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Onscreen credits include the following written acknowledgment: "We hearby tender our deep appreciation to the United States Navy, Army, Coast Guard and Office of Strategic Services whose splendid cooperation made this production possible." The film also contains the following written foreword, signed by General Douglas MacArthur: "Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won...I speak for the thousands of silent lips, forever stilled among the jungles and in the deep waters of the Pacific which marked the way." John Ford's onscreen directing credit reads, "Directed by John Ford, Captain U.S.N.R.;" Frank Wead's onscreen credit reads and "Screenplay by Frank Wead Comdr. U.S.N., Ret;" Robert Montgomery's onscren credit reads: "Robert Montgomery Comdr. U.S.N.R."
August 1942 Hollywood Reporter news items note that M-G-M agreed to pay $30,000, plus royalties up to $20,000, for the motion picture rights to William L. White's book. As part of the agreement, one third of the purchase price was to be donated to the Navy Relief Fund. The title of White's book was derived from a World War II naval communiq, reporting the sacrifice of several U.S. P-T boats in Manila Bay in order to sink several Japanese cruisers, destroyers and cargo ships. White's book was the first book ever to receive an "I" (for "imperative") award from the Publishers' Committee of War Books. The committee was composed of top publishers and government representatives who identified books that contributed to the war effort. Much of the film's story is based on actual events that took place in the Philippines during World War II. Although some of the participants' names were changed, many of the characters in the film were based on real-life persons. Lt. John B. Bulkeley, the real-life commander of the Manila Bay P-T boat operation, is portrayed by Robert Montgomery in the production. Contemporary news items in Hollywood Reporter relate the following information about the film: M-G-M bought the story as a starring vehicle for Spencer Tracy, and initially planned to film it in Technicolor. In late October 1942, the studio hired Sidney Franklin to produce the film and assigned two veterans from the Philippines campaign to supervise the script development. Producer Sam Zimbalist and director Mervyn LeRoy also were assigned to the project. Filming was originally scheduled to begin in the summer of 1943 but the picture was placed on M-G-M's "inactive" list in late September 1943 due to concerns that the popularity of war films was declining, and because the story was thought to be too similar to another M-G-M project, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (see below). Pre-production work on the film resumed in mid-1944, when a Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Frank Wead was working on the script. According to an October 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, They Were Expendable was taken off the "inactive" list following a revival of military action in the Philippines.
Actor Ian Keith was offered the role of General MacArthur, but declined the part. Hollywood Reporter production charts list actor Hank Daniels, Jr. in the cast, but his appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. In mid-May 1945, Montgomery briefly took over the direction of the film when Ford fractured his leg in a fall on the set. Many of the men who worked on the film were actively involved in the war or were war veterans, including Ford, a Navy captain, who was placed on inactive status so that he could direct the film. Montgomery was a former Navy lieutenant commander, who was awarded the Bronze Star and was decorated as a Chevalier of the French Foreign Legion of Honor. According to a February 1945 Hollywood Reporter news item, Ford donated his entire salary on the film to a fund for the rehabilitation of 168 Navy men who had worked on his films in the past. Modern sources indicate that Ford shot scenes around actor Ward Bond while Bond was recovering from injuries he sustained in an automobile accident. Bond delivered most of his lines standing still, and appears walking in the film only once. Some filming took place at various locations in Florida, including Miami Beach and Key Biscayne. The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Sound Recording and Best Special Effects.