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In the spring of 1942, the remaining crew of the U.S. Navy's 3rd Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron, the last of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's escort in the retreat from the Philippine island of Corregidor, wash ashore on the island of Leyte. When the crew discovers that the United States has lost possession of Bataan to the Japanese, their commander orders them to pair off and make their way to the nearest airfield on Mindanao for transport to Australia, where they will rejoin the main American forces. Ensign Chuck Palmer and sailor Jim Mitchell depart together, eventually joining hundreds of Filipinos fleeing the advancing Japanese army. At Tacloban, Chuck seeks assistance from Col. Benson, who informs him that with the collapse of Mindanao, all U.S. forces in the Philippines have been ordered to surrender. Chuck requests a boat, intending to sail over a thousand miles to Australia. Benson provides money and, with the ground crew from the fallen airfield, Chuck and Jim organize an outrigger sailboat for their journey. Jeanne Martinez, a Frenchwoman married to a Filipino, expresses dismay that the men are leaving when resistance on the island is necessary, and also warns the Americans about the upcoming monsoon season, but Chuck insists that without proper equipment and manpower, it is useless to stay. Within three days of sailing, the boat crashes in a storm and those that are able attempt to swim ashore. A young Filipino fisherman, Miguel, rescues an exhausted Chuck and Jim and the other crew members, despite the Japanese's threat to kill anyone found aiding Americans. Miguel is part of the local guerrilla movement, and with his and the villagers' assistance, Chuck and the men spend the summer and fall evading the Japanese across Leyte, while still hoping to make their way to Australia. In one village, some unscrupulous Americans are cheating the locals, and Chuck's disgust with the profiteering is noticed by Juan Martinez, a wealthy businessman, who invites the Americans to his house. There, Chuck is reintroduced to Jeanne, who is Juan's wife. Juan, a strong supporter of the local resistance, takes the men to Filipino Col. Dimalanta, who offers to provide the Americans with a boat, if they will first inform American Col. Phillips, head of guerrilla activities on Mindanao, that Gen. MacArthur wants all resistance movements unified. Chuck and Jim agree, and with Miguel as guide, cross the Leyte gulf to Mindanao, where they find Phillips' base surrounded by stranded American soldiers smoking cigarettes stamped with MacArthur's promise, "I Shall Return." Phillips informs Chuck that MacArthur has ordered the islands to organize a spy network to report on Japanese movements and demands that Chuck assist Dimalanta in establishing a radio post on Leyte. Upon returning to Leyte, Chuck, Jim and the other men, with the help of the locals, collect scrap material to build equipment necessary to establish a provincial free government in defiance of the Japanese occupation. In addition to military and medical training, the resistance creates printed money, a newspaper and eventually strings up over 150 miles of crude telegraph wire for the radio post. While waiting for supplies from the U.S. Navy, Chuck gets to know Jeanne and Juan and learns more about Philippine customs. When U.S. submarines break through the Japanese lines with the radio equipment, Leyte makes its first broadcast, which is received as far away as San Francisco and is also picked by the local Japanese, who immediately launch a raid in which Jim is nearly caught. Many of the villagers are tortured for information, including Jeanne and Juan. Hoping to force a confession from Jeanne, the Japanese beat Juan to death in front of her. Chuck, his remaining men and Jeanne then are forced to go into hiding to evade the Japanese search and during their enforced time together, Chuck and Jeanne fall in love. When Miguel is badly injured during a raid, Chuck attempts to save him, but fails and in frustration disparages MacArthur's promise of salvation for the Philippines. Throughout the following year, U.S. submarines carrying critical supplies break through frequently, and the guerrillas are gradually able to take offensive action against the Japanese. On one mission, Chuck goes behind enemy lines to radio reports on shipping lane traffic and barely escapes a heavy bombardment. The Japanese follow Chuck and his squad back to the village and confront them in a church. Suddenly, loud explosions issue from the harbor and a squadron of American planes pass over, announcing the return to the islands of U.S. forces. The Japanese retreat and within days, Gen. MacArthur's forces reclaim the Philippine islands, as promised.