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After sustaining severe losses in the Pacific during World War II, American military strategy focuses on taking islands held by the Japanese one at a time. Marine general Cummings is placed in command of capturing the island of Anopopei and begins his campaign by assigning the sadistic Sgt. Sam Croft to lead a reconnaissance mission. Bitter over the infidelity of his wife, Croft is calloused and brutal, and during the initial landing does not hesitate to personally execute a Japanese prisoner, to the surprise of the platoon, made up by young husband Gallagher, Jewish friends Goldstein and Roth, Southern corporal Wilson, older soldier Red, unstable Minetta, Baptist medic Ridges, cocky Brown and Native American scout Martinez. At a subsequent officers' briefing, Cummings introduces former playboy Lt. Robert Hearn as his newly appointed aide, then describes his ambitious plans for securing the island. Later that night in the mess tent, Hearn criticizes Col. Dalleson's gloating description of eating meat pilfered from the enlisted men. Cummings summons Hearn afterward and chastises him for the remark, then cautions him against treating the soldiers humanely and urges him to accept that war means killing and death. Cummings suggests that Hearn instill fear and hatred in his men, but the lieutenant rejects Cummings' notion as immoral. Over the next few days, the American forces struggle to gain control of the island and Cummings believes that with appropriate naval and air support they will succeed in a week. Between the heavy fighting, the soldiers battle boredom, offset in part by Wilson's attempt to make moonshine. Gallagher is devastated to learn that his pregnant wife has died in childbirth. Cummings invites Hearn to his quarters to play chess, but cannot change Hearn's idea that the individual matters during war. When Hearn makes a disparaging observation about Cummings' private life, however, the general becomes angry and orders Hearn to take charge of keeping his private quarters clean and supplied daily with flowers. Over the next few days, Cummings chafes at the lack of support needed for his plan, which stalls despite orders from his superiors to proceed. Upon learning that Cummings has been telling the men that Hearn is presenting him with flowers, Hearn leaves a crushed cigarette butt on the floor of the general's quarters. Meanwhile, Cummings orders a platoon to the unoccupied southern part of the island to set up an observation post on the highest mountain peak, Mt. Anaka. While Dalleson orders Croft to prepare his men for the mission, Cummings summons Hearn, having taken note of the refuse in his quarters. Cummings tells Hearn that in this moment of great destiny for America the only morality is power. Cummings adds that insubordination within the chain of command must be squelched, then drops a cigarette on the floor and threatens Hearn with imprisonment if he does not retrieve it. Hearn complies but asks for a transfer. Cummings refuses and instead returns the lieutenant to active duty, placing him in command of Croft's platoon. The platoon is taken by boat to the southern part of the island where they return to the jungle, wary of enemy patrols. At a river crossing, a soldier, Wyman, is bitten by a poisonous snake and dies quickly. The platoon continues, unaware they are being trailed by a Japanese patrol. Upon discovering the patrol, Croft orders an attack using a barrage of grenades, which ignites a firestorm that burns the Japanese alive. The men proceed throughout the day, then arrive at a mountain pass flanked by a grove of trees. Hearn splits up the platoon and leads half toward the pass while Cross remains behind with the others. When Hearn's group is fired upon from the grove, Wilson is wounded. Despite Croft's protest, Hearn orders him to be taken back to headquarters, but the corporal dies moments later. The platoon pulls back to the trees opposite the grove and Hearn tells Croft not to countermand him again. As night falls, Hearn decides to send a man to reconnoiter the pass. Croft recommends their expert scout Martinez, then orders Martinez to report to him and not Hearn. When Martinez returns some hours later, he tells Croft about running into a Japanese patrol, but the next morning the sergeant lies to Hearn that the pass is clear. While leading the men back to the pass later, Hearn is shot and Croft immediately orders Brown, Goldstein and Ridges to take the lieutenant to the boat at the shore. Meanwhile at headquarters, Cummings grows increasingly frustrated by the lack of backing given his regiment and, after ordering Dalleson to respond to any enemy movement aggressively, flies out to demand aid. During the long hike back to the beach with the delirious Hearn, Brown repeatedly calls for the others to abandon the dying officer, but Goldstein and Ridges staunchly refuse. Croft leads the platoon around the pass and up toward the cliffs of Mt. Anaka. During the dangerous climb, Roth sprains his ankle and then later freezes in fear on a narrow precipice. Intending to spur Roth on, Croft calls him a "lousy Jew," causing the soldier to bolt and fall to his death. As the men near the peak, Red angrily confronts Martinez about providing incorrect information regarding the pass and concludes that Croft intentionally allowed Hearn to walk into the Japanese position. Fearing Croft will lead them to their deaths, Red challenges him, but backs down when the sergeant threatens to kill him. At the peak, Croft investigates the other side of the hill alone only to be shot and killed by another Japanese patrol. The men hold off an attack with grenades while Martinez investigates and discovers the Japanese have landed heavy guns, tanks and a division on the far beach. Minetta attempts to contact headquarters and reaches a ship that passes the news on to Dalleson, who orders a full scale assault. In the midst of requesting assistance, Cummings is told about the attack and ordered to return to Anopoei to take charge. Back on the island, urged on by Gallagher, the remaining platoon members head back to the beach. Arriving at the shore with Hearn, Goldstein, Ridges and Brown are dismayed to find the boat has gone, but moments later it returns. When the pilot insists on departing immediately, Hearn demands they wait for the rest of the platoon who soon arrive. Cummings returns to his command and is about to berate Dalleson when he receives a report that the assault has broken the enemy line and routed the Japanese entirely. With the island secure, Cummings visits the recovering Hearn in the infirmary a few days later. Hearn tells the general that Ridges and Goldstein's dedication saved his life and bolstered his belief that man's innate decency will survive the viciousness of war.