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In Korea during the war, American Air Force pilots Lt. John Willard and his brother Frank are flying routine scouting missions when they are abruptly ordered by Col. Ed Wyatt to conduct a dangerous bombing run against an enemy position. After Frank's plane is shot down, John returns to the base and, outraged over Wyatt's orders, plans to confront him but is stopped by Wyatt's executive officer, Maj. Scott. When John insists that Wyatt is responsible for Frank's death, Scott tells him about Wyatt's career during World War II: As part of the 8th Air Force, Wyatt commands a bomber reconnaissance group whose photographs provide crucial information for future bomb attacks. War correspondent Jo McWethy is assigned to cover the workings of the flight group and at her first briefing with the men, detects hostility toward Wyatt. Later she learns that the fliers hold Wyatt responsible for the death of his co-pilot during a dangerous mission he insisted they complete. Wyatt's new co-pilot, Lt. Hobson "Hobby" Lee, joins the crew, and during a "milk-run" flight, Wyatt learns that the weather has cleared over Bremen, and decides over Hobby's protests to press ahead with their original photo-taking mission. The Germans respond with a strong anti-aircraft battery, and several fighter planes and Wyatt's plane are badly damaged and three of his crew killed. Discovering the camera and film are safe, Wyatt flies the stricken plane back over the channel, then informs Hobby that they must dump everything from the plane to save fuel. When Wyatt insists that the dead bodies also be dropped, Hobby protests, but with waist-gunner Danny Nelson, grudgingly complies. After Hobby and Danny parachute out, Wyatt flies with injured navigator Jones to the base. During his recuperation, Hobby strikes up a relationship with Jo, who is interviewing all of the men. Hobby is angry over Wyatt's apparent callousness, but Jo is more practical about the harshness of war. The camp doctor informs Hobby that the bodies of the dead crewmen were found in the channel and reveals that one man was still alive when thrown from the plane. Although the doctor assures Hobby that the man was too injured to have survived, Hobby sees this as further evidence of Wyatt's heartlessness. Later, Wyatt and most of the men in his group are transferred to Africa, as is Jo. After Wyatt passes the board of inquiry about his co-pilot's death, Hobby requests to be transferred to Africa as well, determined to find proof that Wyatt's blind dedication to duty was responsible for unnecessary deaths. During the next few weeks in Africa, Hobby continues dating Jo and while flying missions with Wyatt, scrutinizes his every order and action. When Wyatt busts Danny down to private for laxness, Danny goes AWOL, but is discovered and brought back to the base by Hobby. The following morning, an exhausted Hobby nearly causes a fatal accident during takeoff when he pulls down the flaps instead of raising the landing gear. Upon returning to base, Wyatt dresses Hobby down for his error, prompting Hobby to accuse the board of inquiry of covering his mistakes. Wyatt strikes Hobby and is caught by the commanding officer, who threatens Wyatt with disciplinary action after the next crucial mission. Jo presses Hobby for an explanation about his anger at Wyatt and tells him he is foolish to believe Wyatt does not care for his men. Wyatt's plane is assigned a long distance flight to photograph crucial Roumanian oil wells that supply the German army. During the mission, Wyatt's plane is shot down and crash-lands in Yugoslavia. Wyatt saves five of the crew, but Danny dies. Carrying the crucial roll of film, an injured Wyatt, Hobby and the others are helped across the country by partisans. Wyatt's strength and determination to get his men safely back impresses Hobby, and by the time they get to England with the vital can of film, Hobby realizes Wyatt's integrity. In the present, as Scott concludes his story, John reluctantly admits that the harshness of war demands strength and leadership and returns to flying. As John takes off the next morning, Scott shows Wyatt a wire informing them that Frank is alive, and has been rescued in the jungle.