Simanaitis Says

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TODAY IN PART 2,the B-25 bomber has two movie roles, one celebrating the famed Doolittle Raid of Japan in early 1942, the other a scathing 1970 satire of wartime madness. 

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. As described in Wikipedia, MGM produced this film of the Doolittle Raid based on a 1943 book of the same name by Captain Ted W. Lawson, one of the raid’s pilots. Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay.

The movie follows actual accounts very closely, with focus on the seventh of 16 aircraft, the “Ruptured Duck” piloted by Lawson. The flick combines a romantic story of the Lawsons, the drama of wartime camaraderie, and also documentary details of their mission.

The movie describes the training at Eglin Field, Florida, in early 1942. A major challenge was performing B-25 takeoffs in less than 500 ft., though the aircrews didn’t realize at the time they were preparing for carrier ops.

What with military hardware being top secret, the aircrafts’ prized Norden bombsights were replaced with rudimentary equipment. The aircrews practiced hedge-hopping in their flight cross-country to San Francisco, where the B-25s were loaded aboard the USS Hornet. Only then did they learn the nature of their mission. 

April 18, 1942. As takeoff protocol, if a plane malfunctioned, it was to be pushed over the side. Much of the film’s takeoff footage is from actual U.S. Navy photography. 

Extra fuel tanks, once emptied, were kept aboard and jettisoned in unison; this, to prevent a trail leading back to the USS Hornet. After successfully bombing their Tokyo targets, the Ruptured Duck crew continued to China, where several were injured in crashing into the surf. Nationalist forces celebrated their heroism, as did missionaries and Red Cross still active in the country. Lawson’s injury worsened and a leg was amputated.

There’s a moving scene where Chinese Girl Scouts sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Mandarin. Ultimately Ted and his crew survive and return to the U.S. He’s reunited with his wife, and now-Lieutenant General Doolittle tells Ted he still has work to do. 

Yet Other War Work for B-25s. Catch-22 is a 1970 satirical black comedy war film adapted from the 1961 novel of the same name by Joseph Heller.

Catch-22: Anniversary Edition, by Joseph Heller, Simon & Schuster, 2011.

The Plot. Captain John Yossarian is a B-25 bombardier stationed on the Mediterranean base on Pianosa during World War II. As noted by Wikipedia, “Along with his squadron members, Yossarian is committed to flying dangerous missions, but after watching friends die, he seeks a means of escape.”

Yet he is continually confronted with the military Catch-22, namely, “an airman would have to be crazy to fly more missions, and if he were crazy he would be unfit to fly. Yet, if an airman were to refuse to fly more missions, this would indicate that he is sane, which would mean that he would be fit to fly the missions.”

Other inanities in this anti-war tale include a Captain whose name is Major Major Major (portrayed by Bob Newhart). He’s eventually promoted, despite his lack of flight experience, from Laundry Officer to Squadron Commander, Captain to Major, thus becoming Major Major Major Major.

Another Cinema Tidbit: Orson Welles portrays Brigadier General (Wing Commander) Dreedle, who “(having lost all drive after he was made General and he found he had ‘nothing more to aim for’) … now mostly busies himself with harassing his son-in-law, Colonel Moodus.”

Moodus, portrayed by Austin Pendleton, American playwright and prolific character actor, “thinks Dreedle is a know-it-all that cannot take criticism,” which is certainly the case.

Indeed, years later, Pendleton wrote the play Orson’s Shadow, a celebratory study of theatrical egos Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh (Olivier’s wife at the time), and theater critic Kenneth Tynan. Orson’s Shadow has made an appearance here at SimanaitisSays.  

The Aircrafts’ Role. The dark logic is enhanced in the film by absurdist events “interspersed with moments of gritty realism.” Wikipedia observes that Paramount “planned to film key flying scenes for six weeks, but the aerial sequences required six months of camera work, resulting in the bombers flying about 1,500 hours. They appear on screen for approximately 10 minutes.” 

One of 17 flyable B-25 Mitchells featured in Catch-22.

Wikipedia continues, “Catch-22 is renowned for its role in saving the B-25 Mitchell from possible extinction. The film’s budget accommodated 17 flyable B-25 Mitchells, and one hulk was acquired in Mexico, and flown with landing gear down to the Guaymas, Sonara, Mexico filming location. The aircraft was burned and destroyed in the crash landing scene. The wreck was then buried in the ground by the runway, where it remains.” 

The plane crash scene from Catch-22. Image from the San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives.

Wikipedia observes, “Many of the ‘Tallmantz Air Force fleet’ went on to careers in films and television, before being sold as surplus. Fifteen of the 18 bombers remain intact, including one displayed at the Smithsonian Institution‘s National Air and Space Museum.”

Not bad for extras in a 52-year-old movie. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022

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