Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)




Director:     Mervyn LeRoy. 

Starring:   Van Johnson (Lt. Ted Lawson), Robert Walker (Cpl. David Thatcher), Tim Murdock (Lt. Dean Davenport), Scott McKay (Capt. Davey Jones), Herbert Gunn (Bob Clever), Don DeFore (Lt. Charles McClure), Robert Mitchum (Lt. Bob Gray), John R. Reilly (Lt. Jacob 'Shorty' Manch), Stephen McNally (Lt. Thomas 'Doc' White), Spencer Tracy (Gen. James Doolittle), Phyllis Thaxter (Ellen Lawson), Donald Curtis (Lt. Randall), Louis Jean Heydt (Navy Lt. Henry Miller), William 'Bill' Phillips (Lt. Don Smith), Douglas Cowan (Lt. Everett 'Brick' Holstrom). 

James H. Doolittle air raid on Japan soon after Pearl Harbor.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

131 days after December 7, 1941 (the bombing of Pearl Harbor), a handful of young American men, who had never dreamed of glory, struck the first blow at the heart of Japan. 

The Colonel is with James Doolittle.  They are talking about a mission that will both boost American morale and recall some Japanese soldiers to Japan itself.  Doolittle calls York to tell him to get 24 B-25 bombers with volunteer crews down to Eglin Field, Florida as soon as he can.  The men will be on a mission out of the country for three months.  It is a secret mission and the destination is unknown.  One of the crews that volunteers is Ted Lawson and his  comrades:  co-pilot Davenport, McClure, forward gunner Clever and  middle gunner queasy-stomached Thatcher.   When they land with a few other bombers the officers check in with Ski.  They ask him what the mission will be, but he doesn't know anything more than they know, which is virtually nothing.  The pilots and crew are placed in barracks on the base. 

Lt. Col. James Doolittle is introduced to the bomber flight crews.  He tells the men that the mission they will be going on will be dangerous and that therefore there must be absolute secrecy.  They are do not to talk to anyone.  In fact, they are not even allowed to discuss their hunches with each other.  He promises the men the hardest training they have ever gone through.   

Ted Lawson sees his wife, who drove a long way south to be there.  Lawson didn't receive her last letter yet and so he does not know her good news.  She gets some wolf-whistles from some of the other fliers.  Lawson soon has to leave his wife to go for training.  Thatcher has a letter for Lawson and gives it to him.  The letter tells Lawson that his wife is pregnant.  Lawson is very happy about it.  When he gets back to his wife he and she talk about the happy event.   The couple has been married six months, but they have only been together for a total of two weeks. 

Doolittle tells the men that they will have to practice every job on the plane.  Their fancy Norden bombsights will be removed, to be replaced by bombsights specially designed for the mission.  Later Lawson buzzes his wife Ellen and her two friends while they are at the beach.  Ski's wife is also pregnant.  A Lt. Miller of the US Navy will teach the crews how to take off in 500 feet going only 50 miles per hour.  The crews keep practicing the take off.  Their engines have to be really revved up and the steering wheel must be quickly pulled up.  It is not long before the take off is mastered.  And once their training is through they have a big dance party. 

At 3:10 in the morning Lawson gets a call to report for the mission.  Doolittle informs the crews that they will take off in shifts 45 minutes from now.  He tells them to speak to on one.  Doolittle ends by saying thanks to the men for all their good work.  They are headed for Alameda Field in San Francisco.  They will refuel in San Antonio, Texas.  Lawson goes home to pack.  He tells his wife:  "I'll be back."  As the crew reaches the base they see an aircraft carrier that awaits them.  Lawson notices that the left engine is running a bit rough, but he will tell no one about it.  A fellow who complained about his fuel pump had his plane's participation in the mission canceled.  The men report for duty and board the ship.  Their planes are loaded by crane onto the carrier. 

The air crews assemble in the wardroom.  They are informed that they are going straight to Japan.  They will come within 400 miles of the island nation.  They will bomb the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka and Nagoya.  It will be a night job.  The Chinese have small airfields outside the Japanese area of control where the men will land.  No delays will be permitted.  If a plane has mechanical trouble, the flight deck crew will simply push it into the sea.  After the raids the planes will scoot out from Japan via Yakushima.  They estimate that about half of the crews will pull through.  Take off is tomorrow night.  Once in China the pilots and crews will meet in Chunking. 

There are some big explosive noises.  They have been sighted by enemy surface vessels.  The flight crews have to quickly get the planes loaded.  Doolittle takes off first.  The navy personnel cheer each plane as it takes off. 

The planes near the Japanese coast. They can see Mount Fujiyama up ahead.  Japanese zeros approach Lawson's plane, but go right over them.  They are flying very low and the Japanese pilots simply did not see them. They find their target and drop their bombs despite quite a bit of anti-aircraft flak.  After the success of the bombing raid, Lawson's plane only has 160 gallons of fuel left.  And it is 200 miles to Changchow, China.  Their plane crashes in the ocean near the coast of China.  Lawson is the first of the crew to reach the shore.  He says:  "I lost my shop.  I lost my ship."  Co-pilot Davenport arrives, followed by McClure (who can't move his arms), Thatcher and Clever.  Lawson really busted up his left leg and it needs serious medical attention.  To make things worse, it is pouring rain.  The Chinese arrive and take the men to safety.  Lawson's leg will have to be sewn up.  Then men of the Chinese resistance arrive.  Chungking is many days away.  The only doctor around is a Japanese doctor and he will not come at night.  So the resistance men carry the crewmen into the mountains. 

The Chinese arrange for the men to be picked up by boat.  The Japanese stop the boat, but do not find anything and leave.  Then the Chinese are able to put the Americans on the boat.  Lawson passes out from the pain of his leg being bumped on the boat.  He dreams of his wife.  When awake again he insists that the doctor must not cut off his leg.  The Americans are taken to a red cross station.  A young Chinese doctor helps the men, but there are no medicines at the station, not even aspirin.  The men get some assistance, but they have to push on.  It is 60 miles to the young doctor's father's hospital.  The Americans learn that the Japanese have captured a crew not far from the red cross station.  The men leave the station and soon afterward the Japanese arrive in the village.

The Americans reach the hospital and meet the senior Dr. Chung.  The men receive good treatment.  News arrives that they have found Don Smith's crew and they are scheduled to unite with Lawson's crew.  Doctor White will be with the Smith crew.  Smith, White and crew arrive.  Dr. White confirms that  gangrene has set in on Lawson's leg.  Smith's crew is relatively healthy and along with the non-hurt Thatcher will push on to Changchow.  Dr. White tells Lawson that his leg above the knee will have to come off. 

Ted Lawson is now in a lumber camp in China.  He calls his wife, who has her Christmas tree up.   Chinese students sing the American national anthem with Chinese lyrics to Lawson and the remainder of his crew.  News comes that the American crews will be picked up by an American aircraft in Changchow.   

The aircraft picks the air crews up.  Lawson goes upfront to talk with the captain and gets to fly the plane for awhile. 

Doolittle calls Ellen Lawson to tell her that her husband is coming home.  He tells her about Ted's leg.  Doolittle is sending her an airplane ticket for a flight to Washington to be with her husband.  Ellen is worried a bit about how her husband will react to her pregnant body.  Her mother assures her it will be alright. 

Doolittle visits Ted.  Ted thinks he will be mustered out of the military, but Doolittle straightens him out on that point.  He will definitely not be mustered out.  Doolittle then asks him if he has let his wife know what has happened to him.  Lawson tells him that he does not want to tell his wife just yet.  He wants to wait until he has an artificial leg and can get around fairly well.  Doolittle tells him that will take a long time and then leaves.  The door opens again, but this time it is Ellen Lawson.  Ted tries to walk to her but falls down.  She rushes to him to tell him:  "I just had to come."  They kiss. 


Good movie.  Interesting depiction of the challenges that the military bomber crew volunteers had to go through to strike several Japanese cities some 131 days after Pearl Harbor.   We see the reaction of Lt. Ted Lawson and his bomber crew to these challenges and dangers. If the Japanese political and military leadership were not so inflexible, they could have interpreted the raids as a sign of really bad things coming Japan's way, but they were too committed to continue even past the point at which most nations would have called for the war to end.  It would be a fight to the end.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)