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During World War II, Rear Adm. L. E. Tennant, the head of the Navy's Experimental Research Division, urges his subordinate, Commander Tom Reynolds, to choose a captain for the Navy's latest secret project, a submarine chaser with a steam engine designed to increase speed. Unable to find a captain with both engineering and sea experience, Reynolds gives the command to Lt. John Harkness, a Navy reserve officer who obtained an engineering degree eighteen years earlier. At the Norfolk Naval Base, Harkness bids goodbye to his wife Ellie, who has joined the WAVES. Harkness is dismayed to see the size of his tiny craft compared to the hulking ships moored around it, but hides his nervousness when meeting his officers, Lt. Bill Barron, Ensign Anthony Barbo and Ensign Chuck Dorrance. Believing that Harkness is "regular Navy" like himself, Bosun George Larrabee is horrified to discover later that Harkness is actually a "ninety-day wonder" like the other college-educated officers, who have had no sea duty. The port commander yells at Harkness to move his ship, and after memorizing a seamanship book, Harkness gives a succession of orders to his crew. Despite Harkness' efforts, the crew, including Chief Engineer Ryan, who is used to diesel engines, cannot manage the temperamental steam engine and the craft plows into another ship. Annoyed by Harkness' failure, Reynolds reminds him and the other officers of their training, and of the importance of proving the efficiency of their ship. However, the boiler, which converts salt water into distilled water, explodes during the first trial run, stranding the ship, which does not even have enough power to operate the radio. After the humiliation of being towed back to shore by a battleship, Harkness is further irritated by Reynolds, who declares that the crew will receive no shore leave until a successful trial run is completed. With his ship jokingly christened the U.S.S. Teakettle , Harkness grimly sets about his task, although a series of trial runs proves disastrous. The ship's erratic performance makes the crew the butt of many jokes, and after tough sailor Wascylewski gets into a fight, Harkness and his officers realize that they must boost morale. Harkness arranges for the men to have shore leave, but their dispirited attitude prompts him to enter Wascylewski in the base boxing tournament. As the days pass, the crew enthusiastically watches Wascylewski's training, and Harkness arranges to place an $1,800 bet for them. The crew becomes depressed, however, when they realize that the next trial is scheduled for the day of the fight, and that if they again get stranded, Wascylewski will not be able to compete. Unknown to Harkness, the men bring aboard distilled water and the run is successful, although Wascylewski is injured during the trial and cannot fight. Harkness discovers the water bottles and attempts to report the truth to Reynolds, but the commander is too busy congratulating him to listen. Harkness is dismayed to learn from Ellie that Tennant and the rest of the research board will be coming to Norfolk soon to put the Teakettle through its paces. Fearing that the men will be too upset after losing the bet to complete the run, Harkness is astonished when he returns to the ship and learns that the crew has won their wager, for Barbo entered the fight under Wascylewski's name and trounced his opponent. The next day, Tennant and Reynolds are bewildered by the lengths to which the crew must go to make the juryrigged steam engine run. The voyage fails, however, when the ship smashes into an aircraft carrier after the throttles freeze open. Later, Harkness is summoned before a board of inquiry, and he angrily complains that the inexperienced crew members were incapable of operating the intricate machinery, despite their sincere efforts, and that if the Navy wanted the experiment to succeed, it would have staffed the ship with experienced men. Tennant then explains that the Navy does not have time to train all of its reserves during wartime, and needs to ensure that new equipment can be operated by new sailors. Tennant compliments Harkness on his men's efforts and gives him a letter of commendation from the Secretary of the Navy. Soon after, the men cheer as a diesel engine is fitted into the Teakettle , and prepare to join a convoy of ships bound for sea duty.