Adapted from a true story and directed by Lewis Milestone, eight American men in the Army Air Corps participate in the Tokyo air raid and are captured and put on trial for murder by a Japanese military tribunal in a civil court.
The military are in charge in a Japanese civil court as most of the reporters who show their press credentials are admitted; but two are turned away. Three Japanese judges enter led by Mitsuru Toyama (Peter Chong). Two Chinese men enter as witnesses. Next eight American soldiers are brought in to stand trial. They are led by Captain Harvey Ross (Dana Andrews) who asks why they are there. The judge says they are on trial and will have a lawyer appointed by the court. Lt. Wayne Greenbaum (Sam Levene) quotes the Geneva Conventions in regard to their rights in a war. He says they cannot be tried in a civil court. The judge says they have violated international law and has the indictment read which accuses them of killing civilians on April 18, 1942 in Tokyo and other cities. They are charged with murder. Toyama orders the first witness to be summoned. The Chinese governor of Kungwang province testifies that an American plane crashed there.
Captain Ross is flying the plane during a rainstorm and tells his crew to abandon ship. Ross puts the plane on automatic pilot, and the men put on their parachutes. Ross tells them to meet where the circling plane crashes. They jump out one at a time in the rain and land in the mud. Greenbaum and Sgt. Howard Clinton (Farley Granger) see Ross and meet up. They see their plane crash, and it is burning. The five men see a station wagon and hide. They hear an American and welcomed into the car. The other men are from a plane that went down in the sea. They meet the Chinese Governor and his son. The Governor tells them the Japanese had 4,000 casualties in the Tokyo raid. Ross says he cannot tell them where they came from nor where they are going. Greenbaum suggests they borrow the car. The Governor invites them to his house to eat and rest and change their clothes. Ross accepts and warns if he crosses them, they will kill them.
In the court the Judge Toyama asks about their conversations. The Governor says they talked about destroying hospitals and temples. Ross says he lied, that those were not their targets. Greenbaum asks if they can cross-examine; but their lawyer says they are not allowed to do so.
General Ito Mitsubi (Richard Loo) is the next witness. The judge asks him to show a film, and he describes the damage in Yokohama and Nogoya. In the dark a scream is heard, and the son shows the knife which he used to kill his father. The son is taken out of the court. Judge Toyama says the Chinese are a treacherous people. He asks Ito where the Americans came from, and Ito says they came from the Horner aircraft carrier. Court is adjourned for the day, and the judge tells the Ito and navy commander not to argue with each other. Ito offers proof, and a Japanese sailor comes in and answers questions. He says their ship was sunk that morning. The admiral says one of their mines could have sunk the ship. He explains that the American planes were B-25s and that they could not have come from a carrier.
The eight American soldiers are put in a jail cell and sit on the floor. Greenbaum discovers a microphone and alerts the others. In another room a Japanese officer is listening. The Chinese son is in the next cell, and they elect him an honorary member of their squadron. The son is taken from his cell and says goodbye. The guards summon Captain Ross and take him to an office where he meets Karl Keppel of the Swiss Red Cross. Ross tells him they have been falsely accused, and he asks for his help. General Ito comes in and asks Keppel if Washington can make them drop the charges. Keppel says 100,000 Japanese are in American internment camps. He sends Keppel away and questions Ross, who says he will give no more information than his name, rank, and serial number. Ito says he fished along the California coast. On a globe he shows Ross places the Japanese have conquered. Ross says they have resources too. Ito says Japan is united in Emperor worship and hatred. Their people work fourteen hours a day seven days a week. They are willing to sacrifice ten million lives, and he asks about the Americans. Ito asks if Ross believes his government can help him. Ito says if he will admit they came from a carrier, he would let Keppel communicate with Washington. Ross says he does not trust Ito and leaves. Sgt. Jan Skvoznik (Kevin O’Shea) is brought in, and Ito suggests he could be their weakest link.
Ross is taken back to the cell. The others say that Skvoznik was a courageous football player. They hear a scream. Ross asks Clinton if he is scared, and Clinton wonders if he can take it.
That night Ito comes down to the cell and sees the men sleeping on the floor. Ross is talking in his sleep to his navigator. He dreams about how they were told to protect the Hornet. Ross wakes up and sees Ito, who walks away.
Keppel asks to see an official about sending his message, but a bureaucrat tells him it will take time. After Keppel leaves, the bureaucrat throws away the message.
In court seven prisoners are brought in without Skvoznik, who is brought in as a witness to testify. Skvoznik does not speak and has a tic, moving his head. Greenbaum jumps over the rail and says this man was never sick before. A fight breaks out, and the Japanese soldiers restrain the Americans. Ito questions Skvoznik. A note is brought to the judge as people are heard. Ito announces that Corregidor has fallen. The Japanese celebrate, and the soldiers raise their swords. Ito and Ross discuss General MacArthur, and Ito calls Ross stupid. Ito orders the prisoners removed.
At a restaurant Keppel meets with reporters about getting a message to Washington.
Ito upstairs listens to the prisoners’ conversation by a transmitter. Skvoznik is carried in on a stretcher and put in the cell unconscious. Lt. Angelo Canelli (Richard Conte) is brought back with his bandaged arm in a sling. He says he was going to Italy to study art, but the war started. He went to New York and enlisted. Canelli asks about Lt. Peter Vincent (Donald Barry) who is out being questioned. Canelli says he hears music. Sgt. Martin Stoner (John Craven) recites the poem “How Do I Love Thee: Let Me Count the Ways.” He hears the voice of his girlfriend finishing the poem. Ross is dipping a cloth in a bucket of water, and he recalls when his son washed a new-born colt who then stands up. Ross and his wife are watching happily and then sprinkle water at each other in fun. In the cell Ross puts a damp rag on Skvoznik’s forehead. Greenbaum talks with Clinton, who came from a wealthy family. A Japanese soldier comes in and takes out Clinton, who tells Greenbaum he thinks he can make it.
Later that night Clinton comes downstairs and is put in the cell. The others welcome him, but Clinton looks at them without speaking. Greenbaum asks him to say something, but Clinton shakes his head and nods that he was tortured. Japanese soldiers bring a cart and serve mush in a bowl for each prisoner. Clinton declines to eat. Greenbaum offers him the tea, and they are all silent. Stoner starts crying, and Ross tells him it is his birthday. They wish the captain happy birthday. Ross says he is thirty, getting to be an old man. Stoner quotes another poem about young fellows. Lt. Kenneth Bayforth (Charles Russell) is taken out, and Stoner says a prayer. Clinton writes something, and Greenbaum says that Clinton indicated he may talk.
Japanese women wait on General Ito and hand him a message. In court Ito calls Lt. Bayforth to testify. He comes in with his hands in gloves. Ito asks if he will reveal information, and Bayforth says no. Ito calls Clinton to take the stand and asks if he has a statement. The defense lawyer says this prisoner has lost his voice. Ito hands a pencil and paper to Clinton, and he writes on two sheets of paper. Ito says he has appointed Greenbaum to speak for him. Clinton hands him the other paper, and Ito asks him to read it. Greenbaum says Clinton is grateful for the pain inflicted because it has given him strength. Then Greenbaum speaks for himself, challenging them to give the men back what they took from them so that he will talk. Ito hands a paper to Judge Toyama. Ito says he has asked for the charges to be dismissed and says their commanding officers are the ones responsible. Toyama says they will show leniency if they give information about their commanding officers and the base from which they came. Ross asks what will happen if they cooperate. Toyama says they will either be made prisoners of war or they will be executed. Ito explains the benefits they will get with their lives. Ross questions this, and Ito tries to persuade him. Ross asks for some time, and they are given time in private to discuss this.
The prisoners are taken to the Judge’s chambers. Ross says they can have majority rule. Greenbaum suggests they discuss it first. Ross says he is facing life and says the tortured must decide. Barclay recites the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and they begin singing it. They stop in the middle. Ross says it must be one for all and all for one. He says there will be a secret ballot. Then he picks up an urn and says whoever thinks they should talk should break his wings and put them in the urn. If one person’s broken wings are in the urn, then that will be their decision. One by one they put their wings in the urn. Then they return to the courtroom.
Judge Toyama asks if they have a decision. Ross explains, and the urn is given to Toyama. He takes out one wing at a time, and not one of them is broken. Ross thanks the men. Toyama asks Ross if that is his final word. Ross says they can kill them, but it will not stop the United States from fighting them. He says it is their war because they started it, and they will be wiped out. The Americans cheer, and a gunshot is heard. General Ito has shot himself. Judge Toyama pronounces them guilty and sentences them to be executed. The Americans walk out together proudly as “Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder” is heard. The purple heart medal is shown.
This historical drama was allowed to be shown after reports were made of Japanese torturing prisoners. Three of the men were executed by firing squad, and one died in custody; but the other four were liberated at the end of the war. The unreasonableness and cruelty of the Japanese made this a powerful propaganda film for the all-out war effort to defeat Japan.