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Chaplain Joseph McIntyre recalls the day in February 1945 when he reported for duty at the Alameda Naval Station in California and saw the battle-scarred carrier that was to be his new post: Onboard, the father reunites with Pete Kelly, the ensign he ministered to in the hospital after the pilot's plane was shot down. Buck Fitzpatrick, the ship's gruff but big-hearted bos'un, gives the priest a tour of the vessel and introduces him to Chris Jordan, the troublesome sailor who relishes in breaking the rules in an effort to win a transfer off the ship. When the priest learns that Jordan is resentful because he was denied a promotion to chief bos'un's mate, he tries to reason with Jordan, who turns a deaf ear. The priest is then introduced to the ship's captain, a devoted naval officer, who worked his way up from enlisted man and took a demotion to assume command of the carrier. When the ship is ordered to sail the next day, liberty is cancelled and Jordan tries to incite the disappointed men. As the carrier begins its journey from Alameda to Pearl Harbor, the captain inaugurates a grueling training schedule to prepare the men for combat. Tempers are short as the captain orders the men to drill around the clock, prompting Jordan to disparage the captain's actions and then slug Buck, hoping to provoke the bos'un into transferring him. Later, during a flight training mission, Kelly's plane runs low on fuel, but he is waved off from landing on the flight deck. Kelly, who almost drowned when he was forced to ditch his plane on a previous mission, defies orders and lands his craft anyway. Furious that Kelly endangered the other aircraft by landing, the captain relieves him of all flight duty. In March, the carrier joins a task force of warships docked off a small South Pacific island. After a brief respite, the carrier and her crew sail out with the task force, their mission to destroy air and naval installations on Japan. Back at sea, William Halsey, Kelly's loyal turret gunner, tries to persuade the captain to allow the pilot to fly again. When Halsey explains that Kelly was afraid to follow orders and ditch his plane because his wife is expecting twins and he almost drowned once before, the captain promises to reconsider. That evening, the carrier spots an enemy submarine and sinks it with some well-aimed depth charges. On March 18, the carrier is assigned to destroy ships in Kobe harbor, and the captain allows Kelly to resume his flight duty. The carrier now enters dangerous waters, and enemy planes begin to search for it. Forty miles off the coast of Japan, an enemy aircraft spots the carrier and rains its bombs down on the ship. As a fire rages above decks, Buck and some men are trapped below in the mess hall. When the men begin to panic, Buck leads them in prayer. Learning of their peril, Jordan risks his own life to scale down a ventilation shaft to the mess hall. The fire spreads, however, cutting off their escape route and forcing them to exit through an ammunition locker. As the men scramble to the decks above, the flames reach the locker, but the men escape safely before the ammunition detonates. Throughout the night, emergency crews struggle to extinguish the fire, and the next day, the ship, barely afloat, limps toward the fleet anchorage at the Pacific island. Along the way, an enemy aircraft flies overhead and peppers Buck with gunfire. When the crippled ship finally reaches safe harbor, the captain feels guilty that he survived while many in his command died. As the carrier prepares for its long voyage back to the Brooklyn naval yard, the captain promotes Jordan to chief bos'uns mate and a now-recovered Buck shakes his hand. The ship then begins its journey through the Panama Canal, up the Atlantic Coast to New York harbor.