, titled Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. The entire story was worked out in about a week, although publishing approval was not given until April, when the War Department released information about the raid to the general public. The memoir was initially serialized in six issues by Collier's magazine, between May and June, before being published in hardback «wartime book» format by Random House later that year.
Soon after the serialization of Thirty Second Over Tokyo, Lawson contacted MGM producer Sam Zimbalist and presented him with the idea of a possible screen adaptation of the story. Like most Hollywood studios during World War II, MGM was doing its part by making pictures about the major campaigns. The Doolittle Raid had been an important morale boost for the nation, so Zimbalist immediately made a deal to purchase the film rights from Lawson for $100,000.
LEFT: Title page of the first edition of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. RIGHT: Dalton Trumbo (far left) with Cpt. Ted Lawson (with cane) in 1943.
To pen the script for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, MGM hired Dalton Trumbo, who had just written another wartime drama, A Guy Named Joe (1943), starring Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne and Van Johnson. Trumbo worked closely with Lawson to make his characters and the details of their mission as accurate as possible. He was also allowed to study the briefing papers from the training sessions, fly on a B-25, and examine every aspect of the plane and every crewman's job on it. He wanted this to be «a picture which every service man will recognize as authentic — which every service man will find reassuring, even comforting — and which every American will view with a sense of pride and heightened determination 
Trumbo finished his script in mid-June 1943 and it was then sent to the Production Code Administration (PCA) and the Office of War Information (OWI) for approval. The OWI was particularly pleased with Trumbo's depiction of the «genuine cooperation and friendship» between the American raiders and the Chinese, but the War Department expressed some concern about it being Communist Chinese guerillas who had carried the airmen to safety. To avoid possible «damaging repercussions» if the film emphasized that China as a nation was assisting American flyers out of enemy-occupied territory, the War Department warned MGM that «that angle should be reduced to a minimum.» In order words, they wanted to ensure that the Chinese rescuers were «non-partisans, humanitarian-inspired individuals
Publicity stills for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
Academy Award winner Spencer Tracy was offered the role of Doolittle, but he initially refused, as he did not want to be typecast as a heroic wartime figure. MGM briefly considered replacing him with Brian Donlevy, but Tracy finally accepted the part when his friend Van Johnson was cast as Lawson. With his surge of popularity following the release of A Guy Named Joe, MGM decided that Johnson was ready for the demanding lead in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. 
At the urging of his agent, who was a friend of director Mervyn LeRoy, newcomer Robert Mitchum was assigned to the role of Lt. Bob Gray. Mitchum claimed he tested thirty times for the part. At one point, LeRoy reportedly said, «You're either the best actor I've ever seen or the worst.» Robert Walker, who had recently appeared in another wartime drama, Bataan (1943), was cast as Lawson's flight engineer and turret gunner David Thatcher. Don DeFore, another alum of A Guy Named Joe, was given the role of Lt. Charles McClure, the navigator on «The Ruptured Duck.» Lawson's wife was played by Phyllis Thaxter, in her motion picture debut. 
LEFT: Ching Wah Lee and Robert Walker. RIGHT: Robert Mitchum and Van Johnson.
Production on Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo began in early February 1944. LeRoy wanted authentic backgrounds, so he arranged to shoot much of the film at Eglin Field, Florida, where Doolittle had trained his raiders for the mission. The Army offered MGM full cooperation and loaned the studio 12 B-25s for the production, supplying men to fly them as well. General Hap Arnolds, Doolittle and Lawson all served as technical advisers throughout filming.  
Much of the cast and crew were housed in the utilitarian barracks at Eglin Field. They took their meals from the mess line, showered communally and enjoyed all the perks of the average service men. During location shooting, many of the young actors bonded over their boredom and the tough living conditions. They also attracted the anger of some of the enlisted men, who resented them for not being in the service. As the drinking and the late-night partying increased, so did the conflict between the fake soldiers and the real ones. Apparently, at one point, Mitchum gave a brutal beating to a drunken sergeant who was verbally abusing Walker.
LEFT: Van Johnson, Mervyn LeRoy, Robert Walker and Maj. Dean Davenport (Lawson's co-pilot in the Doolittle Raid) on the set. RIGHT: Van Johnson filming a scene.
The company eventually returned to California and resumed filming at MGM's Culver City studios. Because the Navy could not supply an actual aircraft carrier for the shoot, a simulation of USS Hornet's flight deck was built on Stage 15. The set was large enough to hold four B-25s. The take-off scenes were created by building a scaled-down version of the deck, which was then put up in the studio's water tank. The special effects team could not generate waves large enough to model, so the carrier was attached to a hydraulic system that duplicated its movement at sea, while pumps pushed water past it. Miniature planes attached to piano wire were moved in synchronized patterns to replicate the take-offs. In post-production, this was combined with newsreel footage from the actual raid to add authenticity to the scenes. 
San Francisco and Oakland filled in for Japan in some aerial shots. The special effects team recreated the bombing by using footage from a fire in an oil refinery in East Oakland. The aerial approach to Tokyo was filmed by mounting cameras on the noses of several B-25s flown over the Pacific Ocean towards Los Angeles. Additionally, MGM's back lot served for the sequences in China, with the buildings, towering gates and a segment of the Great Wall that Cedric Gibbons had designed for The Good Earth (1937) substituting for the Chinese mainland. 
Filming the special effects in the MGM water tank.

Back in March 1943, Johnson had been involved in a serious car accident while driving to the MGM lot for a special screening of Keeper of the Flame (1943). Besides lacerating his face, neck and forehead, the crash damaged his skull so severely that doctors had to insert a metal plate in his head. He was left with a number of scars that plastic surgery of the time could not completely correct or conceal. Afterwards, he had to use heavy make-up to cover his forehead scars. For Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, this was not needed. Since images of the wounded Lawson were reminiscent of the actor's own brush with death, make-up artists simply let Johnson's real scars show rather than adding fake ones, ultimately enhancing the film's realism.
Original release posters for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo had its world premiere in New York and Chungking, China on November 15, 1944. The film was an immediate critical and commercial success. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times deemed it «a worthy example» of the blending of the real and the imagined in a war film — an explicit and clean telling of a true a story and «a warm romance.» The reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter called it «more than one of the greatest war pictures ever made ... [I]t is an all time winner. It has everything.» It was selected as the movie of the week by LIFE magazine and ended up winning the Oscar for Best Special Effects, in addition to a nomination for Best Cinematography (Black & White).
This post is my contribution to The World War II Blogathon hosted by Cinema Essentials and Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. To view all entries, click the links below.

Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical by Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo (University Press of Kentucky, 2015)
Robert Mitchum: «Baby I Don't Care» by Lee Server (St. Martin's Griffin, 2002)
The Doolittle Raid 1942: America's first strike back at Japan by Clayton K. S. Chun (Osprey Publishing, 2006)
Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy by Ronald L. Davis (University Press of Mississippi, 2001)
TCM's articles on Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo 
TCM's notes on Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo


  1. Very interesting. Reading this it makes me wonder why I haven't seen this one, because it sounds pretty great. I suppose the Doolittle Raid wasn't very significant militarily but it was a big propaganda boost and still quite an impressive feat.

    Thanks for bringing this to the blogathon.

  2. The ship featured in this movie, the USS Hornet, is now a floating air and space museum in Alameda, California. It is historic not only for being the platform for this raid, it is also the ship which recovered the Apollo 11 astronauts.

    1. It isn't the same ship. The Ship on the Doolittle Raid was a Yorktown class carrier, USS Hornet CV8, that was sunk during the battle of Santa Cruz. The Ship in Alameda is an Essex class carrier USS Hornet CV12, which is historic in its own right as the ship that recovered the Apollo 11 crew.


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