Following World War II, an entire destroyer escort, the U.S.S. Kornblatt, has mysteriously gone missing. Lieutenant John Paul Steckler VII (Jerry Lewis), the last of a long line of good-natured but screw-up U.S. Navy officers, was tasked with commanding the Kornblatt to its decommission back in the U.S., but somehow the ship disappeared without a trace on its homeward voyage. Now, with a $4 billion appropriation at stake, Congressman Mandeville (Gale Gordon) refuses to approve the funds until the Kornblatt is found. Steckler's former superior, Vice Admiral Bludde (Robert Middleton), who has been trying to sugarcoat this embarrassing incidence, has no other choice but to comply.
Just as he is ready to embark on a honeymoon with his freshly wedded wife Prudence (Diana Spencer), Steckler is tracked down by Navy personnel and brought to the Pentagon, where he is charged with treason and malevolent misappropriation of government property. Though he can convince the Admiralty of his basic innocence, he is nevertheless charged with finding the Kornblatt within the next ten days, thus upsetting both his wife and his honeymoon plans. Since he is at a loss to explain the whereabouts of the ship, Steckler is teamed up with Naval Intelligence operative Ensign Benson, who happens to be an attractive woman (Dina Merrill).
Benson employs a relaxing therapy to coax Steckler's memory, succeeding with much effort. In a flashback it is told that on the day hostilities in the Pacific were finally ended, the Kornblatt was ordered to return to Pearl Harbor for the decommissioning of those crew members with sufficient discharge points. Steckler, assisted by Ensign Stan Wychinsky (Mickey Shaughnessy), and the remaining crew, attempted to get the Kornblatt back to the mainland, but Steckler got the ship stuck on a reef near an island occupied by a garrison of still-entrenched Japanese soldiers. Captured by those soldiers while exploring, Steckler was imprisoned for a night before his impending execution, only for the Japanese commander, Colonel Takahashi (Yuki Shimoda), to learn that the war really was over. By the time of Steckler's release and the garrison's surrender to him, however, the Kornblatt and her crew, believing him dead, had already departed.
With Wychinsky being the only viable lead, Steckler and Benson track him down in Miami, Florida, where he works as a professional wrestler. From him they learn that he has turned the Kornblatt over as instructed, but being in the middle of a match, he loses the memory of the responsible official's name when his opponent whacks him on the head. Grounded by a hurricane, and unwilling to spend any more time separated from Prudence, Steckler takes a train back to Washington, where he is forced to share a compartment with Benson (who incidentally takes a personal liking to him); this circumstance leads to a prompt misunderstanding with Prudence at the Washington railway station, who leaves him in a fury. In addition, Mandeville has drastically cut the time limit in favor of an immediate inquiry on this very day.
In the meantime, Wychinsky, who has finally remembered what happened to the Kornblatt, has followed Steckler back to Washington and encounters Prudence. The two proceed to the hearing, which is (due to Mandeville's animosity) progressing very badly for Steckler and Bludde. Given a reprieve of 48 hours, Steckler and Wychinsky go to a spot in the ocean where the wreck of the Kornblatt lies following her last use as a target dummy. After a harrowing dive and struggle with nitrogen narcosis and a hungry kraken, they recover a bell from the Kornblatt, thus confirming the ship's fate, and back at the inquiry Mandeville is revealed as the man who had unwittingly assigned the Kornblatt for target practice, ignoring the red tape. Finally rehabilitated, Steckler manages to secure a significantly higher appropriation for the Navy, and is happily reunited with Prudence.Jerry Lewis as John Paul Steckler
Dina Merrill as Ensign Benson
Mickey Shaughnessy as Wychinsky
Gale Gordon as Congressman Mandeville
Robert Middleton as Vice Admiral Bludde
Claude Akins as Lt. Commander Farber
Diana Spencer as Prudence
Hugh Sanders as the Admiral
The USS Vammen was used to portray the fictional ship the USS Kornblatt. Previously, the USS Stembel (DD-644) was listed as the ship portraying the Kornblatt, but this was an error. The Stembel was a Fleet Destroyer, the Vammen (DE-644) a Destroyer Escort.
Don't Give Up the Ship was re-released in 1962 on a double bill with another Jerry Lewis film, Rock-A-Bye Baby.
A comic book adaptation of the film was released in August of 1959 as issue number 1049 of the Dell Four Color comic book series; it featured a photo of Jerry Lewis on the cover.
At the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film carries a rating of 3.5 on a 5 scale, with 42% of audience liking the film, based on 68 reviews.
Don't Give Up the Ship was released on DVD and Blu-Ray on April 25, 2017.