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In January 1964, the fallout from a nuclear war has obliterated life in the Northern Hemisphere and lethal clouds of irradiated dust are slowly making their way to the Southern Hemisphere, threatening the inhabitants of Australia. Dwight Towers, the captain of the American nuclear submarine U.S.S. Sawfish , which had been trolling the South Pacific during the conflict, contacts the Royal Australian Navy and is welcomed to their main harbor in Williamstown. Admiral Bridie assigns young Lt. Peter Holmes to liaison with Dwight and the Sawfish crew for a reconnaissance mission to track the deadly radiation circling the globe, which is predicted to reach Australia in five months. When Bridie admits that he has no idea how long the mission will take, Peter expresses his desire to be home with his anxious wife Mary and their infant daughter Jennifer when the fatal radiation reaches Australia. While the Sawfish is readied for the mission, Peter spends time with Mary, who insists they not discuss world events and live as if all were normal. When Peter admits that he has invited Dwight to spend the weekend with them, Mary decides to "fix him up" with the lively Moira Davidson. Moira obligingly meets Dwight at the train station and he is surprised when she provides a horse-drawn buggy to drive him to Holmes's house. That evening at a party thrown by Peter and Mary, scientist Julian Osborn drunkenly tells several guests that the war was a dreadful mistake that scientists continually warned against. Distressed by the talk, Mary demands that they must remain hopeful about the future. Later, after the party, a tipsy Moira informs Dwight that she and Julian have the reputation as the town drunks and asks him for details of how the Sawfish survived. Dwight's optimistic talk of his wife and two children and detailed plans for his son trouble Moira, because it is believed that everyone in America is dead. Continuing to drink heavily, Moira asks Dwight why Australia must linger, waiting for a slow death, then collapses, drunk. The next day, Dwight and Peter meet with a naval advisory panel that postulates the weather may have been disrupted enough by the nuclear explosions to have reduced the radiation to a potentially non-lethal level, thus sparing Australia. Bridie informs Dwight and Peter that the Sawfish will travel as far north into the Pacific as possible to take radiation readings to learn if this has occurred. That afternoon, Moira visits Dwight at the dock to apologize for her behavior the night of the party. To her surprise, Moira finds Julian on the dock and he reveals he has been asked to join the Sawfish . Bridie interrupts Moira's visit to report to Dwight that navy communications has picked up a garbled but steady telegraph message emanating from San Diego that must be investigated. Over the next few days before the mission, Dwight enjoys time with Moira, but when she questions him about his reluctance to get romantically involved with her, he explains that he has not been able to accept the deaths of his wife and children and continues to feel married. Meanwhile, Peter grows anxious at the thought of leaving Mary and Jennifer for so long and obtains suicide pills offered by the government. When he attempts to explain their use to Mary, she is horrified that he could consider killing Jennifer and refuses to listen to his appeal to be practical. Depressed by Dwight's emotional aloofness, Moira visits Julian the night before the mission and reveals that she has fallen in love with Dwight and is frightened to realize that as death looms, she is alone in an empty life. The Sawfish sets off on its mission and after several days surfaces in the northern Pacific Ocean amid icebergs. Julian takes radiation readings and reports to Dwight that the levels match those in the mid-Pacific. Realizing that this invalidates the panel's hopeful theory that Australia might somehow survive radiation poisoning, Peter confesses to Julian his anguish at knowing he will have to watch his loved ones die. Julian chastises him by pointing out that he has had the great fortune to love and be loved while others like him and Moira have wasted their lives. Days later, the Sawfish arrives in San Francisco and the officers are depressed to survey the stark, desolate streets of the city. After Yeoman Swain peers at his hometown through the periscope he flees through the escape hatch into the bay and swims to the city, declaring that he wants to die at home. Dwight waits overnight for Swain's return and then locates the sailor fishing in the bay. Via the submarine radio, Dwight asks Swain if he sure about his decision to remain alone and likely die a very unpleasant death, but the sailor reassures him that he will not suffer unduly as he has access to all of the drugstores in the city. Wishing Swain luck, Dwight orders the Sawfish to San Diego to learn the source of the continuing telegraph signals. During the journey the officers reflect on the war, but no one can recall how it began. Julian observes that mankind's path to destruction was set when they accepted that the only way to maintain peace was to amass an ever increasing supply of nuclear weapons. Upon arriving in San Diego, Dwight tracks the signal to a power plant and, dressed in an anti-radiation suit, sailor Sundstrom goes ashore to investigate. Upon exploring the plant, Sundstrom finds an empty office where a soda bottle has fallen over onto the telegraph and gotten caught in the window shade cord. The wind blowing the shade resulted in the bottle bouncing erratically on the telegraph key. Somewhat relieved by this explanation, the Sawfish turns back to Australia. Joining her father on his ranch, Moira waits for news of Dwight's return and is overjoyed when he arrives and admits he has been foolish to deny his feelings for her. A day later, Dwight dryly receives the news from Bridie that as the highest ranking surviving member of the American Navy, his embassy has promoted him to admiral. Moira then learns from Julian that he has indulged in a long-cherished fantasy of purchasing a race car, which he plans to drive in the national cup competition. When Moira observes the race is extremely dangerous, Julian admits the possibility of a quick death has occurred to him. Dwight and Moira attend the race and watch with horror as numerous drivers are killed or injured in fiery crashes, but to their amazement, Julian wins the competition. Dwight invites Moira away to a mountain retreat where he admits his love for her. As Australians begin reporting increasing signs of radiation illness, the government disperses the suicide pills. Some people turn to excessive partying while others listen with faint hope to religious messages as their end nears. Dwight asks his crew their wishes and they request to return to America to die at home. As Julian commits suicide by locking himself in his garage with his race car engine running, Dwight tells Moira that he must leave her. At their home, Mary at last apologizes to Peter for her behavior and before taking the suicide pills, the couple happily recalls their courtship and marriage. The next day, after an emotional farewell with Dwight, Moira watches the Sawfish sail away.