During the Battle of Midway, all the flyboys of Torpedo Squadron 8 were killed except for Ensign George Gay. This film's original intention was to depict their lives, especially Gay's. The Twentieth Century-Fox studio bought the rights to a 'Life' magazine story by Sidney L. James on the Battle of Midway as well as obtaining permission from both Ensign Gay and the United States Navy to film the story. The 23 September 1942 edition of the 'Hollywood Reporter' stated that "The Navy has relented in its stand against the use of the names of war heroes in film dramatizing their deeds and will not stand in the way provided the permission of the hero is obtained and the story content is satisfactory." However, the studio decided to produce a fictionalized telling of the Battle of Midway. The 'New York Times' of 6 February 1944 reported that the film script about Ensign Gay and Torpedo Squadron 8 was "entirely discarded" after "the protest of a certain high Government official that the proposed picture would carry a defeatist implication."
The meaning of the phrase "wing and a prayer", of which the film's title is a part, is a shortening of an old saying among aviators, "We're coming in on a wing and a prayer". It means that they are flying or trying to land an aircraft in poor condition. The expression can also be used as a metaphor for trying to achieve something even though one is a bit ill-prepared or ill-equipped for the task.
Director Henry Hathaway and his camera crew spent several weeks shooting approximately 50,000 feet of film aboard an American aircraft carrier. This included atmospheric shots, background footage and actual combat scenes. The "Hollywood Reporter" of 12 January 1944 reported that this footage was "the first ever approved by the Navy Department or War Department of any action on one of the new post-Pearl Harbor fleet plane carriers." Whilst on the flat top, Hathaway and crew also studied US Navy procedures and technical manual elements.
According to the DVD sleeve notes, this film about the Battle of Midway utilized actual combat footage. Years later another film also about "The Battle of Midway, Midway (1976), would also utilize real combat footage, but in color.
This movie's opening prologue states: "For the purposes of military security the names of men and some of the ships in this motion picture are fictitious, but the important incidents and the heroism are history."
The film's title is an abbreviation of the famous aviator slogan, "Coming in on a wing and a prayer" but in turn is not intentionally related to the 1943 song of the same title, music and lyrics by Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh.
Erskine Caldwell and Norman Reilly Raine were the screenwriters of the early period when it was known as "Torpedo Squadron 8" and was going to be an historically factual and biographical account of Torpedo Squadron 8 and Ensign George Gay. However, the studio changed the picture's direction to a more fictionalized account. As such, it is not known to what extent their work on this movie remained in the final shooting script.
Lloyd Nolan was once set to star in this movie according to 20th Century-Fox studio publicity and the 'Hollywood Reporter' of late 1943. He would be appearing in the re-conceptualized fictionalized version of the film. A December edition of the 'Hollywood Reporter' reported Nolan to be going to be playing a squadron leader. Records of the Legal Department of the UCLA Arts Special Collections Library state that Nolan was set to play the character of Benjamin K. 'Benny 'O'Neill, a role finally played by Murray Alper. Nolan did not end up appearing in this movie.
After landing for the first time, Dana Andrews reports the squadron to be Torpedo 5. The air group is also reported to be Air Group 5. This means the carrier would have been USS Yorktown (CV-5). Yorktown had been damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea a short time before. She was hastily repaired at Pearl Harbor and put back to sea still with workmen on board. She was again severely damaged at the Battle of Midway and sunk.
Another contributor stated that some scenes were filmed aboard USS Yorktown. In 1944 this would have been USS Yorktown (CV-10). Originally scheduled to be named Bon Homme Richard. After the sinking of CV-5 at the Battle of Midway, the name was changed to Yorktown to commemorate the ship and men who went down with her. USS Yorktown is now a museum at Charleston, SC. (The name Bon Homme Richard, aka Bonnie Dick, later went to CV-31.)
In order to add "immediacy" to the final attack on the ship the actors were filmed in front of rear-projected shots of actual combat footage. This is especially noticeable when showing the flight deck behind Charles Bickford since the perspective is slightly off.