In the campaign against the Japanese during World War II, U.S. Army troops commanded by General Cummings land on the beach of Anopopei, an 150-mile-long South Pacific island held by the Japanese army. The platoon of Sergeant Samuel Croft is assigned to conduct reconnaissance on the beach. Croft’s men consider themselves lucky because this duty would keep them busy for a week or so while other troops go on the more dangerous patrols into the interior of the island. Red Valsen, however, resents any duties because of his disdain for authority. Croft is able to control all the men but Red. Sergeant Brown considers Croft the best and meanest platoon sergeant in the Army because he seems to love combat. Despite Croft’s courage and leadership, some of his men are fearful, especially after young Hennessey is killed by a mortar shell. After Croft begs for a replacement for Hennessey, he is given Roth, a pessimistic clerk who resents never getting anywhere in the civilian world despite his education. Of all his men, Croft likes only Julio Martinez, a reliable scout.
Lieutenant Robert Hearn, General Cummings’s aide, admires the general’s ability to put his thoughts into action but resents his own position, longing for a combat role. A snob who claims to know everything worth knowing, Cummings picks Hearn as his aide because he considers the lieutenant to be the only officer on his staff with the intellect to understand him. Cummings likes to remind Hearn that Hearn would be nothing without the general.
Croft’s platoon grows restless for combat. Most of them instantly dislike Roth, whom Brown considers lazy and shiftless. Moving antitank guns into the jungle after a storm, they drop one into a muddy creek bed, and Wyman blames Goldstein. Confronted by a Japanese platoon, Roy Gallagher wants to surrender, but the enemy troops are repelled, with Toglio slightly wounded. For the first time in combat, Croft is afraid. He orders Red to shoot four already dead Japanese and then execute a prisoner after being friendly to him, upsetting Red even more. Martinez steals gold teeth from the mouths of Japanese corpses.
Gallagher is told that his wife, Mary, died in childbirth, but he refuses to accept her death. The other men are made uneasy by Gallagher’s loss, made even more painful by his continuing, because of the delay of mail from home, to receive letters from Mary for weeks after her death. After the failure of the Japanese attack, Cummings’s campaign stalls for no apparent reason, and he feels powerless to change matters. The general begins harassing Hearn, who responds by grinding out a cigarette in the middle of Cummings’s spotless floor. Cummings forces Hearn to choose between being imprisoned for insubordination and picking up a cigarette the general throws down. Hearn gives in, picks up the cigarette, but asks for a transfer. Cummings refuses and sends him to work under Major Dalleson.
The slightly wounded Minetta fakes insanity to keep from returning to combat but changes his mind after another patient dies of his wounds. Woodrow Wilson agonizes over the discomfort of his sexually transmitted disease. Cummings decides that sending in a battalion to drive out the enemy without naval support would result in a massacre of his troops. The general devises a plan of attack but decides to send in a reconnaissance patrol first. Based on Dalleson’s recommendation, Cummings decides to send Croft’s platoon, and he assigns Hearn to lead it just before the mission begins. Hearn distrusts the general’s motives, and Croft resents giving up his platoon to the untested lieutenant. Croft had always...
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thought that a man either was destined to be killed or not, and saw himself as exempt from death; suddenly, though, he was not so certain. He also dislikes Hearn’s efforts to make the men like him. Hearn realizes how easy it would be to let Croft make all the decisions. Croft thinks the best way to accomplish the mission is to climb Mount Anaka in the center of the island.
When the platoon is ambushed, Wilson is seriously wounded in the stomach. Brown, Stanley, Ridges, and Goldstein are chosen to carry Wilson back to the beach. The remaining men experience a respite from the shock of battle when Roth discovers an injured bird, but Croft kills it. After Red challenges Croft, Hearn stops the dispute before blows are struck. Later, the remaining men in the patrol want to go back, but Hearn, at first, does not want to seem a failure to the general. When he changes his mind, Croft argues that a successful mission could end the entire campaign. Hearn gives in but decides to resign his commission after the campaign. Sent ahead as a scout, Martinez finds Japanese in their path and kills one of them. Croft lies to Hearn about what Martinez had seen, and when the patrol proceeds, the lieutenant is killed. Croft then orders them to climb the mountain. Meantime, after Brown and Stanley collapse under the burden of carrying Wilson, Goldstein and Ridges continue with the stretcher on their own.
When Dalleson is left in command after Cummings seeks the support of a destroyer, the situation of the campaign changes suddenly. Not knowing what to do, the major accidentally launches a complete attack. In a few hours, the Japanese are completely routed and Croft’s platoon forgotten.
Their sacrifices made pointless by Dalleson’s bumbling, the patrol directs their frustration at the weak Roth. Attempting to show them he is as good as they are, Roth jumps awkwardly from a ledge and falls to his death. Wilson also dies, but Goldstein and Ridges continue carrying his body until they lose it in a river. Martinez tells Croft he will not continue up the mountain, and a rebellion stirs. Croft threatens to shoot Red, and the men give in again. Shortly afterward, they are attacked by hornets and run down the mountain. Croft finally gives up on their mission, and all the survivors return to the beach. Back on their landing craft, they quickly forget all their hostility toward one another. Cummings is upset that Dalleson had blundered his way to victory and was nevertheless congratulated. As Dalleson plans trivial projects, anonymous soldiers on a mopping-up mission execute some Japanese prisoners.