Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

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Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMervyn LeRoy
Screenplay byDalton Trumbo
Based onThirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1943) by Ted W. Lawson and Robert Considine
Produced bySam Zimbalist
StarringVan Johnson
Robert Walker
Spencer Tracy
CinematographyRobert Surtees, ASC
Harold Rosson, ASC
Edited byFrank Sullivan
Music byHerbert Stothart
Distributed byLoew's Inc.[1]
Release date
  • November 15, 1944 (1944-11-15)
Running time
138 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2.9 million[2]
Box office$6.2 million[2][3]

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is a 1944 American war film produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The screenplay by Dalton Trumbo is based on the 1943 book of the same name by Captain Ted W. Lawson. Lawson was a pilot on the historic Doolittle Raid, America's first retaliatory air strike against Japan, four months after the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The raid was planned, led by, and named after United States Army Air Forces Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, who was promoted two ranks, to Brigadier General, the day after the raid.

Sam Zimbalist was the film's producer and Mervyn LeRoy directed. The picture 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—and soon General— Jimmy Doolittle. Tracy's appearance in the film is more in the nature of a guest star; he receives special billing rather than his usual top billing and has considerably less screen time than star Van Johnson.

In the book, Lawson gives an eyewitness account of the intensive training, the mission, and the aftermath as experienced by his crew and by 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 depicted the raid accurately and used actual wartime footage of the bombers.


Not long after the Pearl Harbor attack, United States Army Air Forces Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle orders 24 North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers—with volunteer crews—to report to Eglin Field, Florida, for a secret three-month-long mission. They arrive on March 1.[4] Among them is the craft piloted by Ted Lawson. His crew consists of Lt. Dean Davenport, co-pilot; Lt. Charles McClure, navigator, Lt. Bob Clever, bombardier, and Corporal David Thatcher, gunner-mechanic.

Doolittle warns them: This work is top-secret. He offers them the chance to opt out, particularly if they have wives and families. Lawson's wife, Ellen, drives to Eglin Field to join him. She is pregnant. They are very much in love, but giving up never occurs to them.

The intensive training includes learning how to take off on a runway only 500 feet long as taught by an instructor Naval Aviator from nearby Pensacola Naval Air Station.[5] They are not told why, and those who guess keep quiet. Lawson's plane acquires the nickname "Ruptured Duck" and nose art to match. One dark morning, Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle sends them off to fly cross-country at hedge-hopping height to Naval Air Station Alameda, California. The planes are immediately loaded aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.

At last, Doolittle reveals the mission: Bomb Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya. The carrier will get them within 400 miles of mainland Japan. After dropping their payloads, they will continue to designated landing spots in parts of China controlled by Nationalist forces and regroup in Chungking.[6][7]

The next day, they learn about takeoff procedures: If a plane malfunctions, it will be pushed over the side. Lt. Jurika works with each crew on its own bombing run. At the penultimate briefing, Doolittle warns that any man who cannot cope with the unavoidable killing of civilians should drop out, without shame.

The call to battle stations comes twice daily, at dawn and dusk, when the enemy "pig boats" (submarines) come up. When an enemy surface vessel does discover the convoy, the crews assemble to take off immediately—12 hours earlier than planned. It will be daylight over Japan and night when they reach China. Doolittle leads the raid, dropping incendiary bombs to mark key targets. The Ruptured Duck is the seventh flight.[8] Flying low over the ocean and into Tokyo, through the smoke of burning targets, dropping their bombs as planned. Flak bursts around them, but fighters ignore them.

Lawson crashes in the surf while trying to land on a beach in darkness and heavy rain. Everyone but Thatcher is badly injured. Lawson's left leg is laid open to the bone, and McClure's shoulders are broken. Friendly Chinese help them, and the Americans face hardships and danger while being escorted through Japanese-held territory. In the absence of any medical supplies, the injured men endure terrible pain, and Lawson's leg becomes infected. He dreams of Ellen.

There is a Red Cross banner in the village of XingMing. Doctor Chung arrives with good news and bad. He will take them to his father's hospital, some 19 miles farther. The bad news is that the Japanese have captured an American crew. Hurrying into the hills, they look back: XingMing is burning.[9]

There is no surgeon at the elder Dr. Chung's hospital, but Lt. Smith's crew is on its way with Lt. "Doc" White, who volunteered as gunner. The Japanese approach, and the able-bodied Americans leave, except for Doc. He takes Lawson's leg off well above the knee, using the single dose of spinal anesthesia in their possession. It wears off too soon.[10] Lawson passes out and dreams of Ellen.

Cut to a chorus of Scouts singing "The Star-Spangled Banner", in Mandarin, celebrating Lawson's first day out of bed. His forehead shows a tracery of scars.[11] When Dr. Chung senior gives Lawson an heirloom bracelet for his wife, Lawson is puzzled. He does not remember talking about her. When he totters on his crutches, he becomes distraught at the idea of Ellen seeing him like this. They hurry to Ch'ang Chou to rendezvous with an American plane that takes them home.

General Doolittle calls Ellen. Sobbing with joy, she tells her mother why Ted refuses to see her: "As if that would matter!" Doolittle visits Lawson in the hospital and tells him he has work for him to do. When Ellen comes in, Lawson, overjoyed, forgets his missing leg and stands. He falls and they embrace on the floor, all smiles. "When things were the worst...I could see your face, your beautiful face." he says. "I knew you were coming home, Ted", Ellen declares.


Van Johnson
Robert Walker
Spencer Tracy

Cast notes

  • Phyllis Thaxter, Tim Murdock, Steve Brodie, and Robert Mitchum made their screen debuts in this film.[12]


There is an error in the onscreen credits, perpetuated in many sources, including the Variety review. They list Ted W. Lawson and Robert Considine as authors of both "the book" and a "story" in Collier's magazine. There was no such story. Lawson was the sole author of the book Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and the word "Collier's" was crossed off in the credits of the copyright cutting continuity.[12]

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

The film is known for its accurate depiction of the raid and use of actual wartime footage of the bombing aircraft. The production crew worked closely with Captain Ted Lawson and other members of the raid to make the film as realistic as possible. Filming at Hurlburt Field and Peel Field near Mary Esther, Florida, and Eglin Field (the actual base where the Doolittle Raiders trained), and operational USAAF B-25C and B-25D bombers were used (closely resembling the B-25B Mitchells used in 1942). Auxiliary Field 4, Peel Field, was used for the short-distance take off practice scenes.[13]

Dean Davenport was a technical adviser and stunt flyer for the film. He flew a B-25 bomber off a pier in Santa Monica, Calif., for a scene showing the takeoffs from the Hornet.[14]

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 recreated the USS Hornet scenes. Principal photography took place between February and June 1944.[15] [Note 1]


The film received favorable reviews. Look magazine praised it as one of the five best films of the year, and the National Board of Review ranked it as eighth-best film of the year. The Hollywood Reporter reviewer called it "one of the greatest war pictures ever made".[12]

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was recognized as an inspirational, patriotic film with great value as a morale builder for wartime audiences. The New York Times in 1944 summed the production, "our first sensational raid on Japan in April 1942 is told with magnificent integrity and dramatic eloquence."[16] Variety focused on the human elements, "inspired casting ... the war becomes a highly personalized thing through the actions of these crew members...this pleasant little family."[17]

Later reviewers have considered Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo the finest aviation film of the period.[18] The film is now considered a "classic aviation and war film."[19] The actual Raiders considered it a worthy tribute.[20]


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.[2]

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 nominated in the category of Black and White Cinematography.[21][22]

American Film Institute lists:

In popular culture[edit]


Informational notes

  1. ^ 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. ^ Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. ^ a b c "The Eddie Mannix Ledger." Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study (Los Angeles).
  3. ^ "All-Time Top Grossers". Variety, January 8, 1964, p. 69.
  4. ^ The film does not mention that the planes were specially modified before being handed over to the crews.
  5. ^ The short takeoff space was necessary because the bombers were too big to be stored belowdecks. As shown in the film, they were lashed to the.carrier. The Official Website of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders
  6. ^ Glines 1998, pp. 166–168.
  7. ^ Although the pilots were told that they had a 50-50 chance of survival, 77 out of 80 men initially survived the raid. The Japanese deployed massive numbers of troops which ravaged the countryside searching for airmen and taking reprisals.
  8. ^ Although most sources state that the men of the Doolittle Raid were the first to fly bombers of this type off of an aircraft carrier, they were not the first. On February 2, 1942, two USAAF pilots took two B-25's off the USS Hornet's deck, to see if it could be done. Neither pilot went on the Doolittle Raid. The Official Website of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders
  9. ^ An April 15, 2015, article in Smithsonian magazine, The Untold Story of the Vengeful Japanese Attack After the Doolittle Raid excerpted by James M. Scott from his book, Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor, describes the horror of those reprisals.
  10. ^ Dr. White received the Silver Star for Gallantry in the line of duty for saving Lawson's life by amputating his leg. White donated some of his own blood to Lawson. Doolittle Raiders
  11. ^ Van Johnson was in a devastating automobile accident in April 1943 during the filming of A Guy Named Joe. His face was permanently scarred. The damage to Lawson's countenance was far more severe than the movie shows. After he returned home, he endured reconstruction of his lower face and a second amputation. See Ted W. Lawson.
  12. ^ a b c "AFI|Catalog. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo: History". Retrieved 2020-02-07.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  13. ^ "Eglin in the Movies." Archived 2013-10-15 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: October 27, 2011.
  14. ^ Goldstein, Richard (2000-02-21). "Dean Davenport, 81, Aviator in Doolittle Raid". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-02-09.
  15. ^ Orriss 1984, p. 93.
  16. ^ Orriss 1984, p. 100.
  17. ^ Staff (December 31, 1943) "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" Variety. Retrieved: November 22, 2011.
  18. ^ Orriss 1984, pp. 93–94.
  19. ^ Harwick and Schnepf 1989, pp. 13–14, 61–62.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ "The 17th Academy Awards (1945) Nominees and Winners.' Retrieved: June 23, 2013.
  22. ^ "1945 Academy Awards: Awards and Winners." Retrieved: November 22, 2011.
  23. ^ "MacDonald & Associates' Television Commercials: Mixed Ads 61-70." Archived 2010-05-16 at the Wayback Machine MacDonald & Associates, 2002. Retrieved: October 27, 2011.
  24. ^ Planer, Lindsay. "Thirty Seconds Over Winterland - Jefferson Airplane &#124." AllMusic, 2011. Retrieved: October 27, 2011.
  25. ^ "Pere Ubu Biography". Archived 2012-03-06 at the Wayback Machine Pere Ubu, 2011. Retrieved: October 27, 2011.
  26. ^ 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]