Wing and a Prayer, The Story of Carrier X

Wing and a Prayer, The Story of Carrier X (also known as Queen of the Flat Tops and Torpedo Squadron Eight) is a black-and-white 1944 war film about the heroic crew of an American carrier in the desperate early days of World War II in the Pacific theater, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Don Ameche, Dana Andrews and William Eythe.[2][3] Although arguably a classic propaganda movie, it was appreciated for its very realistic portrayal and was nominated for the 1944 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Wing and a Prayer, The Story of Carrier X
Directed byHenry Hathaway
Produced by
Written byJerome Cady
Music byHugo Friedhofer
CinematographyGlen MacWilliams
Edited byJ. Watson Webb Jr.
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • July 24, 1944 (1944-07-24)
Running time
97 min
CountryUnited States
Box office$2,250,000[1]

The film title Wing and a Prayer was borrowed from a number one hit song in 1943, "Coming In On a Wing and a Prayer". In a bit of studio self-promotion, the carrier crew watches another 20th Century Fox picture, Tin Pan Alley (1940), during the film.[4]


In the days just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American people are asking "Where is our navy? Why doesn't it fight?" Gravely weakened by the disaster, the US Navy comes up with a plan to trap the Japanese fleet, by using one carrier as several ships to deceive the Japanese Navy into heading for Midway, where a showdown with them will be planned. Meanwhile, on the carrier charged with the mission, flight commander Bingo Harper (Don Ameche) is in charge of the bomber crews on one of the aircraft carriers ("Carrier X") that shouldered the burden in the desperate early days of the war. He is tough and sticks to the rules, while his young pilots behave more like youngsters and do not always follow his logic.

A new squadron led by Lieutenant Commander Edward Moulton (Dana Andrews) is assigned to the carrier. From the very first landing, Harper notices a careless attitude by ex-Hollywood Academy Award–winning star Ensign Hallam "Oscar" Scott (William Eythe). Harper warns Moulton that the squadron's safety cannot be jeopardized and any repeat of the sloppiness will not be tolerated. Moulton does his best with his men, but he is far from having absolute control. During a bombing run, Ensign Breinard (Harry Morgan) drops a bomb close to the carrier and Harper grounds him. After winning the Navy Cross for actions at Coral Sea, Ensign Cunningham fails to follow the correct takeoff procedure and ditches his aircraft into the sea, Harper forbids him to fly again. Later, Cunningham saves the ship in a suicide attack on a torpedo from a Japanese aircraft.

In the meantime, a message is received from Navy headquarters. The carrier is ordered to travel deep into enemy territory, near the Solomon Islands, and make its presence known in order to deceive the Japanese about American fleet dispositions and intentions. However, they are under strict orders not to fight. When Moulton's bombers encounter some Japanese aircraft, they follow orders and retreat, but two aircraft are lost. Not knowing the plan, the pilots are furious. This is repeated several times in other widely-separated locations, driving the aviators to the brink of rebellion. The carrier, however, accomplishes its mission as the Japanese believe that the sightings are of different American carriers, not just one.

Finally, the long-prepared trap is sprung. Deceived into believing that the American carriers are scattered across the Pacific, the Japanese are taken by surprise when the American fleet attacks their carriers. Many pilots are lost, but the Americans win a great victory. However, the last bomber, flown by Scott and very low on fuel, has trouble finding the carrier hidden by low clouds. Moulton begs Harper to turn on the searchlights to guide him in, but Harper refuses to risk betraying the carrier's location to any Japanese submarines that may be lurking nearby. Eventually, Scott's aircraft is heard crashing into the water when it runs out of fuel. Moulton and Harper quarrel, but in few minutes, it is reported that Scott has been picked up by a destroyer. Harper explains that he cares for all his pilots, but he is willing to sacrifice a few for the success of the mission.


Historical accuracy

Wing and a Prayer ... loosely portrays actual historic events related mainly with the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway. The scenario is, however, intentionally changed to justify the initial defensive rather than offensive posture of a US Navy reeling from the early Japanese victories in 1942. The Battle of the Coral Sea is justified as a calculated plot to deceive the Japanese into believing that the U.S. fleet was scattered and vulnerable, while the Battle of Midway is depicted as the eventual springing of this carefully laid trap which thereby caught the enemy at a disadvantage.[5] [Note 1]


Wing and a Prayer was based on Stanley Johnston’s Queen of the Flat Tops (1942), a book that 20th Century Fox tried to buy but the rights were not obtained. After a legal tangle, the studio dropped its plans to buy rights but Johnson sued and won a settlement in 1946.[7]

Although some scenes were shot in studio back lots, and water tank, the carrier is the USS Yorktown, a typical Essex class, with filming by 20th Century Fox permitted by the US Navy during her shakedown cruise in 1943.[8] The US Navy exacted control over the Wing and a Prayer to the extent that the film was a "semi-official" production.[6]

The aircraft used in the Wing and a Prayer, The Story of Carrier X were mainly Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters and Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bombers. These were contemporary with US Navy carrier aircraft designs during 1943 and 1944 rather than 1942 when the film is set. In a few scenes, Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters and Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers appear which would have been accurate for 1942.[9]

Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters play the part of Japanese "Zero" fighters in the film. A Curtiss-Wright CW-22 also makes a very brief appearance as a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft. The action on the carrier deck is convincing as well as the character of the pilots. Real footage is mixed with action shot on the carrier.[10] For some scenes, scale models were also utilized.[11]


Film critic Thomas M. Pryor reviewed Wing and a Prayer, The Story of Carrier X for The New York Times. He commented: "at once a sobering reminder of the perilous conditions under which the American Navy sailed the vast Pacific in the months immediately following Pearl Harbor and a first-rate piece of movie-making to boot."[12]



  1. In actuality, the losses at Pearl Harbor and the numerical superiority of the Japanese had the Americans operating constantly on the defensive in the early period of the Pacific war. It was mainly superior military intelligence, specifically the breaking of the Japanese code, that made possible the crushing American victory at Midway.[6]


  1. Solomon 2002 p. 220.
  2. "Review: 'Wing and a Prayer'." Variety, July 19, 1944, p. 13.
  3. "Review: 'Wing and a Prayer'." Harrison's Reports, July 22, 1944, p. 118.
  4. "Song: 'Wing and a Prayer'." Retrieved: October 13, 2010.
  5. Orriss 1984, pp. 89–90.
  6. Paris 1995, p. 161.
  7. Pendo 1985, p. 211.
  8. Guttman, Robert. "Curtiss SB2C Helldiver: The last dive bomber." HistoryNet. Retrieved: March 28, 2017.
  9. Orriss 1984, p. 90.
  10. Beck 2016, p. 217.
  11. Orriss 1984, p. 91.
  12. Pryor, Thomas M. as T.M.P. "At the Globe and Gotham." The New York Times, August 31, 1944. Retrieved: March 28, 2017.


  • Beck, Simon D. The Aircraft-Spotter's Film and Television Companion. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4766-2293-4.
  • Orriss, Bruce. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Aviation Film Classics of World War II. Hawthorne, California: Aero Associates Inc., 1984. ISBN 0-9613088-0-X.
  • Paris, Michael. From the Wright Brothers to Top Gun: Aviation, Nationalism, and Popular Cinema. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-7190-4074-0.
  • Pendo, Stephen. Aviation in the Cinema. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1985. ISBN 0-8-1081-746-2.
  • Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century-Fox: A Corporate and Financial History. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1.
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