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After World War II, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), and Al Stephenson (Fredric March) meet while flying home to Boone City, a fictional Midwestern city resembling Cincinnati, Ohio. Fred was a decorated Army Air Forces captain and bombardier with the Eighth Air Force in Europe who still suffers from nightmares of combat. Homer lost both hands from burns suffered when his aircraft carrier was sunk, and now uses mechanical hook prostheses. Al served as an infantry platoon sergeant in the 25th Infantry Division in the Pacific.
Before the war, Al was a bank loan officer. He is a mature man with a comfortable home and a loving family: wife Milly (Myrna Loy), adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), and college freshman son Rob. Al has trouble readjusting to civilian life, as do his two new acquaintances, and is showing signs of alcoholism.
Homer playing piano. Note the in-focus figure of Fred in the phone booth in the background, while maintaining clear focus on Homer, Butch and Al, showing Gregg Toland's use of deep focus photography.Before the war, Fred had been an unskilled drugstore soda jerk. He does not want to return there but cannot find a better job. Fred had met Marie (Virginia Mayo) while in training and married her shortly afterward, before shipping out less than a month later. Marie became a nightclub waitress while Fred was overseas, and does not enjoy now being married to a soda jerk.
Homer was a football quarterback and became engaged to Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) before the Navy. Both Homer and his parents now have trouble dealing with his disability. He does not want to burden Wilma with a handicapped man and so pushes her away, although she adjusts best to his changed life.
Peggy meets Fred while bringing her father home from a bar where the three men meet. They are attracted to each other, and Peggy dislikes Marie, finding her shallow. Peggy tells her parents she intends to end Fred and Marie's marriage, but they tell her that their own marriage overcame similar problems. To protect Peggy, Al asks Fred to stop seeing his daughter. Fred does so, but the two men's friendship is damaged.
At Fred's drugstore an obnoxious customer, who says that the war was fought against the wrong enemies, gets into a fight with Homer and Fred, who loses his job. Fred discovers his wife with another veteran (Steve Cochran). Marie tells Fred he is a flop and that she is getting a divorce.
Fred decides to leave town, and gives his father his medals and citations, saying that they were "passed out with the K-rations." After Fred leaves, his father reads the citation for Fred's Distinguished Flying Cross, which describes his heroism. At the airport, Fred books space on the first outbound plane, without regard for the destination. While waiting, he wanders into a vast aircraft boneyard. Inside the nose of a B-17, he begins to relive intense memories of combat. The boss of a work crew interrupts him. When the crew chief says the planes' aluminum is being salvaged to build housing, Fred persuades the boss to hire him.
Homer bluntly demonstrates to Wilma how hard life with him would be, but when Wilma makes clear that she loves him anyway, he gives in and agrees to marry her. Now divorced, Fred is Homer's best man at the wedding. After the ceremony he approaches Peggy and holds her. He says that it might be years before their lives become comfortable. She smiles and they embrace.