Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is an American war film produced by Sam Zimbalist, written by Dalton Trumbo, and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. It is based on the true story of the Doolittle Raid, the U.S. retaliatory airstrike against Japan four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
On the morning of 18 April 1942 16 B-25B Mitchell twin-engine medium bombers were launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) about 650 nautical miles off the east coast of Japan. Commanded by Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, the planes set off on a top secret mission to bomb targets in Tokyo and other Japanese cities in order to (1) retaliate for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor four and a half months prior, (2) boost American morale, and (3) demonstrate that Japan was vulnerable to air attack. The plan was to land the bombers in China after the raid; landing them on an aircraft carrier was impossible. Unfortunately, the planes had to launch 170 miles farther out than was originally planned when the task force was spotted by a Japanese patrol boat. After bombing their targets in Japan, all 16 B-25s ran out of fuel well short of their recovery airfields in China and either crashed on land or ditched at sea. Of the 80 airmen deployed (5 to a plane), 3 were killed in action and 8 taken prisoner by the Japanese (of which 3 were executed, 1 died in captivity, and the other 4 eventually repatriated). With every bomber lost and damage inflicted on Japan minimal and easily repaired, the Doolittle Raid was, for all practical purposes, an abject and costly failure. It was, however, a resounding propaganda success that lifted American morale when news of the raid was splashed across America’s newspapers on 19 May 1942. In January 1943, one of Doolittle’s pilots, Capt. Ted Lawson—who lost a leg in the raid—began to write a book about the mission entitled Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo with the help of newspaper columnist Bob Considine. Lawson and Considine spent four nights and two days at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., sketching out the story but were not allowed to publish it until after detailed information on the raid was released by the War Department on 19 April 1943, a full year after it occurred. The book-length story was first serialized in six successive issues of Collier’s magazine (22 May–26 June 1943). In early July Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer Sam Zimbalist secured the movie rights from Lawson and assigned Dalton Trumbo to adapt Lawson’s story to the screen. After meeting with Lawson and other military officials in Washington, D.C., Trumbo came to the conclusion that the raid had been staged for propaganda purposes only. Accordingly, he fashioned a propagandistic script that emphasized the skill and heroism of the bomber crews and the heroic role that Chinese guerillas played in rescuing their American allies from the clutches of the Japanese, the latter point meant to refute the notion pushed by the Hearst newspapers: that the conflict in the Pacific was at base an Oriental-Occidental race war (Ceplair and Trumbo, 2014).
The filmmakers received the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) and worked closely with Air Force chief Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Jimmy Doolittle, Ted Lawson, and other airmen who participated in the raid to achieve a high degree of authenticity. Location shooting took place at Mines Field in Los Angeles, at Mills Field in San Francisco, at the Alameda Naval Air Station near San Francisco, at Hurlburt Field (near Mary Esther, Florida), and at Eglin Field (near Valparaiso, Florida), present-day Eglin AFB, which was the actual base where the Doolittle Raiders trained. The filmmakers used USAAF B-25C and -D bombers, which were quite similar to the B-25B Mitchells used in the raid, further ensuring verisimilitude. Auxiliary Field 4 (aka Peel Field) was used for the short-distance take-off practice scenes. With the war still raging, an aircraft carrier was unavailable—the USS Hornet itself had been sunk in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 27 October 1942—but a mix of realistic studio sets and archival footage accurately re-created the USS Hornet scenes. Second-unit aerial cinematography featured Los Angeles masquerading as Tokyo and Santa Maria (between Pismo Beach and Santa Barbara) simulating the coast of China. The film was shot in sequence between April and June 1944.
An opening title card reads: “One-hundred and thirty-one days after December 7, 1941, a handful of young men, who had never dreamed of glory, struck the first blow at the heart of Japan. This is their true story we tell here.” After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army Air Force quickly hatches a plan to retaliate by bombing Tokyo and four other Japanese cities: Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, and Kobe. Tapped to lead the mission, Lt. Col. James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy) assembles an all-volunteer force. Their top-secret training involves learning to get their B-25 bombers airborne in the extremely short take-off distance of 500 feet or less—the deck length of an aircraft carrier. After depicting the training process at Eglin Field, Florida, and Naval Air Station Alameda (San Francisco Bay), the film depicts the raid and its aftermath. While en route to Japan, a Japanese picket boat detects the Hornet’s task force and reports its location by radio. The boat is sunk, but the bombers are forced to take off at the outer limit of their fuel range. Nonetheless, they make it to Japan and drop their bombs. After the attack, all but one of the bombers run out of fuel before reaching their recovery airfields on mainland China, either ditching in the sea or crash-landing along the coast. Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson) tries to land his B-25 on a China beach but crashes in the surf in bad weather and darkness. Seriously injured, Lawson and his crew face a grueling transit back to American lines, led and aided by Chinese allies. While he is en route, Lawson’s injuries are so severe that the mission’s flight surgeon, Lt. Thomas “Doc” White (Horace McNally) has to amputate one of his legs. The story ends with Lawson being reunited with his wife, Ellen (Phyllis Thaxter), in a Washington, D.C., hospital.
Released on 15 November 1944, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo enjoyed widespread critical acclaim and did well at the box office, eventually earning $6,247,000 in domestic and foreign ticket sales against a production budget of $2.9 million—a $1,382,000 profit, minus promotional expenses. Likewise, reviews were effusive. For example, Bosley Crowther called the movie “a stunning picturization of an episode crammed with drama and suspense. And so expert are the re-enacted film scenes that it is hard to distinguish them from a few news shots cut in. As a matter of fact, all of the production involving planes and technical action is so fine that the film has the tough and literal quality of an Air Force documentary … it is certainly a most stimulating and emotionally satisfying film” (Crowther, 1944).
Reel History Versus Real History
In general terms, the movie version of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is a faithful adaptation of Lawson’s book, though the film widens its focus and presents a more evenly paced procedural history that recounts the planning of the raid, the pilot training, the voyage of the Hornet, the raid itself, and its aftermath. Lawson’s understandably more subjective account devotes much more time to his ordeal in China after crash-landing and his recovery stateside. Other changes were made to conform to Hays Code strictures and for propaganda purposes. Trumbo’s script passes over the extremely risky, even foolhardy, nature of the Doolittle mission that put half the U.S. Pacific Fleet in jeopardy on a mission of negligible military value. Accordingly, in the movie, the bomber pilots are excited to leave early when the task force is spotted by a Japanese patrol boat. In reality, the sighting meant that they would not have enough fuel to reach their destination airfields in China (i.e., the raid suddenly became a de facto suicide mission). An early departure also meant that the raid would have to occur in daylight hours, when the bombers were more vulnerable to being spotted and attacked by Japanese anti-aircraft fire and fighters. The film’s depiction of Lawson’s crash landing is historically accurate, though his injuries were actually far worse. Although the movie does pays tribute to the Chinese for their invaluable help in rendering medical aid to American fliers and getting them to safety, it completely elides the fact that Japanese occupation forces exacted a terrible retribution, costing a quarter million Chinese lives so that Americans could enjoy a short-lived boost in morale.