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In the South Pacific, in 1942, Capt. Paul Stevenson, commander of the submarine USS Barracuda , orders the ship to remain concealed long after a convoy of Japanese ships passes over them, rather than risk a skirmish with a straggling ship. His action delays the hospitalization of Ford, a crewman injured in a torpedo room accident who subsequently dies. However, Stevenson believes he acted in accordance with regulations by not alerting the enemy to the American presence in that area of the sea, thus ensuring that the plans for an impending Allied invasion have not been jeopardized. Meanwhile, in San Diego, California, Lt. j.g. Kenneth M. Braden graduates from the Navy's Underwater Demolition School and falls in love with Sally Johnson, unaware that she is a WAVE assigned to Naval Intelligence and has been ordered to check his suitability for a special mission. When he proposes to her after an acquaintance of only nine days, Sally, who has also fallen for Ken, avoids answering him. That evening, Ken is ordered to fly to Honolulu's Pearl Harbor immediately. In a nightclub there, he encounters members of the Barracuda 's crew, who are celebrating the completion of a fifty-seven-day tour of duty spent mostly underwater and, at the same time, mourning the death of their friend, for which they blame Stevenson. The crew's "freedom" ends prematurely when Phil Carney, the Barracuda 's "exec" officer, announces that leave has been canceled. The next morning, Ken is taken to the Barracuda , where Stevenson tells Ken that the Navy has discovered a Japanese radio station on the small island of Kusaie, where messages are broadcast in code to other Japanese in the South Seas. So far, the Allies have been unable to break the code, which would allow them to know the enemy's plans, send false information and set up decoys and traps, all of which would assist their invasion and save lives. Stevenson, Phil and Ken have been ordered to embark upon a clandestine operation in which the Barracuda is to take Ken to the waters around Kusaie, from where he will swim ashore. He is then to find and photograph the Japanese code book, without raising the enemy's suspicion that the code has reached Allied hands. Because he feels that sailing into the island's lagoon will endanger the vessel and its crew, Stevenson tells Ken that he must swim 2,000 yards to shore through dangerous coral reefs. Angry at what he perceives is the captain's lack of cooperation, Ken accuses him of endangering others with his "by the book" methods. However, despite his seemingly strict façade, Stevenson is troubled by the crewman's death and the crew's anger at him, and confides his distress to Phil, the only person on board who is sympathetic to his dilemma. To reach their destination faster, Stevenson orders the sub to sail "topside," i.e., on the water's surface, making them visible to a Japanese Zero, which attacks them. Before the men can get below deck and submerge the ship, Phil and several other crew members are shot. Although most of the men descend to safety below deck, Phil is stranded topside. Looking through the periscope, Stevenson sees that Phil has been shot again and, believing him dead, orders the submarine to submerge to the safety of deep water. Stevenson then promotes Doherty to Phil's position. After eluding the plane, Stevenson is forced to take the sub to the surface for repairs. As Ken has special underwater training, he is chosen to swim below the craft to make repairs and is told that he will be considered "expendable" if the sub is attacked again. Just as Ken completes his task, a Japanese plane returns for them. Ensign Pat Malone shoots the plane down, but the crewmen assume that the pilot alerted others to their location before dying. When a Japanese destroyer approaches, Stevenson has the men pump oil into the water and fakes an explosion to give the impression that the sub is "dead." After the ship is lured toward them, the gunners fire torpedoes and sink it. Afterward, Malone learns that he has been promoted to lieutenant. By traveling below a Japanese ship, Stevenson is able to take the sub into Kusaie's lagoon, lessening the distance Ken must swim. However, the air supply of the submarine is low and cannot be replenished without revealing their location, so Stevenson gives Ken a deadline of eighteen hours to complete his task or be left behind. After swimming to shore, Ken buries his scuba diving equipment and narrowly misses being seen by Japanese residents playing baseball. He finds the radio station and checks out the wharf, then hides until dark. While waiting, he dozes and dreams of proposing to Sally, who he now feels betrayed him. At night, he dynamites the wharf to divert attention from his real task. Upon slipping through the window of the radio station, he finds and photographs the code book, while barely eluding the radio man there. Meanwhile, inside the sub, as the ten o'clock deadline passes, the men are suffering and edgy from the stale oxygen. According to regulations, Stevenson feels he is endangering the craft and crew by remaining, but he holds his position and taps on the wall of the sub to alert Ken to their position. Swimming underwater, Ken follows the sound to the submarine, his mission accomplished. By sunrise, the Barracuda is sailing topside in safe waters. Troubled, Stevenson writes a letter to headquarters requesting a board of investigation for his violation of naval regulations, in which he "knowingly hazarded his vessel" and endangered the lives of his crew. As the Barracuda reaches Pearl Harbor, many of the crewmen's friends are standing at the dock to welcome them back. While spotting Sally waiting for him in the crowd, Ken tells Stevenson that the letter he wrote has been "lost."