It's 1951, and The Korean War is at a bloody stalemate. U.S. Navy Lieutenant Harry Brubaker (Holden) has to ditch his battle-damaged F9F Panther jet fighter-bomber before he can get back to his carrier, USS Savo Island. He is quickly picked up by a rescue helicopter flown by Chief Naval Aviation Pilot Mike Forney (Rooney) and Airman Nestor Gamidge.
Safely back aboard the Savo Island, Brubaker is angry and depressed. He is a reservist who fought in WWII and was recalled to active duty for Korea, considers the conflict pointless, and desperately wishes to go home to his wife and daughters. The Task Force commander, Rear Admiral George Tarrant (March), tries to counsel Brubaker to get his head in the game. Brubaker reminds Tarrant of his sons, both of whom were killed in WWII.
The carrier makes a port call in Yokosuka, Japan, where Brubakers wife Nancy (Kelly) flies in from the States with their children to see him. Their reunion is interrupted when Airman Gamidge seeks Brubakers help in getting Chief Forney out of some trouble. As he leaves, Admiral Tarrant meets Nancy Brubaker and warns her that her husband will have to fly extremely high-risk missions over North Korea on their next deployment, as the Task Force has been ordered to destroy a strategically-important and heavily defended pair of bridges near the village of Toko-Ri. He advises Nancy to prepare herself for the worst, because his own wife and daughter-in-law were unprepared for the tragedy they suffered in the last war.
Meanwhile, Brubaker finds out that Mike Forney's Japanese girlfriend has left him for a sailor from another aircraft carrier, USS Essex, and Forney started a brawl between nearly the entire crews of both ships in response. Forney and Gamidge are kicked off of the Savo Island and assigned to a mail barge, while Brubaker ships out on the carrier again. Returning to the western Sea of Japan, he barely makes it back from a reconnaissance mission to Toko-Ri. Brubaker knows he will be assigned to the air strike and desperately wants out, but can't bear to abandon the other pilots who will be going with him.
Provides examples of the following tropes:
- Ace Pilot: Harry Brubaker in jet fighters, Mike Forney in rescue helicopters.
- Air Strike Impossible: Toko-Ri bristles with antiaircraft guns, and the local terrain makes any approach to the target risky without flying into a mountain. Brubakers anxiety over having to attack it is a major plot point.
- Big Damn Heroes:
- Brubaker has to ditch his shot-up fighter at the beginning in the frigid Sea of Japan. Forney and Gamidge are quickly overhead in their helicopter to save him from freezing or drowning.
- When Brubaker is shot down after hitting the bridges, hes trapped alone in enemy territory and under fire from North Korean soldiers. Here comes the helicopter with Forney and Gamidge again, having abandoned their mail run to come rescue him. Cruelly subverted when the helicopter is shot up on the ground, Nestor is shot and killed, then Forney gets a bullet in the head. Brubaker is killed seconds later.
- Boom, Headshot!: Forney and Brubaker share this fate.
- Broken Ace: Brubaker is a skilled fighter pilot, but also an emotional wreck who would rather be anywhere else.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Beer Barrel, with his Drunken Master skills. Forney also counts, with his green scarf and top hat coupled with his skill and courage on combat search and rescue missions, though it backfires the moment he pisses off too many superiors.
- Cool Plane: Brubaker's jet fighter. In the novel, he flies an F2H Banshee, while the film uses the F9F Panther instead.
- Downer Ending: Brubaker, Forney, and Gamidge all die.
- Drunken Master: Beer Barrel, the senior Landing Signals Officer on the carrier, is renowned for his prowess at guiding aircraft in for safe landings on the pitching flight deck in even the worst conditions, but insists that he needs at least a buzz to do his job right. The pilots don't argue with results, and make sure he is always properly supplied, Navy regulations be damned.
- Fighting Irish: Forney, in case it wasn't obvious.
- The Korean War
- Nice Hat: CPO Forney always wears a green top hat and matching scarf. Always. Navy uniform regs be damned.
- Outliving One's Offspring: Admiral Tarrant. In the novel, it is further elaborated that both of his sons were Naval Aviators. One was KIA on December 7th, 1941, while trying to get his fighter off the ground at NAS Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. The other, a bomber pilot, was KIA on June 6th, 1942, while making a dive-bombing attack on a Japanese carrier at Midway. Tarrant's wife was emotionally ruined at the loss of her boys, and in her grief had taken to knitting a baby blanket for the grandchildren she would never have. By the time the story takes place, the baby blanket is twelve feet long.
- Public Bathhouse Scene: Harry takes Nancy and their kids to a Japanese bathhouse. No nudity is shown, since it was 1954, but they seem to be nude, and act very shy when a Japanese family enters and disrobes for the bath next to them. Later, they relax.
- Reassigned to Antarctica: After the massive fistfight between the Savo Island and Essex crews, Forney and Gamidge are detailed to fly mail runs from a supply barge.
- Those Two Guys: Forney and Gamidge.