War Movie Mondays: ‘Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo’

In honor of Memorial Day and to all our members of the Armed Forces past and present, this week’s War Movie Monday pick is the MGM World War II classic Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) which depicts the exploits of the Doolittle Raiders who bombed Japan just four months after Pearl Harbor. The film stars Van Johnson (Lieutenant Ted Lawson), Robert Walker (Corporal David Thatcher), Robert Mitchum (Lt. Bob Gray) and Spencer Tracy as Lt. Col. James Doolittle.

The film opens in February 1942 just two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States and its allies have met a series of crushing defeats against the Japanese in Malaya, Indo China, and the Philippines. The Japanese blitzkrieg across the Far East seems almost impossible to stop.

To counter this threat, the U.S. has devised a new plan that will show the Japanese that their homeland is susceptible to enemy attack. Lt. Col. James Doolittle (Tracy) assembles a volunteer crew of Army Air Corp pilots who begin assembling at Eglin Field in Florida for training. The pilots don’t know what the nature of the training is for and they are under strict orders not to talk to anyone about what they’re involved in.

Doolittle calls for a staff meeting to tell the aircrews that the nature of their training is to launch a B-25 Mitchell Bomber in a short distance of only 500 feet. The aircrews are shocked that a stunt like that could ever be achieved in that a bomber would need twice as much distance in order to take off into the air.

After a month of intense training, the aircrews strip down their bombers to become flying gas cans and perfect taking off at 500 feet or less. Lt. Lawson’s crew and others fly from Eglin field to the Alameda Naval Air Station outside of San Francisco, California where their bombers are loaded onboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet. The crews are finally made aware just what their training was for.

Doolittle calls for a meeting once the ship is underway and informs the crews that after their intense training, they’re off to bomb Tokyo and several other Japanese cities. The crews begin to murmur amongst each other and learn that the U.S.S. Hornet will take them within 700 miles of the Japanese mainland where they will bomb and then fly towards the Chinese coast where landing sites have been established so that they are met by Chinese forces who will escort them out of the Japanese controlled areas.

The aircrews pass the time by playing cards, learning key phrases so that they may communicate with their Chinese allies, and checking the integrity of their ships for the treacherous mission, which lays ahead. The film was based on the actual accounts of Lt. Lawson and the hardships that his crew faced after their successful bombing of Tokyo.

One of my favorite parts of the film is when the mission is under way on April 18, 1942. The Hornet’s task force is spotted twelve hours away from the Japanese mainland. The Hornet intercepts part of a radio message that Japanese ships have spotted an American task force. Doolittle is forced by the Navy to launch his bombers immediately. Doolittle realizes that they are still several hundred miles farther away than the range they intended to be so that all the bombers would be able to make it to China safely after their mission. The Mitchell’s range is only two thousand miles. Doolittle orders every plane to carry several extra cans of fuel and that they lighten their loads as much as possible by getting rid of their guns, and everything else that isn’t bolted down to the aircraft.

The bombers are lined up on the flight deck and are immediately ordered to take off. Doolittle is the first to take off and pushes the plane to max power so that it can take off in the rough seas. Most of the shots were performed on a soundstage and actual combat footage of the take offs was used in the film as well. It is a very dramatic scene in which you hope that each one of the bombers is able to take off from the flight deck. This was the first ever attempt of bombers taking off from an aircraft carrier and it was an overwhelming success.

Lawson’s crew is one of the last to take off from the carrier and it makes its several hour flight to Tokyo where it successfully drops its payload and makes its way to China. The plane runs out of fuel just as it approaches the Chinese coast. Lawson tries to keep the plane from stalling but it crash lands in the surf. The crew survives but their hardship has only begun.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was a rousing patriotic film, yet a propaganda tool for the war effort. The raid didn’t inflict a lot of damage but it shocked the Japanese and their militarists who realized that their homeland was within range of enemy air attacks. It was a deadly precursor to the American bombing campaigns that destroyed numerous Japanese cities as the United States and its allies made their way closer to the Japanese mainland by the time the film was released.

Many Americans were made aware of the Doolittle Raid and flocked to theaters to see the exploits of America’s first strike against the Japanese. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote in his review in November 1944 “our first sensational raid on Japan in April 1942 is told with magnificent integrity and dramatic eloquence.” Survivors of the raid considered the film to be a worthy tribute to their efforts. The film is also hailed as one of the finest aviation and war films of all time. The film won a 1945 Academy Award for best Special Effects.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is available on DVD thru Warner Bros. Home Video.

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