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Oliver Yates, a well-respected teacher at Carlyle Military Academy, realizes that he is losing the admiration of his pupils, who are disappointed that he has not quit teaching to enlist in the military. Yates asks Colonel Fredericks, the head of the school, to waive his essential status so that he can enlist, but Fredericks tells him that teaching is just as important as fighting, particularly when someone like Jimmy Dixon is depending upon him. Jimmy, a former juvenile delinquent, is now Yates's protege, and Yates is determined to see that Jimmy makes the most of his opportunities at Carlyle. Yates agrees to stay, but when Jimmy gets in a fight defending him against the other boys, who call him a draft dodger, Yates enlists despite Fredericks' objections. Jimmy is thrilled, and all of the boys join in a stirring ceremony to bid Yates farewell. After his physical, however, Yates is declared 4-F due to a perforated eardrum. Yates is devastated, but his old pal, Joe Briggs, whom he meets again at the induction center, takes him to Dr. Carl Hesser, a German refugee who states that he can repair the injury enough to change Yates's draft status. Joe, who convinces Yates not to tell the boys about the complications, as he intends to join the Army as soon as possible, then takes Yates to his boardinghouse, run by Greek-American Mike Zaloris and his wife Katy. Because Yates must stay in town for his ear treatments, he gets a job at the local shipyard, where most of the other boarders work. Yates meets the others, including would-be actor Monty King, boxer Charlie Edmonds, Ruth Jones and her father "Jonesy," and Russian-Americans Peter Miliach and Gregory Rozniloff. Despite his unfamiliarity with manual labor, Yates digs into his new job, earning the admiration of Ruth and the enmity of Charlie, who is also fond of Ruth. Meanwhile, Joe collects the mail that the unwitting boys have sent to Yates at the Army camp and gives it to Yates, who replies with Army-issued form letters supplied by Joe. The boys are thrilled with the letters they receive, but Charlie, hoping to find something to make Ruth dislike Yates, finds the letters addressed to him in the Army camp, and leads the other boarders to believe that he is a deserter. Matters worsen when the boys stop by the Army camp and learn that Yates was never inducted. Believing that Yates is missing, Fredericks initiates a search for him, while Yates, unaware of the uproar, presses Dr. Hesser to operate on him in order to hurry his treatments. When Dr. Hesser calls the boardinghouse to inform them that Yates will not be coming home that night, Charlie assumes that the doctor's thick German accent means that he is a Nazi, and that Yates is a spy working with him. Charlie whips the other boarders and shipyard workers into a frenzy against Yates, although Ruth still believes in him. When Yates returns to the boardinghouse after his surgery, about which he has told no one, he finds Jimmy waiting for him. Jimmy states that after two policemen confirmed Yates's address and civilian status, he had to see for himself why his teacher lied to him. Yates explains the situation to him, and Jimmy swells with pride at the thought of his important work in the shipyard. When Yates learns of Charlie's rumors, however, he rushes to the yard, where Charlie hits him without giving him a chance to explain. As the men fight, they break a pipe and start a fire in the hold of a ship being built, and at great peril to himself, Yates rescues Charlie and stops the fire from spreading to the other ships. Yates is declared a hero, and although his now-worsened ear injury will permanently prevent him from joining the Army, the boys are still proud of him. They ask him to return to the school, but Yates decides to stay with Ruth and continue his important work at the shipyard.