You know what top secret is?........Yes, sir. It's the kind of mission where you
get medals, but they send 'em to your relatives.
The movie begins on a Tennessee farm as two kids, Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker, play in a pretend fighter plane they made, pretending to be shooting down German planes. As they are playing, Danny's dad is out dusting the fields in his old cropduster. When he lands and goes into his tractor, the two boys sneak into his plane and keep the pretend fight going. They accidentally start the plane and "fly" it down the runway, almost crashing it until it finally stops. Danny's father comes out and starts screaming at them and smacking Danny. Rafe grabs a board and whacks the dad to stop the beating, protecting his best friend.
It's now years later, and older Rafe and Danny, both First Lieutenants in the US Army, are at a U.S. Army Air Corps training field commanded by Major Jimmy Doolittle. Rafe is very cocky as he and Danny do a particularly dangerous stunt (a game of chicken) that almost kills them (and more importantly to the brass, almost damages the planes). They are called into Doolittle's office where they are reprimanded, but Doolittle is actually quite impressed with Rafe as he reminds him of himself when he was young.
Later, Doolittle tells Rafe that he has been accepted to go to Britain and join Eagle Squadron (a squadron of volunteer American pilots serving with the RAFin the fight against the Germans. It is strictly a volunteer assignment, and Doolittle tells him it's his duty to talk him out of it. Rafe asks Doolittle what he would do, and Doolittle says he would go, so Rafe agrees to go as well.
Prior to Rafe leaving, there is a big dance in New York, and many nurses are coming to the event. Some of the nurses are traveling there by train, and one of them, Evelyn Johnson, is telling the other nurses how she first met Rafe while assessing his fitness to fly, and there she first agreed to go out with Rafe. They have been going out now for three months. At the dance, Rafe tells Evelyn that in the morning he is headed off to Europe. They have a tearful good-bye, and Rafe tells her not to come to the train station to see him off. He goes to Europe, and Evelyn and Danny get transferred to Pearl Harbor.
While in Europe, the squadron Rafe is a member of is scrambled to intercept a formation of Heinkel He 111 bombers, but Rafe's fighter is attacked by a Messerschmitt BF 109 escort. His oil line is ruptured, and his canopy jams. His aircraft crashes into the sea. In Hawaii, Evelyn is informed that Rafe is missing presumed killed.
Three months later while separately going to the same movie, Danny and Evelyn see a newsreel that shows British fighters being shot down by the Germans. Thinking of Rafe, both Danny and Evelyn leave the theater and by accident meet each other out front of the building. They strike up a friendship again which eventually leads to a romantic encounter in a parachute storage room.
Evelyn has stopped mourning Rafe, but on the morning she discovers she's pregnant, in walks Rafe. As it turned out, after he crashed into the English Channel, the impact meant he could escape, and he was rescued by a French fishing boat and returned to occupied France where he couldn't get word out to them that he was alive. Suddenly Danny appears, holding a telegram that Rafe is alive. Somehow, Rafe instantly realizes that Danny and Evelyn are now together and leaves the room, refusing to talk to Danny.
Danny and Rafe argue and eventually drive to a hillside to discuss what they are going to do about their situation. They have been drinking and fall asleep in their convertible under the stars. They are awakened the next morning by Japanese Zero fighters. The Japanese attack catches the U.S. fleet largely unaware, despite Admiral Kimmel having been informed of a Japanese midget submarine destroyed near the entrance to the harbor. Much of the surprise came not from a lack of awareness of the planes, but a radar station dismissing the large number of contacts as a flight of B-17s. A bomb dropped from a Kate bomber ruptures the forward part of the USS Arizona's ammunition magazine, literally splitting the ship in half and sending it to the bottom. Meanwhile, Japanese fighters are attacking the airstrips present on the island to prevent any attempt to intercept the attack aircraft. Petty Officer Doris Miller, a cook on the USS West Virginia, mans an antiaircraft gun and manages to shoot down a Japanese plane.
Around the same time, Evelyn, Sandra, Betty and the other nurses head towards the hospital to help injured people. On their way they are strafed, and many people flee into the hospital while some are killed. The gunfire forces Evelyn and Sandra to hide behind a fountain. Suddenly, a plane drops a bomb, and Betty is killed while the other women hide in the hospital.
Later, Evelyn and the other nurses are working frantically with masses of incoming casualties, having to prioritize which lives can be saved and who receives priority care. Nurse Betty Bayer was one of the people who could not be saved, and tearfully Evelyn and Sandra are forced to put her with the others who died.
Rafe and Danny make it to their Army auxiliary airfield, and together with another pilot manage to get a planes moving, though the other pilot is destroyed before getting off the ground. The two of them shoot down seven Japanese planes over the Harbor as the dying sailors cheer them on from below. They even use the same maneuver that got them into trouble at Doolittle's school to force four Zeros to crash into each other.
The attack finally ends, and because of their heroism, Rafe and Danny are both promoted to Captain and assigned to Doolittle (now promoted to Lt. Col) for a top secret mission. President Roosevelt wants to send a message that the Japanese homeland is not immune from bombing. They are going to put Army Air Corp B-25l bombers onto the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (instead of the usual light naval assault bombers), sail out close to Japan, take off a few hundred miles offshore, bomb Tokyo and land in China.
For the next five or six weeks, Rafe and Danny are in training, learning how to fly these planes, and most importantly, learn how to take off in such a short space more suited to launching fighters and light-strike aircraft. To achieve this, the aircraft are stripped of any unnecessary weight. Finally, they load the planes onto the aircraft carrier and head off towards Japan. The Hornet and her escorts are discovered by Japanese patrol boats, and have to take off a couple of hundred miles earlier than planned. They now know that they won't have enough fuel to get their original landing point in China and will instead have to land their aircraft earlier than planned.
They bomb Tokyo as planned and limp towards China, running out of fuel. Rafe crash lands his plane, but is caught by elements of the Imperial Japanese Army which are assigned to the invasion of China. Just as he's about to be shot by the Japanese, Danny comes flying down, shooting the Japanese soldiers, with forward-mounted machine guns as he crashes his plane, too.
The two, along with a few other men are confronted by more Japanese soldiers, and after a small gunfight, they are captured. Danny is dying but is tied to a board attached to his shoulders. Rafe is about to be shot when suddenly Danny takes his board and whacks the Japanese soldier, protecting Rafe, just as Rafe had done for him when they were younger. Another Japanese soldier then shoots Danny in the chest. The Japanese soldiers are then finally shot by the other American airmen.
The Chinese soldiers appear, and they are saved. It is too late for Danny, though, as his wounds are so great, he dies in Rafe's arms. Just before he dies, Rafe tells him that he can't die because he's going to be a father. Danny tells him no, and that Rafe is going to have to be the father. Then he dies.
Later, the surviving Doolittle Raiders are seen coming off the plane. A pregnant Evelyn is there waiting to see who gets off. Rafe appears, and she is elated but waits to see if Danny is next. A somber Rafe then reaches back inside and helps carry out the coffin containing Danny.
A few years later, Rafe, Evelyn and their son Danny, who is named in honor of Rafe's best friend, are playing in the backyard. Then Rafe asks Danny if he would like to go flying, and an excited Danny points to the crop duster plane and, together, Rafe and little Danny fly off into the sunset.
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