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1942 Fifty Years Ago

June 2024
1min read

Thirty Seconds over Tokyo

Four months after Pearl Harbor it turned out that Japan could be surprised too. On April 18 the world-renowned aviator Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle commanded a daring reprisal mission of sixteen B-25 bombers. The idea for the “Doolittle Raid” had grown out of a December letter by a Fort Worth newspaper publisher, recommending that five hundred American bombers strike Tokyo. A thirty-page Navy analysis of the idea had led to an audacious plan that relied on launching heavily modified Army bombers from the carrier Hornet while it was deep in Japanese-controlled waters but still eight hundred miles from Japan itself. There was no thought of returning to the carrier; the planes would drop their bombs, then fly on another one thousand miles to land in China.

Doolittle’s flight took off in the teeth of a forty-two-knot gale and bombed military and industrial targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, and other cities. One bomber went down inside the Soviet border, where its surviving crew was detained; three of eight Americans captured in Japanese territory were executed. The raid had caused little real damage, but it offered a gleam of triumph in a theater where the Allies had thus far known little but disaster. Its leader would be made a brigadier general the very next day.

Bright Lights, Lonely City

In April the Art Institute of Chicago acquired Edward Hopper’s new canvas Nighthawks , showing an after-hours scene in a starkly lighted diner. People have wondered in the fifty years since about the picture’s sharp-faced man, the woman in the red dress, the soda jerk stooping presumably to wash up some dishes, and the unacknowledged patron at the counter’s edge. “The loneliness thing is overdone,” Hopper complained of the critics’ explanations of his work, but even without its muchspoofed urban characters, left with just its gleaming tureens and salt shakers, Nighthawks would remain an irreducibly lonely scene.

Hopper had grown up in Nyack, New York, close to the Hudson River, where as a boy he sailed and skated and hung around the shipyards. After high school he enrolled at the New York School of Art and then between 1906 and 1910 painted on and off in Europe. Hopper had yet to sell a canvas when he decided to enter the New York Armory Show of 1913. Among the less cataclysmic happenings at that exhibition was Edward Hopper’s first sale, of a work entitled The Sailboat . Twenty years later, when the Museum of Modern Art honored him with a one-man retrospective, the master American painter and etcher still had sold only two canvases.

After the Modern show, things considerably improved. He was much in demand by 1942 and in December 1944 was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He would paint his resonant American pictures for another twenty-three years. “I never tried to do the American Scene as Benton and Curry and the midwestern painters did,” he said as an old man. “I think the American Scene painters caricatured America. I always wanted to do myself.”

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