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Will Stockdale, an affable, guileless hillbilly, is living with his Pa on a remote farm in Georgia when draft officer McKinney arrives, accusing Will of dodging the draft. Will immediately deduces that his crotchety but loving father has been tearing up the draft board notices, and explains that he considers the fact that Uncle Sam wants him, as the posters in town declare, to be a personal honor. At the bus station, as they await the bus taking them to the air force base where the new inductees will be classified, McKinney handcuffs the burly Will to a gas pump and assigns cocky Irvin S. Blanchard in charge of the boys. Just before the bus pulls out, recruit Benjamin B. Whitledge races up, and as Will befriends the bespectacled bundle of nerves, Irvin confiscates a letter that Ben's mother has written requesting that Ben be transferred to join his six brothers in the infantry. While defending his new friend, Will pulls the handcuff free of its metal bar, a feat of strength that leaves Irvin quaking in fear. At the base, barracks commander Sgt. Orville C. King delivers a speech containing a sardonic offer of friendship, which Will takes literally. When Irvin leads the other boys in calling Will "plough boy," Ben, ever the pessimist, convinces Will that he must "whomp" them. Will challenges Irvin to a fight, and after King chastises them all, Ben fears that they have now lost their chance to obtain a transfer to the infantry. Will lays awake considering how to help Ben, and decides to talk to the sergeant immediately, despite the late hour. King, whose professional philosophy values "coasting" over "making waves," distracts Will, who wants to bring Ben's letter directly to the captain, by appointing him "in charge" of cleaning the latrine. Will, thrilled with his new responsibility, stays up all night cleaning, and beams with pride when King, hoping to keep Will quiet and out of trouble, names him PLO, or permanent latrine orderly. King's plan works until the captain arrives for his customary inspection, at which point Will innocently praises King to the captain as helpful and kind, and repeats every negative phrase about the captain that King has uttered. In retaliation, the captain threatens to fire King unless Will is classified and shipped out within a week. To assure that Will passes his classes despite the expedited schedule, King finagles all the exams ahead of time and promises Will his watch if he succeeds. On the day of the final tests, after flummoxing manual dexterity tester Corp. John C. Brown by using brute strength to link two iron bars, Will gapes at a W.A.F. officer, and takes to heart Ben's advice to see only her rank rather than her gender. Soon after, Will takes his psychiatric test with Maj. Royal B. Demming, who becomes increasingly agitated as Will eludes all of his simplistic diagnoses. As King waits nervously in the mess hall, Ben is at first overjoyed to learn that his psychiatric diagnoses¿delusional with an inferiority complex and secondary anxiety¿has secured him a transfer to the infantry, but later tears it up to avoid having to leave Will. When Will arrives at the mess hall, King happily assumes he has passed all of his tests until the female captain enters and Will declares that he cannot see that she is a woman, prompting King to believe that Will must have failed his eye test. Irvin, noting King's dismay, suggests that they get Will drunk that evening so he will fail the next day's inspection and be thrown out of the regiment. They bring him to a nightclub, but Will, used to his father's rotgut whiskey, stomachs the liquor easily, while Irvin and King get steadily inebriated. King picks a fight with an equally drunk infantryman, after which the entire bar erupts into a brawl, and only Will, blithely striding back to the base, avoids the M.P.s. The next morning, King is still missing when the captain and colonel arrive for inspection, which Ben leads. The officers are pleased with the barracks, despite the fact that Will has rigged the latrine so each toilet lid lifts in unison as a special salute to the colonel. Before they leave, however, a disheveled King sneaks into the latrine and accidentally exposes his hiding place by setting off the toilet lids. The captain strips King of his stripes and orders him to go to gunnery school, to which, King is appalled to discover, Will and Ben have also been assigned. The three are sent to an obsolete airfield for training, where King soon regains the rank of sergeant. On their first flight, Will and Ben serve as rear gunners while the pilots sleep in the cockpit. When an engine fails, the pilots order Will to take over radio communications. He and Ben manage to contact the nearest radio tower, which resides in an atomic proving ground command post run by Gen. Vernon Pollard. Pollard, realizing that the plane is headed straight for his tower, demands that they turn around, and when Will and Ben question his authority, calls air force general Eugene Bush to complain. King is serving as Bush's aide, and upon hearing Will's name, instructs the general to tell Will that if he turns the plane around, King will give him his watch. Thrilled, Will complies, but after he informs the pilots of their error and declares that Ben should be awarded a medal, the pilots order Will not to bother them further. Therefore, when the plane flies too near the atomic plant and catches fire, Will grabs Ben and parachutes out of the plane rather than notify the pilots. The two land safely and travel for days back to the air force base. Once there, they come upon a funeral, not realizing that they are presumed dead and the ceremony is for them, an attempt by Bush and Pollard to reposition the debacle into an heroic atomic test flight. They approach Bush, but in his hurry to preside over the ceremony, he brushes them aside without learning their names. King spots them, but is too late to stop the general from awarding posthumous medals to the soldiers, who are still alive. Upon discovering Will and Ben's existence, Bush, fearing that public humiliation will befall him if the news gets out, arranges for them to be transferred to Pollard's branch. To maintain complete secrecy of this illegal act, the generals transport Will and Ben to the woods and keep them under armed guard. Will, however, refuses to sign the transfer unless Ben is awarded a medal, and in desperation, Bush orders Pollard to give the boy one of his own decorations. Ben, who has assumed that he will be shot, is thrilled instead to receive a commendation and be transferred, finally, to the infantry. Even King is pleased finally to be rid of Will, until Bush informs him that he will join the privates at their new command.