Medal of Honor Recipients Portrayed On Film
Classic Heroism


Rank, duty position and unit at time of action:

Lieutenant Colonel, Commanding Officer, 17th Bombardment Group, US Army Air Force



World War II


Place and date of action:

Tokyo, Japan, 18 April 1942


Portrayed by:

Spencer Tracy


In the film:

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Text of Citation:



Rank and organization: Brigadier General, U.S. Army. Air Corps. Place and date: Over Japan. Entered service at: Berkeley, Calif. Birth: Alameda, Calif. G.O. No.: 29, 9 June 1942. Citation: For conspicuous leadership above the call of duty, involving personal valor and intrepidity at an extreme hazard to life. With the apparent certainty of being forced to land in enemy territory or to perish at sea, Gen. Doolittle personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland.


Doolittle led a special strike force of sixteen B-25 Mitchell medium bombers launched from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (a feat for which neither the bombers nor the carrier were designed) to strike the Japanese mainland in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. The plan was for the B-25s to land in friendly territory in China, but the carrier was spotted by a Japanese patrol boat while nearly half again farther from Japan than the intended launching point. Although the Japanese boat was promptly sunk by the Hornet's escorting destroyers, it was impossible to determine whether or not it had radioed any warning, and Doolittle decided to launch from the extra distance, realizing that they would not have the fuel to reach the airfields in China. Two bombers crashed in Japanese-held territory and their crews were captured, and one landed in Russia (then a neutral country in the war with Japan) and its crew interned for the duration of the war. The remaining thirteen crashed in friendly territory in China, with one crewman killed and the remaining sixty-four eventually rescued, including Doolittle himself. But the airstrikes on the Japanese homeland, including Doolittle's strike on Tokyo itself, provided a much needed boost to American morale. Although the damage inflicted was nominal, the psychological effect on the Japanese populace and the high command was so disruptive that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto redeployed his carrier fleet to defend the homeland against further raids, resulting in his defeat (and the sinking of four of the six Japanese carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor) at the Battle of Midway six weeks later. In addition to the Medal of Honor, Doolittle was jumped over the rank of full colonel and promoted directly to Brigadier General.


Doolittle was a flight instructor during the First World War, and remained in the reserves while attaining his Masters and PhD in aeronautical engineering at MIT and then flying for the aviation division of Shell Oil. He held several flight speed and endurance records when he returned to active duty a year before the US entered World War II. After the Tokyo raid, he rose to command the 8th Air Force, the only reservist to command a numbered air force in the war.


The film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was based on the autobiography, and shown through the perspective, of Captain Ted W. Lawson (played in the film by Van Johnson), an aircraft commander during the Doolittle Raid who lost a leg when his B-25 crashed in China. Although the film dwelt heavily on Lawson's relationship with his wife, Spencer Tracy's Doolittle was a major character in the film and it did cover the preparations, raid and aftermath with as much detail and accuracy as could be given considering that the war was still going on at the time. [After recently rereading Lawson's book and revisiting the film to compare and contrast it with Pearl Harbor, the authors have to rank this film as nearly up there with Gettysburg, in terms of both historical accuracy and faithfulness to the original book.]


Another film, The Purple Heart (1945) was a reconstructed account of the fate of one of the other B-25 crews of the Doolittle Raid who were captured by the Japanese, recounting their trial and execution for war crimes, but Doolittle himself was not depicted in that film.


Doolittle was also portrayed during the Tokyo mission by Alec Baldwin in Pearl Harbor (2001), but Baldwin's depiction of Doolittle as a foul-mouthed, condescending, arrogant egotist (which has drawn the wrath of just about everyone living who knew the real Jimmy Doolittle) is only one of the many historical distortions and inaccuracies which place this turkey in the Hollywood Abominations category.



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