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In the first year of World War I, in New England, belligerent young Thad Walker steals a car and is involved in a hit-and-run accident. Resentful of his father's outrage over the event and fearful of being arrested, Thad stows away on board a ship, joining his friends Bill Wellman, Duke Sinclair and Tom Hitchcock on their way to join the French Foreign Legion. In Paris, the boys frequent a bar popular with flyers and learn of the recent formation of the Lafayette Escadrille, an aerial unit made up of American volunteers, and decide to enlist. Meanwhile, Thad is captivated by a young, blonde girl, Renée Beaulieu, and, promising to meet the others the next day, leaves with her. The following morning after a tender departure from Renée, Thad joins the others at the air training camp at Luxeuil and within days the volunteers are drilling and taking instructions on "penguin" planes, which do not fly, but teach steering and control. The high-spirited young men continually taunt their French instructors and destroy several of the penguins in their enthusiasm. One afternoon, Thad knocks out one of the other enlistees who, upon seeing a photo of Renée, called her a "hustler." Later, Thad confides in Bill that Renée had confessed that she was indeed a prostitute, but he does not care. During drilling exercises, Thad is impatient and resentful of being prevented from flying. When Renée writes to declare that she has quit working for the madam and moved into a small apartment, Thad decides to visit her. After safely slipping away unnoticed from the camp, Thad spends a romantic evening with Renée, but becomes discouraged upon returning to the endless drilling at camp. Angered when he is reprimanded by the drill instructor one afternoon, Thad strikes the man and is placed under arrest. That night, Duke tells Bill and Tom that Thad faces severe punishment for striking an officer, and suggests they break him out. The friends agree and stage a large brawl that attracts the guards, allowing Thad to escape. Later walking along in the dark toward Paris, Thad realizes that his distinctive uniform will attract attention and stops a solitary soldier on the road to plead with him for his coat. When the soldier refuses, the men have a vicious fight. Although severely beaten, Thad reaches Renée, who, with the help of the concierge, tends to his wounds. While Thad recovers over the next few weeks at Renée's, the men of the Lafayette Escadrille continue training and are soon flying. After his recuperation, Thad grows restless as he cannot go outside in the daytime for fear of being stopped by gendarmes searching for deserters. Thad asks Renée to marry him and she agrees when they are able to get to a church. Determined, Thad finds a Bible and the couple exchange vows over it. Uncomfortable at being supported by Renée, who now works as a tram conductor, Thad decides to visit the madam to ask for work procuring customers. Renée is unhappy with Thad's choice, but he convinces her that he will keep the job only until he has saved enough money to take them both to South America. Back at Luxeuil several weeks later, the boys earn their wings and come into Paris to celebrate. Thad spots his friends in the bar where he trolls for customers, but, humiliated, leaves before they spot him. Soon after, the men of the Escadrille are sent to the south to train on the latest aircraft before their transfer to Bar-le-Duc near Verdun, where they are on call as replacement flyers at the front line in Alsace Lorraine. After months of combat flying, the men have become hardened veterans, yet greet America's official entrance into the war enthusiastically. Distraught when he hears the news of America's war declaration, Thad risks telling his story to an American general who is a regular customer at madam's. Pleading for the opportunity to fly for his own country and regain his self-respect, Thad is grateful when the general agrees to help him. Soon, Thad is back in uniform training at the U. S. camp at Issoudun and wins his wings. Although fearful for Thad, Renée encourages him and vows to wait for his return. On a solo reconnaissance flight, Thad is unknowingly stalked by a German ace who is forced to abandon his attack when his guns jam. Later, Thad visits the Lafayette Flying Corp to reunite with Bill, Duke and Tom and accepts an invitation to join them on a mission. The group comes across a German air squad and engages them in a vicious dog fight, during which Thad performs valiantly. His pride and confidence restored, Thad asks his friends to join him in Paris where he officially weds Renée in church.