Adapted from James Michener’s novel, a US Navy pilot is rescued by a helicopter at sea, and then he has to attack bridges in Korea.
In November 1952 off the coast of Korea on board a United States aircraft carrier Mike Forney (Mickey Rooney) in a green hat and Nestor Gamidge (Earl Holliman) take off in a helicopter to rescue down pilots. A jet plane lands on the water, and the pilot Lt. Harry Brubaker (William Holden) is in the water. Rear Admiral George Tarrant (Fredric March) says his family is waiting for him in Tokyo. Nestor jumps in the water and helps Harry so he can be pulled up.
Harry recovers, and the Admiral asks to see him. Harry declines to make the Navy his career, and he thinks they should pull out of the war. The Admiral says they have to knock out the bridges of Toko-Ri so they will quit. Harry says he did not help his family get to Japan, and the Admiral says he has three days there. The Admiral talks with Commander Wayne Lee (Charles McGraw) about his disregarding an order to protect his pilots. The Admiral thinks he backed down too easily when he thought he was right.
At a dock Nancy Brubaker (Grace Kelly) greets her husband Harry with a kiss. Mike hugs Kimiko (Keiko Awaji), who says they have to talk. At a nice hotel Harry kisses his two little girls. At a table the Admiral tells Harry and Nancy that he has told the press they are fighting Russian weapons. Nestor has a cut face and tells Harry that Mike is in jail and needs his help to get out. The Admiral tells Nancy that Mike rescued Harry. The Admiral says his son was killed, and his wife reacted badly. Nancy feels she must face the reality now.
Harry persuades a major to release Mike and pays $80 for the damage. Mike asks Harry to talk to Kimiko because she is planning to marry another guy. She tells Harry that she lost her heart to another man. Mike grabs her dress, and they take him out of there. Harry comes home to Nancy late. She says she learned about his crash, and she asks him about the bridges. He says the bridges are well defended.
Harry, Nancy, and their girls bathe in indoor hot springs and are joined by a Japanese family. On the carrier Harry points out Beer Barrel and Mike to Nancy. Mike sees Kimiko with her man and starts another fight. Harry kisses Nancy goodbye.
Commander Lee instructs his pilots for a mission to take pictures. Lee and Harry take off in jets and fly low over bridges for pictures. Lee makes a rough landing, and Harry is waved off. Harry says he will run out of fuel before the damage is repaired. Harry lands on the deck and stops just before a large machine. Harry learns that Mike and Nestor are being transferred to another ship.
Pilots look at the films taken of the bridges. Harry is upset and walks out. He is nervous and writes a letter to Nancy. Lee asks Harry if he is all right. Harry goes out to the edge of the deck.
Twelve jets take off and prepare to attack. They go in low and bomb bridges amid much flack. Lee orders the second attack. Harry says all bridges are down, and Lee directs them to secondary targets, bombing ammunition dumps. Harry says he thinks he was hit. Lee sees a leak of fuel. Lee tells Harry to call a rescue, and he does. Mike and Nestor take off. Harry says his fuel tank is empty. Harry says he can’t make it over the ridge. He makes a crash landing in a field and gets out of the plane. He has a pistol and sees Korean soldiers, who are attacked by the jets. Harry is shot at and runs through a gully. The helicopter arrives, lands, and is shot at. Nestor gets out and is killed. Mike and Harry run into the gully. Mike has two rifles. The jets are flying over again. Mike says another copter won’t come until morning. The jets leave. Harry says it is the wrong war in the wrong place. They battle the Koreans, and Mike is killed by a grenade. Harry is shot and dies.
The Admiral and Lee hear the report that three men were killed. Lee says the mission was good and that he lost his boy too. The Admiral wonders what he could write to Harry’s wife. He asks where they get such men.
This realistic war drama reflects the deep regret that the Korean War was not as necessary as World War II for Americans. A conscientious pilot suffers from his doubts that the war is moral as well as from the dangers of combat.