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In 1952, during the Korean War, Maj. Cleve Saville, a veteran World War II flying ace who is nicknamed "Ice Man" because of his complete lack of fear, reports for duty at the Itami Air Force Base outside Kyoto, Japan, and is assigned to the 54th Flying Unit in Korea. Before leaving for duty the next day, Cleve stops for a drink at the post bar, and there meets Lt. Karl Abbott, a young pilot assigned to the same unit. Karl, inebriated, invites Cleve to join him for dinner, but passes out on the way to the restaurant. When Cleve goes inside the restaurant to inform Karl's dinner companion that the lieutenant is indisposed, he finds a striking blonde woman, who introduces herself as "Kris" and asks him to help her transport the drunken lieutenant to her house. During the ride home, Kris explains that Karl drinks because he lacks the confidence to fly, to which Cleve responds that flying fighter planes is his life. Cleve propositions Kris, but is embarrassed to discover that she is Karl's wife. The next day, Cleve flies to Seoul, where he meets with Col. "Dutch" Imil, the unit's commander, who wonders if Cleve has retained his nerves of steel. Dutch explains that their mission is to shoot down the Chinese pilots flying Russian Migs, their prime target being an especially deadly pilot known as "Casey Jones." Dutch laments that America refuses to take this war as seriously as World War II, and complains about the order forbidding American Cobra jets to cross the Yalu River in pursuit of the enemy, thus seriously hampering the war effort. Soon after, Cleve returns to Kyoto and, encountering Kris at the post office, invites her to lunch. As they talk, Kris learns that Karl is also in Kyoto, but has failed to contact her. Hurt, Kris muses that she had a happy marriage until Karl was called to serve in the Korean War. Blaming the war for changing Karl, Kris asks Cleve to choose him as his wing man, hoping that working with Cleve will instill confidence in her husband. After Cleve takes Kris home, he kisses her and confides he has fallen in love with her. As Cleve leaves Kris's house, he passes a drunken Karl and informs him that he has been out with his wife, thus making him feel even more inadequate. The next day, the unit is sent on a surveillance mission over the river. When two Migs begin to them, Lt. Ed Pell, a jive-talking, hot-shot pilot, breaks formation to pursue them. Pell's breach of protocol leaves Lt. Corona's plane unprotected, and as a result, the craft is badly damaged in the Mig attack. Unable to control his crippled aircraft, Corona crashes to the ground in flames. Afterward, Dutch assigns Pell to Cleve, and when Cleve objects, Dutch responds that Cleve and Pell are two of a kind. In Kyoto, Cleve invites Kris to join him for an afternoon at a romantic lake. At the end of the day, they embrace and Kris expresses regret that she did not meet Cleve first. Upon returning to the base, Cleve learns that Casey Jones has come back. When Cleve refuses Karl's request to bring down the infamous pilot, Karl offers him Kris in exchange for a chance at shooting down the pilot. Later, during an offensive against the Migs, Karl's plane is hit by Casey Jones, forcing Karl to bail out. In revenge, Cleve blasts Casey Jones out of the sky and then orders Pell to return to base. When Cleve spots the injured Karl dangling from a tree by his parachute, he crash-lands his plane to come to his aid. After slinging Karl's unconscious body over his back, Cleve starts out through enemy territory. When Chinese soldiers begin to fire at them, Pell's plane streaks out of the skies, guns blazing, sending the Chinese scurrying for cover. Pell then parachutes to the ground to join Cleve. Five days later, Kris is informed that Karl, Cleve and Pell are all missing behind enemy lines, and blames herself for their misfortune. Upon regaining consciousness, Karl selflessly suggests that Cleve and Pell leave him behind to improve their chances. After Cleve refuses, Karl wonders why he did not let him die so that Kris would be his. Seeing that the exhausted Cleve has fallen asleep, Karl observes that Cleve is pure of heart. Later that day, a family of Korean farmers befriends them and hides them from the enemy. Soon after, North Korean forces invade the peasants' village and massacre all those present. In revenge, Pell and Cleve blow up the North Koreans' truck. Cleve is wounded in the arm in the ensuing gun battle, but Pell guns down the remaining enemy soldiers. Continuing on their journey, the three finally come to a friendly South Korean camp and are conveyed to safety. Some time later, Kris visits Karl at the hospital, and Karl claims he has remembered what their love was like before the war and wants it to be that way again. After leaving her husband's bedside, Kris passes Cleve, convalescing on the lawn. He asks her when she is leaving for the States with Karl, and she replies as soon as possible and says goodbye. As Kris walks away, she turns to wave, but Cleve is oblivious, engrossed in watching the fighter planes flying overhead.