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In 1950, top U.S. military officials are ordered to send every available unit to Korea. After a Marine division is quickly put together from spare units and reserve personnel, Paul Hanson, a Reserve captain and World War II veteran, is ordered to Camp Pendleton in Southern California. As he drives into the camp with his wife Ruth and two young daughters, he confides to Ruth that he feels much older than the other soldiers and far from his military training. More disappointment follows when Hanson learns from stern Col. Steve Corbett that he is to head Company B at the front, an assignment unrelated to his electronics training. The next day, he and the men are sent into the hills to begin intensive training. Not everyone is as reluctant as Hanson, as young Jimmy McDermid, brother of a Marine already fighting in Korea and another killed at Iwo Jima, is anxious to prove himself. After many grueling days of mock combat in the California hills, the men return to the camp. The officers spend one last night with their families, and the next morning the division is shipped out. On the ship, Corbett admits that he has little faith in Hanson, a "retread captain," whom he expects "will play it too safe." In Inchon, Korea, the division makes an amphibious landing and is immediately engaged in battle. When a Marine is killed in front of him, Jimmy's eagerness turns to paralyzed fright. Lagging behind, he reaches the campsite after the others and is too ashamed to meet with his brother, who is in a nearby recon unit. The next day, the Marines fight their way toward Seoul. In the city, they are held at bay by several enemy fighters, including one with a machine gun aimed from a second floor window. Jimmy spots him and works his way cautiously through the gunfire to toss a grenade in the window. With the situation in control, Corbett orders a rest break and, seeing that Hanson has received his first letter from home, intimates his regrets at having no family. However, Hanson points out that the men of the division are his family. When Corbett and Hanson ride to headquarters for their orders, an exuberant Jimmy comes along to see his brother, but finds that he has just been killed. Despite the rumor that they will be home by Christmas, Corbett is ordered to push through Korea to the Manchurian border. The Marines move forward into an ambush, but after a fight, destroy an enemy tank. Jimmy performs well during the battle, but Corbett sees that with his brother's death, his innocent determination to be a good soldier has changed into a grim war fever. As a reward, but also out of concern, Corbett reassigns Jimmy to replace his injured driver. Later, after spotting an elusive enemy unit that shadows their movements, Corbett is surprised to realize that the Chinese have joined the North Koreans. In early December, Corbett announces their orders to travel through a narrow mountain road to get to the north border. He has also been ordered to send Jimmy home, as he is now the sole surviving son in his family. Unhappy with the news, Jimmy asks to spend his last night with friends in Hanson's company. However, during the night, they are attacked by enemy soldiers, who break through one of the company lines. Corbett radios for help, but is told that there is no one to spare and that supplies cannot be dropped until it is light enough for the pilots to see them. When the men run out of ammunition, they prepare to fight with bayonets, but supplies arrive in time for them to fend off their attackers. After Corbett conveys new orders that they are to retrace their steps and head toward the sea, the men ask if they are retreating. Corbett snaps, "Retreat, Hell! We're advancing in a different direction!" and promises that he will not leave behind the wounded. Although they successfully squelch another attack, the winter storms bring new dangers. Hanson enlists a group of volunteers to go into the hills to rescue the wounded, and gets unexpected help from a unit of British Royal Marines, but the rescuers are ambushed and lose contact with the main group. Meanwhile, on the road, the Marines suffer another attack and Corbett is shot. When he regains consciousness, he is informed that the division made it to an air strip, but that Hanson's men and the British are lost. As Corbett despairs, Hanson, Jimmy and the others march up. Relieved and confident, Corbett announces that they will fight their way to the sea, and the First Marine Battalion carries on.