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Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

On April 18, 1942, courageous men, five to each of 16 twin-engine B-25 bombers, flew from the US aircraft carrier Hornet to drop bombs on Tokyo and Nagoya, Japan. It was a President Roosevelt's project, not to do any significant damage to Japan's industrial infrastructure. And little damage was done. The purpose was psychological warfare against Japan – to show the Japanese people that they had been bombed. And the purpose was to raise the spirits of the American people.

The movie Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is considered reasonably accurate and realistic. No John Wayne bravado is portrayed, just regular guys, officers and enlisted, trying to carry out their mission. The only exaggeration was perhaps the bombing explosions.

The screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo, a "progressive" to be blacklisted by the movie industry after the war.

Tangential to the essential story is the movie's depiction of attitudes toward the Japanese and Chinese, attitudes that displayed the fact that Americans in 1942 didn't know other nationalities as well as they do today, given experiences since then and the world made smaller by global communications.

It was the airmen's attitude toward the Chinese that is interesting in this regard – not the references to the Japanese as "Japs." The airmen using "Jap" to describe the Japanese was accurate enough. That was common during the war.

Here is a bit of dialogue employed by Trumbo:

Lieutenant Bob Gray: You know I don't hate Japs yet. It's a funny thing. I don't like them, but I don't hate them.

Lieutenant Ted Lawson: I guess, I don't either. You get kind of mixed up.

Lieutenant Bob Gray: Yeah.

Lieutenant Ted Lawson: It's hard to figure, yet here we are.

As for the attitude toward the Chinese who rescued them, Lieutenant Ted Lawson (Van Johnson), who had a leg amputated, tells the Chinese doctor, Chung, "You saved my life, Doc."

Dr. Chung: I hope that someday you'll come back to us.

Lieutenant Lawson: We'll be back. Maybe not us ourselves but a lotta guys like us, and I'd like to be with them. You're our kind of people.

Dr. Chung: Thank you, sir.

"Our kind of people," that's not a statement one can expect to hear today about any nationality. The Germans during World War II were not viewed as "our kind of people" although youthful Americans today might admire them for their dislike of war. And today many look with some admiration for the Japanese – as I do after having travelled through Japan and having lived there for a while.

The Chinese, our allies in World War II, became our enemy, killing Americans in Korea. During the Korean War, those Lieutenant Lawson called "our kind of people" were reviled by some Americans as hordes – "gooks" to some – believed to have less innate respect for human life than we average Americans. But it's nothing to get "mixed up" about as Lieutenant Lawson was about his attitude toward the Japanese. In fighting the Germans and Japanese during World War II we were fighting historical circumstances. The Germans and Japanese were themselves the product of historical circumstances, responsible for their actions for sure, but historical circumstances nevertheless. The same goes for the Chinese. I for one do not judge individual Chinese who were in Korea trying to kill Americans. I shared a house with a Chinese student in Palo Alto and enjoyed his company. The Chinese range in intelligence and other qualities. I believe that to get abstract about them negatively or to describe them today as "our kind of people" would be bizarre.

Getting back to the drama of bombing Tokyo and Nagoya in 1942, the plan did not work out perfectly – despite the courage, bravery and intelligence of the men involved. Military operations seldom workout perfectly. The U.S. ships motoring toward Japan ran into a 70-ton Japanese patrol craft which radioed an attack warning to Japan. The US sank the patrol boat. Colonel Doolittle and the skipper of the Hornet, Captain Marc Mitscher, decided to launch the B-25s immediately, ten hours earlier, a premature launch that added 200 miles to their planned mission and not enough fuel to fly to safety behind Japanese lines in China.

Unfortunately for the airmen, bad weather along the China coast made landing the planes more difficult. Planes landed either in the water, near the coast or the crews parachuted out. Four airmen were killed and eight were captured by the Japanese.

The response by Japan's military command was ugly. Japan's high command was embarrassed by America's thirty seconds over Japan and reacted with what I consider weakness: covering themselves with righteous indignation. They had three of the eight captured American airmen executed.

Copyright © 2012 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved