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Timeline March 1947

In 1947, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission is founded; Edwin H. Land announces a camera that develops its own pictures in about a minute; Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier in baseball; Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 rocket; the Dead Sea Scrolls are discovered; Henry Ford dies.

A Nation Goes to War

On Dec. 8, 1941, one day after Pearl Harbor, the United States was at war. As private industry scrambled to convert its assembly lines to weapons production, Popular Science‘s editors were moving speedily as well. Two months later, the Feb. 1942 issue informed readers how the country was preparing to fight, with such features as “For the Defense of America Attacked” (by none other than flamboyant FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) and “Sky Destroyers,” including the B-17 Flying Fortress. Our coverage of military technology remained paramount through the war years.

Our cover depicted a formation of North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers. The planes were named for Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, who was outspoken in his advocacy of air power and was court-martialed in 1924 for his comments on the United States’ unpreparedness for air warfare. Though Mitchell died in 1936, he was considered largely exonerated by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Otto Preminger’s 1955 movie, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, starring Gary Cooper, made Mitchell something of a legend.

Sixteen Mitchells were picked for Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle’s raid on Toyko on April 18, 1942, in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Doolittle, already famous for his exploits racing aircraft, was promoted to Brigadier General and awarded the Medal of Honor for his part in the raid. The raiders bombed targets in Kobe, Nagoya, Tokyo, and Yokohama; the attack proved Japan could be hit, and was credited with boosting home morale after the series of early defeats followed the devastation of Pearl Harbor. The B-25s took off from the U.S.S. Hornet in the Pacific and flew 700 miles to Japan. Hollywood wasted little time jumping on the bandwagon, with Spencer Tracy starring as Doolittle in 1944’s story of the raid, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo.

Rather than praise, Doolittle, however, expected a court martial of his own. Because of the distance involved, the planes could not return to the aircraft carrier, and landing sites were selected in China. Bad weather made the field impossible to find, and all 16 planes were lost. Seven pilots were injured and three were killed. Eight were taken prisoner by the Japanese, and only four survived the war. Several endured a desperate ordeal escaping their pursuers across China, sheltered at times by sympathetic Chinese, whose country was occupied by Japan. Reprisals by the Japanese against Chinese patriots were fierce.

In April 1992, a B-25 Mitchell nicknamed Heavenly Body flew from the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ranger in San Diego Bay to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Doolittle’s raid. Heavenly Body appeared in the 1970 Hollywood film adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and flew in various airshows in 2001.

The B-25 Mitchell’s Namesake

“What’s the matter with American flying?” wrote Brig. Gen. William “Billy Mitchell, Assistant Chief of the Army Air Service, in a bylined April 1922 Popular Science article (Looking Back, April 97). “We Americans invented the airplane. With a marvelous spurt, we built nearly 16,000 airplanes in 18 war months. And today we have nearly killed this epochal industry that our own genius created.” Europe already had a flight network by 1920, Mitchell noted, while America had not a single passenger airline in regular commercial operation between any two U.S. cities. Mitchell was an outspoken advocate of air power and the creation of a separate aviation branch of the military. He warned of the peril of allowing other nations to outstrip the United States in the air, hypothesizing a Japanese aerial attack on Hawaii. His criticism of what he termed the poor preparedness of the Air Service led to conviction on charges of insubordination. In 1946, Congress posthumously awarded a special medal in his honor.

Cinematography

Hollywood was quick to capitalize on the exploits of Jimmy Doolittle, his band of raiders, Billy Mitchell, and the plane named after him. At least four films can be linked to these subjects.

Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), starring Spencer Tracy as Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, tells the story of the daring air raid of Japan only a few months after Pearl Harbor.

Memphis Belle, the 1944 documentary on the most famous of the B-17 Flying Fortresses by William Wyler spawned a 1990 feature of the same name.

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) stars Gary Cooper as the outspoken critic of U.S. air preparedness who envisioned a Japanese air attack on Hawaii. Mitchell expressed some of his views in a bylined 1922 article in Popular Science.

Catch-22 (1970) Amid the insanity afflicting combat airplane pilots in Italy during World War II are 18 B-25s, including Heavenly Body, which flew in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Doolittle’s 1942 raid. The film, directed by Mike Nichols, was adapted from Joseph Heller’s novel.

The Flying Fortress

Primary among the “sky destroyers” in our feature of that title was the B-17 Boeing Flying Fortress, the military’s standard heavy-duty bomber. It became America’s prime strategic weapon in the European theater. Few of the planes were in service at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, but production was ramped up quickly. The Fortresses were renowned for their ability to remain airborne despite taking brutal fire. Reports of B-17s landing with large chunks of fuselage shot off were not uncommon. The Memphis Belle was the most famous of the Flying Fortresses as the first heavy bomber in the European war theatre to complete 25 combat missions and keep her entire crew alive. She is immortalized in a 1944 documentary by William Wyler, which spawned a 1990s feature of the same name. Few Flying Fortresses remain; they are occasionally seen at airshows.

In the photo at left, a Flying Fortress is shown in 1999, flying over Puget
Sound in Washington State, after its restoration. It’s now hangared in
Renton, Washington. For more information, see the Museum of Flight’s Web site.

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