Frédéric Chopin's Polonaise Op. 53 is played throughout the film; it was given lyrics and became a major hit at the time.
Right after VJ Day, two Marine Corps buddies, Cpl. Bill Tabeshaw (Mitchum) and Pfc. Cliff Harper (Madison), are among a group selected to return immediately to civilian life. Bill, a former cowboy, has a silver plate implanted in his head, a "souvenir" of Iwo Jima, but has won $2,100 gambling and plans to buy a small cattle ranch in New Mexico. Former college student Cliff is physically uninjured but harbors deep resentments about losing nearly four years of his life because he enlisted right after Pearl Harbor.
Arriving home in Los Angeles, Cliff finds that his parents are not home but meets his new neighbor, Helen Ingersoll (Jean Porter), a vivacious 18-year-old who is instantly infatuated with the decorated hero. Anxious to see old friends, he heads for Scuffy's, a bar that was his favorite soda shop before the war. He is greeted by his friend and naval aviator Pinky, who introduces him to Pat Ruscomb (McGuire).
Immediately attracted to each other, they abandon Pinky, go to Pat's apartment and kiss impetuously. Pat withdraws from him, however, and reveals that she is a war widow who has never gotten over her husband's death 14 months before. Discouraged by Pat's moodiness, Cliff returns home to be reunite with his ecstatic father C.W. (Tom Tully) and mother Amy (Ruth Nelson). Cliff wants to talk about his experiences but Amy immediately changes the subject. His family wants things to be like they were before the war, making Cliff feel increasingly out of place. He tries to call Pat, who does not answer, and goes to bed. After his mother tucks him in as if he were still a boy, Cliff cries himself to sleep.
The next day, Pinky invites Cliff to go skating with him and Pat. Unsure if Pinky and Pat have a relationship, Cliff brings along Helen as his date, who treats Pat as middle-aged matron. In a coffee shop, Cliff spots a lonely soldier with "the shakes" and goes to help him. Cliff comforts the veteran, a psychiatric patient on leave who is afraid to go home, while Pat talks about a fearful moment in her own past to give him courage.
A few days later, C.W. questions his apparently direction-less son about his future and is disappointed when Cliff tells him the only decision he has made is to make no decisions for now. At breakfast Cliff tries to relate to his mother the misery of living in a foxhole but Amy forcefully refuses to listen. Bill Tabeshaw, on his way to New Mexico, stops by to invite Cliff to make a "social call" with him. Amy is polite to Bill but clearly disapproves of his many differences from her son.
The "social call" is a visit to Marine Sgt. Perry Kincheloe (Bill Williams), a legless double amputee who was in the hospital with Bill, now living at home with his mother (Selena Royle). Perry, once a boxer, is grooming his younger brother to become the fighter he can no longer be. Though happy to see Bill, Perry is discouraged and politely rejects encouragement to use his artificial legs.
At Scuffy's, Bill expresses disappointment that Perry, after progressing nicely in the hospital, is no longer part of a military team and has given in to self-pity. Cliff runs into Pat at the bar, where she is waiting to go out with an Army Air Forces captain. Unhappy and jealous, Cliff comes home late and argues with his parents, who are upset that he is always out and accuse him of "gallivanting around with boys like this Bill Tabeshaw." C.W. tells Cliff "it's just not like old times," but Cliff is unable to make them understand that old times were three years ago and he has to make his own plans.
Cliff waits for Pat's return outside her apartment. He sees an intoxicated Pat impulsively kiss the captain goodnight. Embarrassed that Cliff has seen her, Pat treats him flippantly and he calls her a tramp. Later Cliff apologizes to Pat for his behavior, explaining that he had begun to think of her as his girl.
Pat breaks down and confesses that she is still miserable because that although she married to give her husband a dream to come home to, his death left her only with her own dream. Pat reveals that the captain was her husband's co-pilot traveling home after his discharge, and in the moment that Cliff saw her, the captain had become her husband in her mind.
Ashamed, Cliff admits that he too is lonely and confused. At Pat's suggestion, Cliff then takes a job at the factory where she works but on his first day tries to pick a fight with his supervisor. Talking it over with Pat, Cliff proposes to her but she rejects him when he wants only to live on the beach until his money is gone.
Bill returns to Los Angeles after losing all his stake money gambling in Las Vegas. The plate in his head is also causing him severe headaches. Cliff tries to convince him to go to the veteran's hospital but Bill refuses. They go out drinking and Cliff telephones Perry to help him convince Bill to see a doctor.
Perry finds the courage to don his artificial legs with encouragement from his mother and goes to the bar. Before they can talk Bill into getting help, they are approached by a group of men who invite them to join their veterans' organization. Bill is told that the organization is restricted to exclude "Catholics, Jews and Negroes" and spits in the face of one of them. During the ensuing mêlée, Perry discovers that he can still throw a punch and Bill is hit over the head with a beer bottle, seriously injuring him.
At the hospital, Bill is prepped for surgery, and tells Cliff that if he pulls through he plans to go back home to New Mexico and work toward one day buying that ranch he's dreamed about. Cliff and his father, C.W., keep a vigil while Bill is undergoing surgery. Cliff tells his father that despite what he's been through readjusting to civilian life, in many ways he feels luckier than Bill and Perry - he has a job that he likes, though he's not sure he wants to make it a career, and he has Pat, with whom he desires a lasting relationship. C.W. accepts his son's modest ambitions for the future, telling him "You didn't make yourself a soldier overnight, you can't become a civilian overnight." The next morning, Cliff and C.W. leave the hospital, having learned that Bill will be alright, and he is met by his mother, who has brought Pat with her. Cliff and Pat run toward each other and happily embrace.Dorothy McGuire as Pat Ruscomb
Guy Madison as Cliff Harper
Robert Mitchum as William Tabeshaw
Bill Williams as Perry Kincheloe
Tom Tully as C.W. Harper
William Gargan as Sergeant "Gunny" Watrous
Jean Porter as Helen Ingersoll
Johnny Sands as Tommy
Loren Tindell as Pinky
Ruth Nelson as Amy Harper
Selena Royle as Mrs. Kincheloe
The film made a profit of $490,000.