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On an assignment to locate new oil fields in the Sahara Desert, pilot Mike Monohan, radioman Billy Larsen, mechanic Jim Evans and surveyor Syd Barlow run into a violent sandstorm that forces their plane down hundreds of miles from their office in Casablanca. Because the sand has ruined their radio, they determine to try to walk to the closest watering hole at a French foreign legion garrison about 100 miles away. Before setting out, Mike discovers a flag standing in the sand. As the men dig beneath it, they find a World War II era German tank. Inside are the remains of two Afrika Korps soldiers and a letter stating that they hoped their bodies would never be found to "hide their shame." After the men bury the bodies of the Germans, whom they assume were deserters, Billy is able to use parts from the tank's old radio to cobble onto theirs, thus enabling them to receive signals. They hear a transmission from their office in Casablanca saying that they will be looking for the plane and will not let the men down. The men decide to divide up the watch that night, but because Billy stays awake trying to fix the radio to send messages, he falls asleep on his watch and wakes up too late to signal a rescue plane that circles overhead. After receiving another radio signal indicating that the plane will be searching in ever-expanding circles, Mike realizes that the rescue plane will not be back in their area until after the water runs out. When Billy is finally able to send a Mayday signal on their radio, Casablanca receives it, but by the time Billy tries to transmit their exact position, the radio goes dead. Mike then decides that their best option is to fix the tank with parts from the plane and travel to the garrison, using most of their water for the tank's radiator. Barlow, who has been drinking heavily, becomes hysterical with fear and takes a shot at Mike. After Barlow is subdued, the unhurt Mike breaks Barlow's bottle of whiskey. Barlow then calms down, but, unknown to the others, has another bottle. While looking for a hiding place inside the tank Barlow discovers a small compartment that contains a bag of precious gems. He quickly puts the gems and his bottle in the compartment and says nothing to the others. As the tank slowly advances, the men see some Bedouins in the distance, but the Bedouins ride away. Later, at an oasis, one of the Bedouins, Mustapha El Melek, tells the others that they have found the tank, which they are certain contains the Treasure of Calipha, stolen by the Germans during the war. Although some of the others want to attack, El Melek advises them to let the tank procede and strategize later. Inside the tank, as the Americans begin to despair, they sight the oasis and decide to chance going in. To their surprise, the Bedouins welcome them, offering water and hospitality. That night, El Melek tests the Americans by relating the story of the stolen gems. He also suggests that they trade water, camels and supplies for the tank. After the Americans agree and retire for the night, El Melek, who does not know if the Americans are truly ignorant of the gems or merely bluffing, orders the tank watched. Once alone with his compatriots, Barlow convinces them not to leave their weapons intact and offers to remove the firing pin from the tank's machine gun. While inside the tank, he secretly retrieves the gems and does not realize that one has dropped onto the sand-covered floor. Later, El Melek finds the gem while searching the tank. The next morning, El Melek offers to keep his bargain, but only if the Americans turn over the gems. Mike innocently says that they have no gems, but when El Melek orders the men searched, Barlow starts a fistfight. The Americans quickly escape to the tank, where Mike shoots over the onrushing Bedouins' heads, but Barlow turns the machine gun on them and a melee ensues. The Americans are able to get away, but soon discover that Billy has been wounded. The next morning, as the tank continues to make its way toward the garrison, Mike realizes that Barlow has started drinking again and looks for his other bottle. While searching, Mike finds the secret compartment containing the gems and lashes out at Barlow for risking their lives. He then throws Barlow out of the tank and tells him to walk, then continues on. After a few minutes, Barlow catches up to the tank and begs to be readmitted. Mike initially refuses, but relents when the now feverish Billy asks Mike to take Barlow back. A short time later, they find an unconscious legionnaire in the desert. When they take him in, the man says that his name is Zagora and he is from the garrison, which is less than forty kilometers away. He also says that there is an oasis in the hills. Zagora, however, is actually one of El Melek's men and leads them into a trap. When they arrive at the oasis, Mike, Barlow and Jim go for water, leaving Zagora and Billy in the tank. A recovering Billy sees Zagora searching for the gems and fires the machine gun to alert the others. As they arrive at the tank, Zagora rushes off as El Melek's men begin to fire. After Zagora shoots a hole in the tank's radiator, thus disabling it, the men discuss their fate and Mike says that if he had gotten to the garrison, they would have turned over the gems to the Caliph in exchange for oil rights. Just then, Billy reveals that he has thought of a way to fix the transmitter to send a messages, even though it will not receive. As Billy and Jim work through the night on the transmitter, Mike and Barlow sneak into the oasis for water. Barlow is seriously wounded, but they are able to make it back to the tank. Now Billy sends repeated signals of their position. Just before dawn, as the Bedouins begin their attack, a rescue plane approaches. When the plane lands near the tank, Mike orders Billy and Jim to run to the plane. He does not want to leave the badly wounded Barlow behind, but Barlow insists that Mike go and covers him with the tank's machine gun. By the time that the Bedouins overrun the tank, the plane takes off, carrying the men to safety.