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In 1941 at an Oklahoma college, Alvin Woods grows frustrated as yet another girl, this time his girl friend Josephine Hill, seems to prefer him as a friend rather than as a suitor. While serving as a bartender at Jo's sorority party, Al spots another boy making advances to Jo, and when he starts a fight with the boy, he is fired. Jo then refuses to leave with Al, prompting him to accuse her of dating him only to shock her rich friends. Jo angrily denounces him, but is secretly despondent to see him leave. Al decides to quit college in favor of joining the armed forces, and visits his father Windy, a barber in their small Oklahoma hometown. The provincial Windy reveres his only son and regrets that the only advice he has to offer Al is about maintaining his hair. At the draft office, Al flips a coin to choose between the Marines and the Coast Guard, following it as it rolls into the Coast Guard office. Soon, he is at boot camp in Louisiana, along with Charlie Berger and Harry O'Neal, another barber. Although the three at first quarrel, they are soon fast friends, and when Al picks a fight with a bossy recruit, Charlie and Harry defend him. As a result, they are all assigned to a Boston "buoy tender," the U.S.S. Periwinkle , which never sees battle. Before boarding, they visit a local bar, where Al wins the attention of pretty Stella. Although Stella refuses to invite Al in at the end of the night, she agrees to meet him again. When Al boards the Periwinkle , he receives a thorough chastisement from boorish Ens. Dennis Higgins, then discovers that his new superior officer, crusty head cook "Red" Wildoe, resents Al's quick, unearned advancement to cook and so refuses to bunk with him. The next morning, Wildoe throws Al out of the mess, but then becomes so drunk that he misses lunch, forcing Al to cover for him. After the surly mess cooks, Gutsell and Poznicki, abandon him, Al is forced to improvise a meal for the ship, but later strong-arms them into returning to work. Despite Al's inexperience, he prepares a delicious meal, forcing Wildoe to accept him in the mess. Soon after, Higgins orders Wildoe, Al and their superior, Chief Miller, to correct the deficit in the mess budget, suggesting that they cut rations, and clandestinely offers Wildoe and Al promotions after Miller retires. During liberty that night, Al dances with the flirtatious Stella. Although she will not allow him to take her home, she agrees to go to a hotel with him that weekend. Al borrows a month's pay to rent a room, but when he picks up Stella, she refuses to go with him, pretending that she did not understand his earlier request. Furious with her teasing, Al calls Stella cheap, then proceeds to get drunk. Wildoe, equally intoxicated, joins him at the bar, and although the two have entirely incongruent conversations with each other, that night Wildoe finally allows Al to sleep in the same room. In the morning, the captain announces that Pearl Harbor has been attacked, signaling the start of the war. Al, frustrated that Higgins has been promoted to Executive Officer, distracts himself by responding to a postcard Jo has sent him. Later, Wildoe reveals that he has been seeing Stella and plans to marry her, despite Al's warning that if they ship out to battle, he will have to leave Stella to her own devices for months at a time. Wildoe and Stella marry at the local bar, and when some Navy men interrupt the celebration, Al leads the seamen in beating them up. The group is arrested, but kindly Ens. Fineberg ignores the charges and sends Wildoe back to his honeymoon. Soon after, Wildoe is reassigned to the U.S.S. Algonquin and asks Al to keep an eye on Stella. Al becomes head cook, but is soon hated by the men after Higgins procures sub-par food stores, such as powdered eggs. One night at the bar, Al sees Stella flirting and drags her home, where he tries, but fails, to resist her seduction. In addition to his guilt, he is soon plagued by Harry, who insists that Al is going bald and devises a "cure" by which he shaves Al's head and applies a poultice of onion juice and alcohol, earning him the nickname "Onionhead." Higgins, planning a party for the captain, stores up high-quality food, from which Al surreptitiously steals. After Higgins catches Quatermaster Osborne with a pound of butter Al has given him, Al confesses to stealing it, but Higgins insists on punishing Osborne. Fed up, Al refuses to cook for the party unless Higgins backs off and allows Osborne to transfer to California, to be close to his family. The party is a success, but when Al discovers that Higgins' ledger reports the officers are only paying $9.50 for food rather than the actual cost of $21, he assumes that all the officers are in cahoots to receive the best food, at the expense of the enlisted men. After securing a copy of the ledger, Al writes a complaint letter to the district office, despite Miller's warning that he should confront the captain before going behind his back. The next day, Al learns that his father has died, and rushes home, where he finds Jo waiting for him. Al is wracked with guilt about failing to write to Windy, but Jo's loving ministrations soothe him, and soon they are in love. Al returns to Boston, and at the bar, Wildoe, who has been visiting, asks him to walk Stella home. There, she tries to seduce him again, and when he calls her a tramp, she reveals that she is a nymphomaniac who has hoped to heal her sickness by finding love with him. Saddened by Stella's plight, Al is prompted to call Jo and propose, and to his joy, she agrees and makes plans to come to Boston. That night, however, the Periwinkle is called into duty to rescue the Algonquin , which has been sunk by a German U-boat. When the German submarine shoots the Periwinkle , it lists enough for Al to aim the archaic gun, allowing him to eliminate enough of the German gunnery crew for the captain to ram the U-boat and sink it. Although it is a decisive victory, Al feels responsible for the deaths of so many men. He visits the captain, who immediately deduces Al's concern and reassures him that he bears all the accountability. Al then asks how much the officers pay for food and the captain responds, "Twenty-one dollars," Al realizes that the officers have been paying fairly but Higgins has been pocketing part of their fees. Soon after, the district officers show up to conduct a court of inquiry, and Al finally realizes that, for the good of the whole crew, he must shelter Higgins and the captain from blame. He consequently lies that he has no proof of his allegations of wrongdoing, but slips the ledger to the captain. Al is then stripped of his rank and reassigned to Greenland. Later, the captain court-martials Higgins and offers to explain the situation to the district office, but Al, eager to do the right thing, bravely accepts his punishment. Proud of Al, the captain allows him five days' leave to find Jo, who has been waiting in Boston for him. For four days, he is unable to locate her, but when she finally enters the bar in which Al is drinking, he is able to claim his bride before heading off to Greenland.