Based on Ted Lawson's autobiographical novel, a few planes led by James Doolittle bomb Japanese cities in April 1942.
Lt. Col. James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy) gets 24 B-25s for a secret mission. Flyers arrive in Florida, and Ted Lawson (Van Johnson) is joined by his wife Ellen (Phyllis Thaxter), who is pregnant. Lt. Miller from the Navy trains them to take off in 500 feet. Lawson's plane bumps the ground and is called the Ruptured Duck. After a dance, men are called out at 3 a.m. to take off. They practice flying low. In San Francisco the planes are hoisted on to the aircraft carrier Hornet. Men are crowded into the admiral's quarters, and Shorty Manch (John R. Reilly) gets the bed. The army officers play poker with sailors and lose.
Doolittle tells them they are going to bomb Tokyo and other cities in Japan. Lt. Commander Jurika (Leon Ames) tells them about Japan. Doolittle says they will attack military targets, but civilian workers will be killed. When Japanese ships fire on them, they are ordered to take off. They hope to meet in Chungking. Doolittle takes off first. Lawson's left engine does not start, and the navy men approach to push it overboard; but Lawson gets it going. Their plane takes off and flies low. Corporal Thatcher (Robert Walker) refills the gas tanks, and navigator McClure (Don DeFore) takes pictures as they fly over Japan. They reach Tokyo and drop four bombs on industries. Japanese planes do not attack them. They head toward China, but they cannot see in the dark. Lawson lands in the water.
Men struggle in the rain to the shore. Lawson has a broken leg. Chinese troops find them and give them cigarettes. Wounded Lawson and McClure are carried to a small boat and then to a town. The wounds are washed and bandaged before moving on to a hospital. The four men are joined by another crew with a doctor (Stephen McNally). Lawson tells Thatcher to leave with the others so that he won't get caught. The doctor says he has to cut off Lawson's leg. A spinal shot numbs his legs, but he is conscious during the operation. Afterward Lawson thanks the Chinese, who honor the Americans for having bombed Japan. The Japanese are getting near, and they have to leave. The injured make it to an American plane.
Ellen gets a call from General Doolittle in Washington, and he invites her to come. Ellen is reassured by her mother (Selena Royle). Doolittle visits Lawson and says the army can use him. Lawson says he wants to wait until he can walk before he sees Ellen; but Doolittle urges him to tell her and leaves, hoping this war will be the last. Ellen comes in, and Lawson falls. They embrace and kiss.
This docudrama describes an early American response
to Pearl Harbor and shows actual footage of the first use of bombers
taking off from an aircraft carrier. The alliance with the Chinese
against Japan is also highlighted.