Based on a novel by William Woods, American pilots in China fight Japanese planes in 1941.
In China Captain Jim Gordon (John Wayne) leads a squadron of fighter planes against Japanese bombers. After they land, Jim finds a pilot died. Jim kisses nurse Brooke Elliott (Anna Lee) and goes to Rangoon for recruits. He rejects Blackie Bales (Edmund MacDonald) because of his flying record, but his wife Verna Bales (Mae Clarke) pleads with Jim that Blackie needs to regain his self-respect. Woody Jason (John Carroll) lands a plane with an engine on fire. Woody quits his commercial job and joins Jim. Cocky Woody meets Brooke after she uses Jim's bath and banters with the guys. They are paid $600 a month and "$500 a Jap." Bombs drop, but Jim won't let Woody fly yet. Woody takes off anyway but has no bullets; his tail is hit, and he crash-lands. Jim blames Woody for wrecking a ship and trains the four new pilots.
Woody brags about four kills; but Blackie complains he cut in on him, and they fight. Blackie bails out and is shot while parachuting. Men blame Woody, who tells Jim he couldn't help him. Woody tells Verna Bales that Blackie was a hero and gives her money. Brooke sees Woody entertaining Chinese children until bombs fall. She changes their bandages. Brooke and Jim order Chinese food and dance to a record. Jim learns they are to fly at night. A Chinese doctor examines the pilots, and Jim tells Hap (Paul Kelly) he can't fly anymore. Brooke tells Woody she heard from Verna Bales and agrees to dine with him. When Woody does not get back on time, Hap takes his place. Woody returns with Brooke as the planes take off. Jim learns that Hap is flying, and they attack Japanese fighter planes; but Hap crashes. Jim tells Woody and Brooke that Hap "paid the check."
Jim orders Woody to leave. On December 8, 1941 the men hear FDR on radio declaring war. Col. Lindsay arrives and tells Jim to destroy a bridge. Jim proposes using one transport plane. Woody learns of it, and Brooke wishes Jim well. As Jim gets on board, Woody takes off. Jim tells Woody to bail out, but Woody says he needs him. Woody explains that he has been acting like a kid, and Jim lets him stay. While Woody flies, Jim drops the bombs on the bridge. Wood is wounded as the plane is damaged. Jim bails out, but Woody stays and crashes the plane into the train. Jim and Brooke read Woody's letter, and Jim gives his scarf to a new pilot.
This propaganda melodrama indicates the American response
to Pearl Harbor and gave people a preview of the Pacific air war.
Jim, Woody, and Hap represent strong male egos that thrive in
combat. In fact Flying Tigers mostly trained Chinese pilots, and
only three Americans were killed.