On Christmas Eve, the submarine USS Copperfin, under the command of Captain Cassidy (Cary Grant), departs San Francisco on a secret mission. At sea, Cassidy opens his sealed orders, which direct him to proceed first to the Aleutian Islands to pick up meteorologist Lt. Raymond (John Ridgely), then to Tokyo Bay to obtain vital weather intelligence for the upcoming Doolittle Raid.
On the way, two Japanese planes attack; both are shot down, but one pilot manages to parachute into the water. When Mike (Tom Tully) goes to pick him up, he is stabbed to death. New recruit Tommy Adams (Robert Hutton) shoots the pilot, but because he was slow to react, Tommy blames himself for Mike's death and volunteers to defuse an unexploded bomb stuck under the deck. When Mike is buried at sea, Greek-American Tin Can (Dane Clark) does not attend the service, which angers the other men until he explains that every Allied death causes him great pain. Meanwhile, Raymond, who lived in Japan, discusses how the Japanese people were led into the war by the military faction.
As the submarine nears Tokyo Bay, the Copperfin has to negotiate its way through protective minefields and a submarine screen. When a Japanese ship enters the bay, Cassidy follows in its wake. That night, a small party, including the ship's womanizer, "Wolf" (John Garfield), goes ashore to make weather observations. Meanwhile, Tommy is diagnosed with appendicitis. "Pills", the pharmacist's mate (William Prince), has to operate following instructions from a book, using improvised instruments, and without sufficient ether to last throughout the procedure. The operation is a success, and "Cookie" Wainwright (Alan Hale) begins to prepare the pumpkin pie he had promised to bake Tommy.
Raymond broadcasts the information the shore party has collected in Japanese in an attempt to avoid detection, but the Japanese are alerted and search the bay. The Copperfin remains undetected, allowing the men to watch part of the Doolittle Raid through the periscope. After recovering Raymond and his team, the submarine then slips out of the bay following an exiting ship.
Later, the Copperfin sinks a Japanese aircraft carrier and is badly damaged by its escorts. In desperation, after long hours being attacked by depth charges, Cassidy attacks, sending a destroyer to the bottom and enabling the crew to return safely to San Francisco.
Cast notes:Warner Bros. borrowed Cary Grant from Columbia Pictures in a swap which sent Humphrey Bogart to Columbia to make Sahara. Ironically, Grant had turned down the role that Bogart eventually played, and Gary Cooper had turned down the role of the captain of the Copperfin that Grant wound up playing.
Destination Tokyo was Robert Hutton's screen debut.
Members of the cast spent time at the U.S. Navy's Mare Island Naval Shipyard to familiarize themselves with submarine procedures and operations. Technical advisors to the film included Andy Lennox, a member of the crew of the U.S.S. Wahoo, as well as the captain of that sub, Dudley Walker Morton. The sub was reported as missing in action after production on Destination Tokyo completed. The model of the Copperfin used for filming was based on actual American submarines, except that, to confuse the Japanese, it was given equipment and apparatus that were used on numerous different types of subs. The film was accurate enough to be used by the Navy as a training tool for submariners.
The incident in the film in which the pharmacist's mate performs an appendectomy was based on an actual event which took place on the submarine U.S.S. Seadragon.
Some filming of Destination Tokyo took place at Portuguese Bend near Redondo Beach, California.
Writer Steve Fisher received an Academy Award nomination for his original story for Destination Tokyo.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2001: AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Nominated
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The film had some impact: when the crew of a World War II-submarine in the 1951 movie Operation Pacific is given the treat of watching a submarine movie, it is this film they are shown. At the age of 17, Tony Curtis enlisted in the United States Navy in 1943, forging his mother's signature to do so. Having been inspired by Grant's role, he chose submarine duty and served aboard USS Proteus, a submarine tender. Later, he co-starred with Grant in the 1959 war comedy Operation Petticoat, in which Grant again plays the skipper of a sub during World War II.
According to his autobiography, the film influenced Ronald Reagan in his decision to accept the lead role, a World War II-submarine captain, in the 1957 movie Hellcats of the Navy.
One of the film's screenwriters, Albert Maltz, was later brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities on the grounds that some of the dialogue in Destination Tokyo reflected Communist sympathies.