An aircraft carrier is used as a decoy without engaging Japanese planes prior to the battle of Midway.
Three months after Pearl Harbor the US Navy prepares for the battle of Midway. Edward Moulton (Dana Andrews) lands his plane on an aircraft carrier. Hallam Scott (William Eythe) is waved off but lands anyway. Commander Harper (Don Ameche) welcomes the new squadron and has Moulton read a report of a man killed because a pilot ignored a wave-off. Scott was in the movies, and others ask him about kissing scenes. Cunningham (Kevin O'Shea) has shot down three Zeroes. O'Neill is too old and avoids Harper; Beezy (Richard Jaeckel) is too young and becomes friends with O'Neill. Captain Waddell (Charles Bickford) reads the orders. Harper orders the pilots not to engage enemy planes but return to the ship.
A doctor approves Cunningham for flying. Planes practice bombing; but against orders Scott's bombardier Brainard (Harry Morgan) hits the sled dragging behind the carrier. Harper and Moulton order Brainard grounded. A Betty Grable film is shown but goes haywire. Men are summoned to battle stations, but no combat results. Harper sends out patrols to search. Cunningham takes off, but his plane goes into the sea. Cunningham admits it was him, and Harper assigns him to shore. Planes in the air see Zeroes but hold their fire. One plane is shot down. They inflate a life raft but are strafed to death. Scott reports that he saw three planes but is not sure where.
The carrier zigzags between islands, and the men get jumpy. A message is decoded, and Captain Waddell speaks to the ship. He explains they have not been fighting in order to decoy the Japanese. Now they are going to Midway to fight. He says the Japanese outnumber them, but they can win the battle in the air. Planes take off and fly in formation to a Japanese fleet. They drop bombs in the ocean that torpedo ships. The Captain orders the radio talk broadcast on the ship as the planes are fighting the Zeroes. Enemy planes attack the carrier, and landing gear is damaged. Men try to repair it in time. Cunningham takes off and crashes into a torpedo before it can hit the carrier. Only Scott has not returned as rain clouds cover the carrier. Beezy tells Scott that it is his 17th birthday. Moulton asks Harper to break radio silence or send him up, but Harper says no. They can hear the plane flying nearby and go down. The men resent Harper, but he tells them he is responsible for three thousand men. Harper gets a call that Scott and Beezy were picked up by a destroyer. In the final scene Harper gives the orders for the next day.
The lives of the men on an aircraft carrier during wartime
reflect the challenges of fighting and doing without women.