Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

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Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMervyn LeRoy
Produced bySam Zimbalist
Screenplay byDalton Trumbo
Based onThirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1943) by Ted W. Lawson and Robert Considine
StarringVan Johnson
Robert Walker
Spencer Tracy
Music byHerbert Stothart
CinematographyRobert Surtees, ASC
Harold Rosson, ASC
Edited byFrank Sullivan
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • November 15, 1944 (1944-11-15)
Running time
138 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2.9 million[1]
Box office$6.2 million[1][2]

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is a 1944 American war film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It is based on the historic Doolittle Raid, America's first retaliatory air strike against Japan four months after the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Mervyn LeRoy directed Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Sam Zimbalist produced the film. The screenplay by Dalton Trumbo was based on the 1943 book of the same name, by Captain Ted W. Lawson, a pilot on the raid. The film stars Van Johnson as Lawson, Phyllis Thaxter as his wife Ellen, Robert Walker as Corporal David Thatcher, Robert Mitchum as Lieutenant Bob Gray and Spencer Tracy as Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the man who planned and led the raid.

In the book Lawson gave an eyewitness account of the training, the mission, and the aftermath as experienced by his crew and others who flew the mission on April 18, 1942. Lawson piloted "The Ruptured Duck", the seventh of 16 B-25s to take off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. The film accurately depicted the raid and used actual wartime footage of the bombers.


In spring 1942, a few months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) plan to retaliate by bombing Tokyo and four other Japanese cities—launching traditionally land-based bombers from United States Navy aircraft carriers that can approach near enough the Japanese mainland to make bombing feasible. After dropping bombs planes will continue to Nationalist controlled parts of China, and crews will regroup in Chungking.

Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy), the architect and leader of the mission, assembles a volunteer force of aircrew, who begin their top-secret training by learning a new technique to make their North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers airborne in the short distance of 500 feet (150 m) or less, to simulate taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier, although they were not told why they were learning short takeoffs at the time.

After depicting the groups' weeks of hazardous training at Eglin Field, Florida and Naval Air Station Alameda, the story goes on to describe the raid and its aftermath. While en route to Japan, USS Hornet's task force is discovered by a Japanese picket boat, which has radioed their position. It is sunk immediately by American gunfire but the bombers are forced to take off twelve hours early, at the extreme limit of their range. The bombers reach Japan, however, and drop their bombs. Doolittle himself leads the raid with incendiary bombs designed to aid the following aircraft to identify targets.

After the attack, most of the B-25s run out of fuel before reaching their recovery airfields in Nationalist-controlled China. Crews are forced to either bail out over China or crash-land along the coast.[Note 1] Lawson's B-25 crashes in the surf just off the Chinese coast while trying to land on a beach in darkness and heavy rain. He and his crew survive, badly injured, but face hardships and danger while being escorted to Nationalist lines by friendly Chinese. Lawson's injuries require the mission's flight surgeon to amputate his left leg above the knee.

The closing stages of the film feature many of the Doolittle Raiders reunited in Chungking, per the original plan, where Chinese sing "the Star Spangled Banner", in Mandarin, in an emotional climax. The story ends in the United States with Lawson reunited with his pregnant wife Ellen in a Washington, D.C. hospital. In tears, Lawson tells his wife: "When things were the worst I could see your beautiful face."


Van Johnson
Robert Walker
Spencer Tracy


The B-25s about to launch from USS Hornet. Admiral Halsey (Morris Ankrum) is saluting in the foreground.
"The Ruptured Duck" flies over a burning target in Thirty Seconds over Tokyo

In both the film and book Lawson gives eyewitness accounts of the training, the mission, and the aftermath as experienced by his crew and others who flew the mission on April 18, 1942. Lawson piloted "The Ruptured Duck", the seventh of 16 B-25s to take off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. The film is noted for its accurate depiction of the raid and use of actual wartime footage of the bombing aircraft.

Verisimilitude was obtained by working closely with Captain Ted Lawson and other members of the raid. The use of Hurlburt Field and Peel Field near Mary Esther, Florida and Eglin Field (the actual base where the Doolittle Raiders trained), along with using operational USAAF B-25C and B-25D bombers (which closely resembled the B-25B Mitchells used in 1942) made for an authentic, near-documentary feel. Auxiliary Field 4, Peel Field, was used for the short-distance take off practice scenes.[4]

Although an aircraft carrier was not available due to wartime needs (USS Hornet itself had been sunk in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on October 27, 1942 only six months after launching the raid), a mix of realistic studio sets and original newsreel footage faithfully recreated the USS Hornet scenes. Principal photography took place between February and June 1944.[5] [Note 2]


Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was recognized as an inspirational patriotic film with propagandistic value. The New York Times in 1944 summed up the universal verdict on the production, "our first sensational raid on Japan in April 1942 is told with magnificent integrity and dramatic eloquence ..."[6] Variety focused on the human elements, "inspired casting ... the war becomes a highly personalized thing through the actions of these crew members."[7]

Critical acclaim followed Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo with many reviewers considering it the finest aviation film of the period.[8] The film is now considered a "classic aviation and war film."[9] The actual Raiders considered it a worthy tribute.[10]

Box office[edit]

According to MGM records the film made $4,297,000 in the US and Canada and $1,950,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $1,382,000.[1]

Awards and honors[edit]

In the 1945 Academy Awards, the Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo team of A. Arnold Gillespie, Donald Jahraus and Warren Newcombe (photography) and Douglas Shearer (sound) won the Oscar for Best Special Effects. Robert Surtees, A.S.C. and Harold Rosson, A.S.C. were also nominated in the category of Black and White Cinematography.[11][12]

American Film Institute lists:

In popular culture[edit]

At a point in his career when he rarely made public appearances or commercials, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo star Van Johnson did a 1970s commercial for Post Fortified Oat Flakes breakfast cereal on a set reminiscent of B-25s on an aircraft carrier flight deck, concluding with the line that the cereal would "take me to Tokyo – and back!"[13]

Additionally, both Jefferson Airplane's second live album Thirty Seconds Over Winterland (1973) and experimental rock band Pere Ubu's 1975 debut single, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo", are named after the film.[14][15]

The opening scene from Midway reused footage from Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo to launch the plot of the film with the Doolittle Raid.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was the inspiration for The Simpsons episode "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo".[16]

See also[edit]

  • The Purple Heart (1944), a fictionalized account of the fate of a group of American airmen from the Doolittle raid placed on trial in a Japanese court.
  • Pearl Harbor (2001), which includes a fictionalized version of the raid.


Informational notes

  1. ^ One bomber landed safely in the Soviet Union and its crew was interned for over a year.[3]
  2. ^ MGM's studio 15 provided room for 179 feet (55 m) of carrier deck. Three actual B-25s were used on the set and the remainder were matte paintings of the deck and B-25s integrated into the background.


  1. ^ a b c "The Eddie Mannix Ledger." Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study (Los Angeles).
  2. ^ "All-Time Top Grossers". Variety, January 8, 1964, p. 69.
  3. ^ Glines 1998, pp. 166–168.
  4. ^ "Eglin in the Movies." Archived 2013-10-15 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: October 27, 2011.
  5. ^ Orriss 1984, p. 93.
  6. ^ Orriss 1984, p. 100.
  7. ^ "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo." Variety, December 31, 1943. Retrieved: November 22, 2011.
  8. ^ Orriss 1984, pp. 93–94.
  9. ^ Harwick and Schnepf 1989, pp. 13–14, 61–62.
  10. ^ Aylworth, Roger H. "No secrets: Chicago Pilot's Wife Knew About 1942 Doolittle Raid." Archived 2002-06-21 at the Wayback Machine Chicago Enterprise-Record. Retrieved: November 22, 2011.
  11. ^ "The 17th Academy Awards (1945) Nominees and Winners.' Retrieved: June 23, 2013.
  12. ^ "1945 Academy Awards: Awards and Winners." Retrieved: November 22, 2011.
  13. ^ "MacDonald & Associates' Television Commercials: Mixed Ads 61-70." Archived 2010-05-16 at the Wayback Machine MacDonald & Associates, 2002. Retrieved: October 27, 2011.
  14. ^ Planer, Lindsay. "Thirty Seconds Over Winterland - Jefferson Airplane &#124." AllMusic, 2011. Retrieved: October 27, 2011.
  15. ^ "Pere Ubu Biography." Pere Ubu, 2011. Retrieved: October 27, 2011.
  16. ^ Meyer, George. "Commentary for 'Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo'." The Simpsons: The Complete Tenth Season [DVD], 20th Century Fox, 2007.


  • Dolan, Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Glines, Carroll V. The Doolittle Raid: America's Daring First Strike Against Japan. New York: Orion Books, 1988. ISBN 0-88740-347-6
  • Harwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies". The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Orriss, Bruce. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Aviation Film Classics of World War II. Hawthorne, California: Aero Associates Inc., 1984. ISBN 0-9613088-0-X.

External links[edit]