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The film's opening credits conclude with the following written statement: "One-hundred and thirty-one days after December 7, 1941, a handful of young men, who had never dreamed of glory, struck the first blow at the heart of Japan. This is their true story we tell here." Although Spencer Tracy is listed eleventh in the opening credits, he is listed last in the end credits. In addition to the above-listed songs, "The Star Spangled Banner," sung in Chinese by a children's choir, is included in the film. According to M-G-M music files, Dr. Philip Lee, a pastor, conducted the choir and translated the verse into Chinese. "Auld Lang Syne," "Long, Long Trail" and the USC fight song are also heard in part in the film.
Onscreen credits list Ted W. Lawson and Robert Considine as authors of both "the book" and a "story" in Collier's magazine. Lawson was the sole author of the book Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, however, and Considine is not listed in contemporary sources as Lawson's co-author in any published Collier's story or article. In the credits of the copyright cutting continuity, which was submitted two months prior to the film's release, the word "Collier's" is crossed off, leaving the word "story." Considine did co-write an article with Lawson entitled "Birth of a Book: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," which was published in the July 19, 1943 issue of Time magazine, but it is not known if that article was a source of the film, or if Considine, who was an M-G-M contract writer, merely worked on a story treatment with Lawson. In addition, War Department records, Bureau of Public Relations, contained at NARS, indicate that the file on the film included galleys for a Collier's article by Lawson entitled "Aeronautical Engineer," but it is not known if that article was used in any way, or if it was published under another title. Lawson book, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, was first published in Collier's between 22 May and 26 June 1943.
As depicted in the film, James H. Doolittle's bombing raid, the first to be made on Japan, took place on April 18, 1942. It also marked the first time that land-based planes had taken off from a Navy carrier. All of the planes in the raid crashed, and three fliers were killed. Doolittle, Lawson and his co-pilot, Dean Davenport, who served as a technical advisor on the picture, were promoted after the mission. Doolittle went on to become commander of the Eighth Air Force in the European and Pacific theaters. Lawson reportedly approved the film's script prior to production. For more information on the raid and its aftermath, for The Purple Heart.
Phyllis Thaxter and former New York stage actor-turned-Marine Tim Murdock made their screen debuts in the film, as did Steve Brodie. Hollywood Reporter news items add the following information about the production: M-G-M reportedly paid $100,000 for the screen rights to Ted Lawson's story. Richard Carlson and Beatrice Pearson were tested for "top roles" in July 1943, but were not cast. In August 1943, Brian Donlevy was set to play Doolittle, a casting choice endorsed by Doolittle. In December 1943, Henry O'Neill tested for the role of "William F. Halsey," a part that was eventually played by Morris Ankrum. The CBCS lists Dr. Kung Chuan Chi in the part of "Dr. Chung, Sr.," but onscreen credits list "Dr. Hsin Kung." Although Hollywood Reporter announced that Joseph Kim and M-G-M contract player Danny Morton were cast in the film, their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed.
According to documents contained at NARS, the War Department gave general approval to the script of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, but issued the following warnings about the project: "It is hoped that this picture will result not in the glorification of one officer, but of the heroic exploits of the Army Air Force as a whole in relation to the 'Tokyo Raid'....As Captain Lawson was one of a great number of men on this particular mission, it is expected that this picture will result in giving equal credit to all....Damaging repercussions might result if the film emphasizes the part the Chinese play as a nation in assisting the flyers out of enemy-occupied territory. This angle should be reduced to a minimum..."
According to news items and War Department documents, location shooting was done at Eglin Air Force base near Pensacola, FL, Mines Field in Los Angeles, Mills Field in San Francisco, and at the Alameda Naval Air Station near San Francisco. War Department records add that second-unit aerial shooting, directed by photographer Harold Rosson, was conducted over the Los Angeles area to simulate Tokyo, and over Santa Maria, CA, to simulate the China coast. Napa County in Northern California, as well as the Golden Gate Bridge, which was photographed from a plane flying underneath the structure, were also filmed by the second unit.
A February 11, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that the film was to be shot in sequence, beginning with the training scenes in Florida, followed by interior shooting in Hollywood and exteriors at Aladema. LeRoy directed the bombers in flight from a radio-equipped Jeep, which allowed him to communicate with both the ground camera and the camera plane, according to Hollywood Reporter. Plans to build an aircraft carrier for the picture, which could be set up on a Malibu beach, were scuttled because of interference from seagulls. Instead, art director Paul Groesse designed an interior flat-top set that could carry three real B-25 bombers. According to an early May 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, a sequence in which Japanese raiders board the aircraft carrier Hornet was shot, but was not included in the final film. The following Air Force pilots were requested for some of the flying sequences, according to War Department records: Lt. G. K. Stone, Lt. C. N. Fuller, Lt. Eberts, Lt. Benjamin P. Brooks and Capt. M. Sykes. It has not been determined, however, if these officers appeared in the final film.
The film received favorable reviews and was noted as one of Look magazine's five best films of the year and the National Board of Review's eighth-best film of the year. The Hollywood Reporter reviewer called the picture "one of the greatest war pictures ever made." The film's New York premiere was the first benefit of the Sixth War Loan drive, and its Los Angeles opening was a benefit for the Volunteer Army Corps. Premiere Chiang Kai-Shek and other dignitaries were scheduled to appear at the picture's Chungking, China, premiere. According to a September 1952 Los Angeles Times item, M-G-M decided against showing the film in post-war Japan because of concern that scenes depicting the bombing raid might "cause bad feelings." The film won an Academy Award in the Special Effects category and was nominated in the Cinematography (Black-and-White) category. According to modern sources, footage from Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was used in the 1976 picture Midway.