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During the Korean War, author James A. Michener boards a U.S. Naval aircraft carrier in the Sea of Japan and meets with commander and flight surgeon Kent Dowling, who relates the "Christmas story": Shortly before Christmas, Ensign Kenneth Schecter and the other Navy pilots are briefed on their assignment--a bombing raid over a railroad--by Lt. Cmdr. Paul Grayson. The men then get into their state-of-the-art fighter jets and fly off in formation. The mission is a success, but Grayson is forced to bail out and parachute into the freezing sea, where he is rescued in the nick of time by a helicopter crew. Dowling reprimands Grayson for flying so low, and Lt. Cmdr. Ted Dodson, a decorated World War II veteran, openly criticizes his colleague for his heroics. The enemy rebuilds the railroad track every night, and the men are forced to make repeated raids over the same target. As the squadron prepares for a mission one day, Dowling admonishes Grayson and the other pilots not to fly below one thousand feet. Dodson's plane is badly damaged during the mission, and explodes in flames as soon as it reaches the flight deck. As Lt. Howard Thayer and Schecter sadly pack up Dodson's belongings, Grayson questions why he is still alive when a family man like Dodson is dead. On Christmas, as the men prepare for their twenty-seventh consecutive attack on the railroad, they are told they can also seek out "targets of opportunity" and bomb them with napalm. Toward the end of the bombing raid, Schecter is hit by enemy fire and blinded. Thayer flies alongside Schecter and instructs him over the radio. As Schecter, who is struggling to remain conscious, veers off course, Thayer orders him to bail out, but an equipment failure thwarts this plan. Schecter injects himself with morphine to stave off the terrible pain, and Thayer maintains a steady flow of conversation in an effort to keep the younger pilot alert. Despite the great risk involved, Thayer manages to guide the blind pilot to a safe landing on the deck of the carrier. That afternoon, at the crew's Christmas party, the men are shown a film the Navy made featuring some of their family members back home. The men are moved by the sight of their loved ones, but a gloomy mood settles over the room when Dodson's wife and children appear onscreen. Back in the present, Dowling tells Michener that Schecter regained partial vision in one eye and is now studying economics at Stanford. Michener observes that every man's life is a search for his true self, and a ship is as good a place as any for a man to learn who he is.