Leon Uris adapted his own novel about marines who are trained and fight in the Pacific War. Their personal relationships are severely affected by the war.
Master Sergeant Mac (James Whitmore) narrates the story of new Marines in 1942. Kathy (Mona Freeman) tells recruit Dan Forrester (Tab Hunter) she will wait for him, and he says they are engaged. A train takes the recruits from Baltimore to San Diego. Drill Sgt. Jim Beller instills strict discipline. He tells them several are going to radio school.
Major Sam Huxley (Van Heflin) is in charge of the battalion and tells his officers it will be a long road back across the Pacific. The men complain that Huxley makes them take long hikes. Joe Gomez (Perry Lopez) tries to take something from Marion Hotchkiss (John Lupten), who hits him; they become friends and shake hands.
During liberty Mac and others look for Ski Wronski (William Campbell), and in a bar Mac starts a fight. They find Ski with a hooker, and Mac slaps him. Andy Hookens (Aldo Ray) takes Ski’s money back from her.
Huxley and Mac use Navaho Indians to communicate in their language that the Japanese cannot understand. Marion refuses a double date with Andy and says he is writing a book. On the ferry Marion meets Rae (Anne Francis) and says he does not have a girl. He admits he is 19 and hopes to see her again. Dan goes into a bar and orders a drink. Later he is drunk, talks loudly, and passes out. At the USO Mrs. Elaine Yarborough (Dorothy Malone) gives him coffee, and he asks her to walk him to the bus terminal. She says her husband tours the Pacific for the government and is only there a few days a month. She invites him to go on a hayride Friday, and he kisses her.
Mac tells Huxley that their equipment is inferior and out of date. Huxley tells him they must make it work. At the ferry Marion reads a story to Rae. Elaine brings Dan back to her house after the hayride, and he takes off his shirt. He urges her to have fun and kisses her. She suggests they swim in her pool, and she offers to drive him back to the base.
In the barracks Joe cheats at poker and runs from Andy. Mac asks Dan what he is doing in San Diego, and he is concerned that he has not written to his family. Dan gets a call from his father, and he talks to Kathy. Huxley sends Dan on a furlough to go home, and he explains to Mac why. Mac warns him about getting involved in the personal lives of his men.
Dan comes late to see Elaine, and she realizes they are washed up. He says it wouldn’t have happened if the world was in its right senses. She says she was going to fight for him, but he leaves.
Andy tries to get a date with the waitress Ruby. Dan has dinner with his parents, and his father lets him take the car to see Kathy. They park and kiss. She asks if he likes her as much as the girl in San Diego. He says he loves Kathy. At her house her father is very upset. Dan and Kathy come in after being out all night. Kathy says they were married.
Huxley reprimands Mac for his men stealing and sending limericks. Huxley gets their shipping orders and says to give the men liberty. He describes the difficult time before he leaves his wife. In a bar Mac proposes a toast to “Huxley’s Hookers.” Joe says he called broads to come over, and four women come in. Marion sees Rae kissing Joe and walks out.
In November 1942 they arrive in Wellington, New Zealand. Huxley orders a night hike and another the next day. Andy introduces himself to a waitress, and a soldier says she is Mrs. Pat Rogers (Nancy Olson). He stays late and takes her to a movie and walks her home. He kisses her, and she tells him her husband was killed in North Africa.
Andy asks Dan if he has ever apologized to a woman, and Dan says he has many times. Pat is cold to Andy, and he apologizes for the first time to her. She suggests a film.
Huxley and Mac give the men liberty. Mac talks to Marion, who says Rae has been writing to him. Mac says Marines can have a good marriage, but a guy has to “erase a lot of ugly pictures from his mind.” Joe bought metals and tells how he won them and was killed. Marion starts writing a letter to Rae and thanks Mac.
On Thanksgiving Pat invites Andy to her parents’ farm. Her father (Rhys Williams) tells Andy how Pat lost her brother too. He shows Andy an ax in a eucalyptus tree, and Andy chops down the tree. Later by the fire Andy tells Pat he is glad he found her. She says he will never come back, but he asks her to write to him. He says her family is really nice, and he kisses her. She stops him, and he says he understands.
At Christmas Eve services they sing “Silent Night.” They ship out and land on Guadalcanal. They have to mop up the island. Planes drop bombs on them. After a month they corner the remaining Japanese.
They go back to New Zealand. Andy calls on Pat and says he got ten days leave. She realizes he has malaria and takes care of him. He becomes delirious with war memories. Three days later he wakes up. She says she was frightened and admits the war has done her in. They kiss.
Mac already knows that Huxley was promoted. Huxley orders a 60-mile hike with full packs. On leave Mac gives Huxley a bottle, and Andy introduces Mrs. Rogers to them. Huxley and Pat talk frankly, and she says his men adore him. She realizes he is lonely, and he says she reminds him of his wife. She cries and admits she grabbed for a straw with Andy. He says she has to decide what she can live with. At her apartment she tells Andy she is calling it off. He says he loves her and suggests they get married. She embraces him and indicates she is going to have a baby. She says she knows she will have something the war cannot take away from her.
The men hike all day and at night in the rain. They complete the hike in seventeen hours. Huxley refuses to let them ride back. Dan and Mac ask Huxley to let Andy ride back so he can get married. Huxley orders them to hike back right away. Major Wellman complains, but Huxley leads them back. With ten kilometers to go Huxley says they will hike because they are angry. The men see trucks go by carrying another battalion. Huxley asks if they can make it, and they shout. They return to camp singing “Honey-Babe.”
Mac takes Andy to get his permission to marry. People celebrate their wedding. Two days later they have to board ship. Andy leaves the ship, and Dan tries to stop him. Huxley calls on Pat and tells her Andy is planning to desert. He wants Andy to return on his own. He asks her to help him. She asks why she has to give him up. He says she knows what she has to do. Andy tells Pat he is not going back to the ship. He says they can escape to Australia. She agrees but tells him how they will have to change their names. He realizes he has to go back to the ship. She says she loves him, and they embrace before he goes.
Mac narrates how they were used to mop up again. The writer Marion is killed. Huxley learns they are to be in reserve again. He goes to General Snipes (Raymond Massey) and says he would rather resign than be in reserve again. The general shows him books of plans on the Saipan invasion. Huxley says the fighting men, not books, take the islands. Snipes changes the orders and sends them in the invasion by 60,000 men on June 14, 1944.
The men land on the beach, and casualties are heavy. Some men follow tanks. Huxley signals to his men. He makes a call and orders mortal fire. Mac asks the Navaho to communicate on radio. Snipes says Huxley’s battalion is isolated. Huxley goes ahead and is shot. Two men pull him back. Andy tries to stop his bleeding and says he will carry him; but Huxley points his pistol at him and tells him to get out of there. Huxley dies. The men fix their bayonets and advance. Andy is wounded in the leg. Dan collapses after an explosion. Kathy wakes up and screams that Dan is dead.
Mac takes a letter from Pat to Andy, who refused to read it. Andy says he is getting a new leg, but he does not like it. Mac reads the letter aloud, and Pat writes about Andy’s son and her waiting for him to come back.
Andy returns to the farm and sees Pat and their son. Mac goes back to Baltimore and says goodbye to Dan, who is welcomed home by Kathy and his parents.
This drama explores how the war affects the psychology of the marines and the women they know. The battalion commander strengthens his men with hikes and tries to help on some of their personal problems. The war separates the sexes for long periods of time, and the women have to make sacrifices also.