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Having lost his father, mother, and sister in the early days of World War II, 12-year-old Ivan thinks only of vengeance. All that remains of his childhood appears at night in his restless dreams. Joining a military intelligence unit, he moves behind enemy lines in the Pripet Marshes, reporting on troop movements and locations of equipment and supplies. The proud, resolute boy is well liked by his superior Captain Kholin and by Colonel Gryaznov, the head of the intelligence unit. They decide, however, that he should be placed in a school to the rear, away from the dangers of war. Rebelling against the plan, Ivan runs away but returns shortly and is permitted to rejoin the group. He is given a dangerous assignment: to cross the river and gather information on the enemy's strength. On a cold autumn night, the boy makes the crossing and disappears into the dark forest. After the victory of the Soviet army, Captain Kholin and Lieutenant Galtsev, another of Ivan's friends, are sorting captured Gestapo documents when they find a dossier containing the boy's picture. Across his face is stamped the word "executed."