The novel is divided into four Parts: Wave, Argil and Mold, Plant and Phantom, and Wake. Within these parts are Chorus sections, consisting of play-like dialogue between characters, as well as Time Machine sections, which give brief histories and flashbacks of individual characters’ lives.
The story takes place on Anopopei, a fictional island somewhere in the South Pacific. American forces are faced with a campaign to drive out the Japanese so that Americans can advance into the Philippines. The novel itself focuses on the experiences of one platoon, overseen by Lieutenant Hearn and General Cummings. Although Mailer does not write about the significance or details of the campaign, it is implied that this platoon, like all platoons in the Army, is simply just obeying orders, uncertain what those orders might be.
Part One, Wave
Characters are introduced as they wait around for orders. A naval bombardment soon takes place. The men take their places on a boat where they are driven to the shore of a beach. Here they fire back and forth at the Japanese. Hennessey becomes so frightened that he soils in his pants. Unthinking, he runs out of his foxhole and is shot to death. Part One concludes with this death, which alarms many of the men, since for many soldiers Hennessey’s death is the first comrade death they witness.
Part Two, Argil and Mold
The campaign continues and replacements arrive. General Cummings and Hearn have many discussions. It is evident that Cummings has homosexual feelings towards Hearn, although he refuses to admit them to even himself. Much later in Part Two, Cummings transfers Hearn to Dalleson’s section where he directly leads the platoon. At one point, the platoon takes one Japanese soldier as prisoner. When Gallagher gives the Japanese soldier a cigarette to smoke, the soldier closes his eyes in relaxation. At this moment, Croft shoots and kills him, demonstrating Croft’s coldblooded personality. Later in Part Two, Gallagher receives word that his wife, Mary, died in childbirth. Although Gallagher’s child survived, he is overcome by immense grief throughout the rest of the novel.
Part Three, Plant and Phantom
Many men die and others are sent home. Hearn is assigned to lead the platoon through the jungle and up Mountain Anaka. After an ambush, Wilson is shot and forgotten by the platoon. After realizing that Wilson was left behind, Croft sends men back to get Wilson. Brown, Stanley, Goldstein, and Ridges then carry Wilson back to the beach on a stretcher. The trip takes several days, and Wilson ends up dying. The men eventually lose Wilson’s body in a river. After Wilson is shot, Hearn is also killed anticlimactically, leaving Croft in charge. The men continue hiking up the mountain due to Croft’s orders, even though many men view it as a hopeless cause. Later, Roth dies while attempting to make a jump on the mountain’s edge. Trudging on, the men eventually give up their task in climbing the mountain. They return to the beach where Brown, Stanley, Goldstein, and Ridges have arrived from their mission with Wilson. Surprisingly, the ruthless Croft is relieved that he was unable to climb the mountain. At the end of Part Three, the remaining men discuss their future and how it will feel when they return home now that their mission is over.
Part Four, Wake
This part consists of one short chapter. Cummings reflects on the war and Dalleson’s victory. Major Dalleson then wonders about the new training program that will take place with new troops the next day. By returning to authority figures, Mailer leaves his readers with the notion that the power system is ever prevalent within the military.