HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii – Recounting the Doolittle Raid, one of the most memorable events in air power, the movie Pearl Harbor premiered May 21 aboard the USS John C. Stennis at Pearl Harbor Naval Base, Hawaii.
The epic saga, based on actual events, twists and turns through the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The story follows the journey of two young Army Air Force pilots selected to fly on a top secret mission known as the Doolittle Raid, a mission to bomb Tokyo as a symbolic revenge on Japan.
Touchstone Pictures invited 17 Doolittle Raiders, along with Pearl Harbor survivors and various military members, to attend the premiere.
While in Hawaii, the Doolittle Raiders toured Hickam Air Force Base. The base shares a fenceline with Pearl Harbor, and received the brunt of repeated Japanese air attacks Dec. 7, 1941.
The two Doolittle Raiders highlighted in Pearl Harbor, Rafe McCawley, played by actor Ben Affleck, and Danny Walker, played by actor Josh Hartnett, were not based on actual pilots, but rather a composite of historical figures and memories from the veterans who actually won the war.
In both the Touchstone and Doolittle Raider accounts of the story, Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, then commanding general of the Army Air Force, selected Lt. Col. James Doolittle to head the mission.
Recounting the past.
“We had no idea what this ‘top secret’ mission was, but we were all willing to volunteer,” said retired Lt. Col. Harry McCool, then a lieutenant who was the navigator in the fourth plane to launch from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.
“We didn’t find out what the mission was until we were on the ship after six weeks of training.”
Doolittle trained the pilots to launch their planes off the Eglin Field, Fla., runway, which was shortened to the length of the Hornet flight deck.
The bombers were lifted onto the Hornet’s flight deck April 1, 1942, and the ship headed toward Japan. The Japanese had stationed their picket boats farther than expected, about 700 miles, and the task force was detected sooner than planned.
The aircraft launch.
After weeks of sailing and now 668 miles from Toyko, the B-25s were launched 12 hours ahead of schedule April 18, 1942.
Doolittle, piloting the first plane, led the remaining 15 Army Air Force aircraft which launched for the first time off the flight deck of the USS Hornet.
“It took about four hours to fly over (to) Tokyo,” McCool said. “We dropped our bombs and then continued flying toward China until our fuel ran out, which took about nine-and-a-half hours.
“We knew going into the mission we probably wouldn’t have enough fuel to reach China and we didn’t think we would come back alive.”
Of the 80 crewmembers who flew, 11 crews bailed out over China, four planes ditched or crash-landed, three men were killed and eight men were injured.
One plane landed in Russia, where the crew was interned for 13 months before escaping through Iran. Eight men were captured by the Japanese in China. Three were executed, one died a prisoner of war and the rest were liberated in 1945.
“I think it’s great the movie ended with the triumphant Doolittle Raid,” Hartnett said. The character Hartnett portrays is a composite of his great uncle and other survivors of war, or any other moment where people’s lives were flipped on end.
“I didn’t realize what a huge movie I got myself into,” said Kate Beckinsale, playing the role of Evelyn Johnson, a nurse.
“I knew what Pearl Harbor was before the movie came along, but growing up with a British education, I never learned all the details of that day.”
Beckinsale said she accepted the part because she loved the script.
Understanding Pearl Harbor.
“It’s completely unusual to read a script three or four times, and cry every time you read it, but this one was incredible,” she said. “It’s an amazing story and I think it will help many people understand exactly what Pearl Harbor means.
“Some people fear the release of this movie will bring up a lot of old prejudices,” Hartnett said. “But if we don’t learn from our past, we’re doomed to repeat it. We have a lot of survivors who said they really enjoyed the film. If they can enjoy it, why can’t we?”
Earning a credit in the movie, the men and women of the 15th Air Base Wing worked with the film crews January through April 2000, in support of the production.
The 15th Civil Engineer Squadron helped demodernize the filming area by removing an inactive waterline and moving trees to allow cameras to reach high angles while filming an explosion in a bait shop.
Because live explosives were used in the scene, the explosives ordnance disposal team stood by ready to handle any potential complication. They also worked with the film crew to provide optimum safety for both Air Force and crew members.