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In late 1941, before the United States has entered World War II, Jim Gordon leads a team of American pilots who have volunteered to help the Chinese people fight off their Japanese attackers. Jim despairs at the losses his outnumbered men sustain, but is supported by his right-hand man, Hap Davis, and his sweetheart, Red Cross nurse Brooke Elliott. Desperate for more pilots, Jim goes to Rangoon, in Burma, where he is approached by Blackie Bales. Jim turns down Blackie's request to join his group, who are known as "The Flying Tigers," because Blackie once caused the death of another pilot through his drunken negligence. Blackie's wife Verna pleads with Jim, telling him that her husband is no longer a drunk and needs to regain his self-esteem. Jim decides to take a chance on Blackie, and also enlists Alabama Smith and Woody Jason, a grandstanding daredevil who has quit a Chinese airline. Back at the base, Woody makes it clear that he is only interested in the money the pilots receive for shooting down Japanese fighters, and that he cares nothing about the war. Woody's attitude alienates the other pilots, especially as he ignores the usual teamwork procedures. Meanwhile, Blackie proves that he has reformed, and his fellow pilots accept him as a friend. One afternoon, the squadron goes up after the base is bombed, and Blackie's plane is hit. Blackie is forced to bail out, and Woody, intent on racking up another kill, does not protect him after he opens his parachute, resulting in Blackie's death when a Japanese pilot shoots him. Woody insists that he could not have saved Blackie, and Jim grudgingly allows him to stay. Soon after, the men are notified that they must begin continuous day and night reconnaissance patrols. Jim splits the squadron up into two teams, and when he is forced to ground Hap, whose depth perception has been growing worse, he appoints Woody as his second-in-command. One night, Woody persuades Brooke to go out with him, and the pair sneak off base. Woody does not return in time for the night patrol, and Hap, trying to cover for Woody, goes up in his place. Hap's sight problems are his undoing, however, and he is killed while protecting Jim's flank. Jim orders Woody to leave in two days, but his departure is forestalled when they learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Colonel Lindsay orders Jim to attack and destroy a crucial bridge across a canyon, along which the Japanese are sending supplies. Devastated by Hap's death and wrongly believing that Brooke loves Woody instead of him, Jim volunteers for the suicide mission. Woody sneaks aboard Jim's plane, which is loaded with nitroglycerin, and tells Jim that he has grown up, and wishes to carry on with the fight. Jim allows him to go along, and does not notice that Woody is wounded when they are attacked by anti-aircraft guns after blowing up the bridge. A supply train has gotten through, however, and after Jim puts on a parachute, Woody pushes him out of the plane and dives into the train, destroying it, as well as himself. Later, Jim reconciles with Brooke and passes on Woody's silk scarf to new recruit Barrett to inspire the youngster.