A squadron of PT boats is used to slow down the Japanese advance into the Philippines during the first few months of the war.
Navy men at Manila Bay learn that Pearl Harbor has been bombed. They load torpedoes onto their PT boats. When Japanese planes attack, the PT boats go to sea to scatter and shoot back. Lt. John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) is told they must sacrifice, move to Bataan, and try to sink a cruiser. A doctor tells Lt. Rusty Ryan (John Wayne) that his finger has blood poisoning, and Brickley sends him to a hospital at Corregidor. Rusty has a temperature of 103, and the nurse Sandy Davys (Donna Reed) tells him to rest. Two PT boats attack the cruiser, and one boat is lost. Rusty changes his mind and goes to a dance so he can dance with Sandy. Brickley comes to get Rusty. Andy (Paul Langton) is wounded and is replaced. Sandy dines with Brickley, Rusty, and other officers. Men sing for her, and then she and Rusty are left alone. Brickley's commander tells him that the President has ordered him to leave. They prepare to transport men. Brickley and others visit Andy and joke. Brickley stays, and Andy gives him letters and his will. Rusty tries to call Sandy. Brickley tells the men that they are going to help the army. Sandy calls Rusty, who tells her he is leaving.
Brickley's boat transports General MacArthur to Mindanao, and one boat is lost. Brickley looks for them with a plane. Brickley and Rusty ask a submarine officer for half of his sixteen torpedoes. An old man tells Brickley and Rusty that bombers will attack the Japanese, but a Japanese cruiser is coming. Brickley says they will try to stop the large cruiser. Boat 41 and Rusty's boat go out. In the night battle Rusty and Brickley fire their torpedoes and leave. The next day planes strafe Rusty's boat. They land on a beach, and planes destroy the boat. Slug dies, and Rusty conducts a funeral in a church. Then Rusty goes next door and declares that the bar is open. Radio announces that at Bataan 36,000 US troops have surrendered to 200,000 Japanese, but they are still fighting at Corregidor.
Rusty looks for Brickley and finds him. Brickley says his boat is being given to the army for errands. Brickley, Rusty, and the remaining men walk and see the army moving. General Martin (Jack Holt) tells Brickley and Rusty that they are being flown to Australia so they can go to Washington to develop PT boat warfare. Boats Mulcahey (Ward Bond) says goodbye to them and is put in charge of the remaining men. Rusty sees Ohio Carter (Louis Jean Heydt) again and asks about Sandy. A list of thirty men are taken on the last plane, and others stay behind. Brickley says their job is to get ready to come back.
John Ford, who was in the Navy, directed this realistic
war drama based on the true story of two medal-winners. In such
tragedies human lives are expendable and spent.