Under palm trees on Pavuvu, Sledge brushes his teeth and the rest of his unit recovers from the battle on Peleliu's cliffs. He watches as another man marches off to a garbage can and throws away a number of papers -- and a large hardcover book. Sledge stands and goes to the can, digs through the papers and retrieves the book. It is Ernest Hemingway's ''Men at War,'' and on the title page is the name ''A.A.Haldane.'' Sledge gulps and keeps the book for himself.
Back in his rack, he's laying down but Private ''Snafu'' Shelton keeps asking Sledge to look at his eyes, claiming they're turning yellow. He's obsessed with fatal illnesses, and swears that he has jaundice. Private Jay De L'eau swings by their tent, and Snafu asks if his eyes are yellow. DeL'eau ignores him, because he has bigger news -- he's being transferred out of their unit.
Back in New York at Radio City Music Hall, NBC is interviewing the Basilone brothers -- only, they've provided them with a script. The Basilones stiffly read through their lines recounting Manny, JP and John's last dinner with the family before going back to war, then John stiffly recounts the battle on Guadalcanal.
Later, the Basilones are at family dinner, and the family is celebrating how wonderful John is, but he says he doesn't feel like he's doing anything. The rest of the family doesn't get it -- it's because of him that the boys get free drinks, and everyone knows the Basilone name. John excuses himself from the table and sits contemplatively in the living room. His mother looks worried and confused, but around the table, the dinner conversation more or less merrily continues.
The next day, Basilone is in an office slowly typing a document at his cushy desk job. He checks his watch, sips coffee, but again, does not look content. He pays a visit to Lt. Gen. AA Vandegrift to tell him that he joined the corps because he knew the Marines were going into the Pacific first and hardest. But he's been back for nearly a year, he's done what they asked him to do. Vandegrift interprets this to mean that he's requesting an early discharge, since he only has six months left. Vandegrift offers to push through some paperwork so he can go home. But Basilone stops him, saying his home is the corps, he just doesn't want to push pencils anymore. He asks to help the new recruits the way he knows how: by training them.
Vandegrift shakes his hand and tells Basilone he makes him proud to be a Marine.
Basilone reports to USMC training, but his company isn't full. He reports to his superior and asks what he's to do until the rest of his men arrive, which could be days or weeks. The man casually tells him to put his feet up, relax -- whatever he wants.
Basilone passes the time by running and calisthenics to get in shape, but it's obvious he's punishing himself. He heads in to find his company, which consists of merely two men: PFCs Charles Tatum and Steve Evanson. They're lazing in their racks until Basilone barks at them to fall in. They tell him they haven't gotten any orders, so he gives them some: From that moment forward, he says, they are the 1st machine gun squad in the company's weapons platoon. After Basilone dismisses them, Tatum is starstruck by the fact that the great John Basilone is their sergeant. Evanson has no idea who he is.
''What, do you live in a cave or something?'' Tatum says with a grin.
Basilone soon wipes the smile off his face, however, with hard-driving training. Tatum and Evanson are beyond fresh and can barely run with their weapons. Basilone barks orders at them, but after a moment, when he sees they're nearly at their breaking point, he softens. Then he says to them sternly, like a concerned brother, ''You cannot f**k this up, ever. Lives depend on it. Is that clear?''
''Aye, Gunny,'' Tatum and Evanson say.
Later in the mess hall, a man drops his chow, but gets orders to get more from an attractive brunette Marine with a gentle voice. Basilone stares at her, then offers to help her clean up the mess. She smiles. ''Do you see these stripes?'' she asks him. ''I'm an NCO, just like you. I have work to do.''
Basilone asks another female Marine, Lucy, what her name is, and she tells him Lena Riggi. Lucy also reveals that every Friday the women catch a six o'clock train to L.A. for a little fun. ''Just in case you're interested,'' she says, with a flirtatious grin.
Basilone joins a number of men and women from the military on the L.A. train and sees Lena Riggi. He steps up to her and tries to find common ground by pointing out that her name is Italian. She sarcastically tells him that gee, that means they can talk about Joe DiMaggio and that she knows where to get the best lasagna in the city. He replies that he wouldn't mind some good lasagna right about now, but she still shoots him down.
''Look,'' she says, giving him the brush off, ''L.A. is full of girls for a guy like you. You'll do fine.'' She stands up and leaves him with, ''Happy hunting Sergeant.'' Basilone grins. He isn't giving up so easily.
He finds Lena enjoying cocktail hour at the Biltmore and approaches her again. She cant believe it. ''Wow, it really is true what they say about you,'' she jokes. ''You get shot down, but you keep coming back.'' He asks what she's doing there, and she admits she and Lucy have been waiting for a table for over an hour, and shes about to give up. He tells her he can get a table since they know him. Lena tells him to prove it. She turns to invite Lucy to join them, but Lucy declines. Nodding at some men in blue dress uniform she jokes, ''I'm thinking of joining the Navy.''
Basilone is a man of his word, and scores them a private candlelit dinner in a hotel suite. Lena is suspicious -- she thinks he arranged this to impress her so that she'll sleep with him. ''That's standard operating procedure, isn't it?'' she says dryly.
He looks somewhat embarrassed. ''No,'' he says. ''Not anymore.''
There's a silent pause, and then she recounts a story about seeing him at a movie premiere. She remembers that she saw him go into the theater with a blonde starlet, and saw him come out with a brunette starlet on his arm. In each case, she says, the reply from the crowd was, ''Ooh. Aah. There goes John Basilone.''
She takes a couple more bites, then politely thanks him for the meal and says she's going to turn in. He's confused. He assures her that the only thing that's going on with them is dinner and conversation, but she smiles and says that she's sharing a room with three girls, and they get to fight over the bathroom in the morning.
Before shes out the door he asks if he did anything wrong.
''You didn't do anything a million other guys haven't done,'' she deadpans. ''You just did it in a nicer room.''
The next day Basilone reports to his superior officer, who informs him that a company of greenhorns is coming in, and he needs Basilone to train them. He adds that Basilone won't have much time, since his tour will officially be up in July.
Basilone is astonished to realize he's served for eight years.
Basilone puts the men through their paces again, running them hard. At night, he heads back to the mess to find Sgt. Riggi. She pulls him aside, and Basilone formally asks her to a proper dinner at a nice place. She says, ''No.''
Basilone looks crushed and turns to leave. She goes on to explain that Friday is no good -- she has to make a special dinner for the officers. She counters with breakfast the next day, saying she has to report for duty at 0500. She says if he gets in earlier, she'll make him French toast.
Cut to the next morning at 3:30. Basilone storms into his company's tent and yells orders at them to fall in. Evanson bitches that he doesn't understand why they're the only ones being run so hard. Tatum respectfully tells Evanson that Basilone is trying to make them the best. But Evanson continues to lip off, just loud enough for the sergeant to hear, and Basilone steps up to him and asks what he wants. Evanson replies that he wants to ''slap a Jap.'' Basilone asks the rest of the room if that's what they want too, and they reply, ''Aye, Gunny.''
Basilone nods and barks at them that the Japanese soldier he knows has been at war since they were in diapers. They can survive on muddy water and maggoty rice, enduring nightmarish conditions. And they don't care if they die, as long as they take American fighting men out with them.
''Now you can call them whatever you want, but never, ever fail to respect their desire to put you and your buddies into an early grave. Is that clear?!''
The room resonates with an ''Aye, Gunny.'' Basilone barks at them to get their packs on.
After the run, he quietly goes into the dark, empty mess, where Lena is making him French toast. He helps himself to a cup of coffee. She has set the table with flowers and tells him the French toast is almost ready. Lena jokes that he strikes her as an Italian mama's boy, so she was doing his best to make him feel at home. After a moment, she serves up and sits down with him.
He tells her that the coffee is really good, then recounts the story of the morning following his famous battle on Guadalcanal. He reveals that they had stolen real coffee and hooch from the ''doggies'' upon their arrival, so when they returned from battle, someone made them coffee over a fire using coconut shells. He remembers that his hands were still burned but in that moment, it was the best cup of coffee he'd ever had.
He asks Lena what her best cup of coffee was, and she recalls that she disappointed her family by announcing she was joining the Marines instead of getting married, and her father had stopped talking to her. But a while after she enlisted, she went to a diner to visit her mother and sisters on a pass, and her father surprised her by walking in. She said he ordered two cups of coffee, and put sugar and milk in hers, just how she liked it. ''That was my best cup of coffee,'' she says.
''Incredible, what can happen over a cup of coffee,'' Basilone remarks, and Lena blushes.
Basilone reveals that his enlistment is up in July, and he doesn't know what he'll do. Lena says he'll take the discharge and go home. He admits he should be looking forward to his freedom, but he doesn't know what he'd do with it. She sympathizes with him, saying she loves the Marines too, that she can't imagine being anywhere or doing anything else.
He pauses for a moment, then tells her that although she probably hears it all the time, that she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen.
''No,'' she says quietly, ''I don't hear that very often.''
''Must be the uniform,'' he says, and they share a laugh. Just then, the rest of the women fall in and immediately start to whisper about Lena having breakfast with Basilone. He quietly stands up, nods to her and leaves.
Training continues, and the men are making progress. He shows the men how to use a bail, so they can shoot and move with the machine gun.
Basilone continues courting Lena, taking her for a playful stroll on the beach, where he retrieves her hat from the waves when it blows off of her head. When they kiss, its the happiest we've ever seen him.
Days later, Basilone and his fellow NCOs report to his division. The commanding officer tells them that they'll be shipping out soon. He turns and says he has more good news: Basilone has decided that home can wait and will be joining them. Tatum smiles, satisfied, then calls them to stand at attention.
Basilone asks if anyone's scared, and the men reply, ''No Sergeant.'' He calls them liars and says it's good to be scared, because that means they're awake and ready. He dismisses them, and goes to give the news of his extension and impending deployment to the Pacific to Lena.
''So if you're looking for something else, someone in a different line of work, let me know,'' he says.
She tells him she's in for the duration, plus six months. She knows how it goes. ''So,'' she says, ''where do we go from here?''
The next scene is their wedding day. Lucy takes pictures of Lena in her white dress, and John kisses her. They takes a road trip in a fancy convertible and spend their honeymoon in a place called Sunset Cottages. When they get inside of a house, he first kisses her hungrily, then she makes him stand across the room and take off his shirt. Eventually she moves over to him and she slowly undresses him. She keeps her dress on. But later in bed, they're both disrobed and she strokes the Marine tattoo on his arm. She laughs.
''What have we done?'' she asks.
''We've gone respectable,'' he says.
''I woke up one day, and I was thirty years old. Satisfied, '' she says. ''Then you walk into my mess hall, and look at me now. ''
He tells her that they're going to have six kids: boys for her to pamper, and girls for him to drive crazy. He kisses her, and she says she'd like that so much. She takes the cross off from around her neck and puts it around his, saying that it's his now. They kiss in the darkness, and she asks if he wants some food.
''Dear god, yes,'' he says. She gets up to go to the kitchen and he wistfully watches her go, suddenly looking forlorn when she leaves the room. Outside, the clouds gather on the horizon.
February 1945/ D Day -- Iwo Jima
Basilone is landing on the beach, and around him, the world is on fire. He sees men being cut down as they crawl on their bellies up the sand, and sees others go fetal. He grits his teeth and grabs a man, yelling at him to get off the beach. Moments later, the man is blown apart. All around him, Marines are being blown to bits, and the sand is wet with blood and viscera. He meets up with Tatum, Evanson, and the rest of his squad, and pulls them up to get them off the beach. But as they run toward their objective, a ridge where a machine gun nest is dug in, most of the squad is cut down. In the chaos, Navy bombers are raining ordnance down on them.
Tatum and Evanson are with Basilone. He tells them to set up the machine gun and fire in with short bursts. He commands another man to get closer to the side of the opening from where the machine gunner is firing and throw in explosives. He does.
A flamethrower unit lights up the inside of the nest, and as screaming Japanese soldiers come out the back, Basilone is there with the machine gun to cut them down. He orders the remains of his squad to follow him in as he runs through the trenches where the Japanese soldiers are dug in. One enemy soldier plays dead, popping up behind him as he runs past. He almost gets him, but one of Basilones men runs up and takes him out.
After they clear out the trench behind the bunker, Basilone sets up his men and tells them not to relinquish the spot, come hell or high water.
He sees a sniper shooting down Marines from under the wreckage of a plane and moves to take him out, but a bazooka unit beats him to it. Then he sees a group of Marines pinned down by a tank. He runs over to them and orders them to gather what ammo they can and get off the beach, and tells the NCO to order the tank to stay with him. But as soon as he runs ahead to make it back to his men, then tank is taken out.
Basilone continues running, not looking back as the Marines running with him are blown apart. He is almost back to Tatum and Evanson when chunk of shrapnel tears through his torso and his arm. Basilone collapses, laying on the battlefield, then bleeds out and dies. As the shot goes wide, we see other Marines running over him, tripping on him, some dying. The dark soil is strewn with bodies, and he becomes part of the tapestry. A plume of flame arcs over him. On a battlefield of slain Marines, he is no longer a celebrity.
Far away in California, Lena sits on a rock at the beach where Basilone once rescued her hat from the waves. She is wearing her Marine dress uniform. Lena stares out at the setting sun and as birds fly by, she weeps.