The book begins in the present time, but this is a story that goes back more than 60 years when America was a different country, facing depression, war, and race relations that had only just begun to change. The story is told not from one point of view, but two, and the plaque is how it is all brought together. When the narrator enters the church for a funeral of a black man he only knew slightly, he notices a plaque high up above the entrance for a marine lieutenant Killed in action in 1945, but this has to be a white man since he knows the marines were a segregated force during World War Two, so how did it get there, and why?
During the pastor’s eulogy, a reference is made of the deceased who had served his country during the Second World War as a merchant marine since it was the only service where black and white men could serve together. To the narrator, these two men somehow had a connection and so he begins his search to find out how they came together. Telling two different stories of both deceased men, the author uses letters the marine lieutenant had sent to his younger brother and explains much of what his world is like training to become a U.S. Marine officer, and what marine officer training is really all about, along with the prejudice of the southern white sergeants against recruits born north of the Mason-Dixon line. His advice is to stay out of the marines and join the navy since he is not sure his younger brother can take the hard training.
For the black merchant marine, a journal is found in the church records, and his story is told from the time of his marriage to a young black woman who wants nothing to do with white people, but this being wartime he must leave to serve on his last voyage in the pacific and so begins his cruise to Iwo Jima and the great battle that will bring together a very seriously wounded young marine officer and a black man who refused to serve his country in a segregated military, but still wanted to serve his country, for this our country too.
The two men will meet on a voyage back to Pearl Harbor, and so begins the destiny of a back merchant marine and a white marine officer, from two very different worlds, yet very much connected to each other. Hoping to keep the officer’s spirits up the merchant marine stays with him when not on duty, but knows in his heart he may not make it back alive and since they are both from Staten Island, NY the merchant marine promises to bring back his few things to his mother and to let her know he did not die alone.
When the merchant marine returns home his first shock is finding his adored wife with another returning home soldier which they must now survive. While struggling to recover from her indiscretion he must also convince his wife that he has to return the white marine’s possessions and to let his mother know he died a brave man, not in pain, and not alone. His wife, still not wanting him to do anything that has to do with white people, senses only trouble, and perhaps even arrest for stealing, but the merchant marine knows in his heart he has to do this, as he promised and brings the marines remaining things to his mother.
Surprisingly, the black merchant marine fines only a warm greeting and a kind of respect he hadn’t expected, not only from the marine’s mother but also from his just returned home wounded soldier brother. They form a friendship and in time the black merchant marine is asked to come with the family to a church service and a ceremony to place a plaque on the wall in memory of the fallen marine lieutenant.
The merchant marine still wants his wife to join him at the church service since the white family has asked about her a number of times, but he always makes excuses for her knowing she would not be comfortable in a church full of white people. This time, he asks her again, but she still refuses and tells him to go by himself. The merchant marine does go alone only to find a young white southern girl with the family who he soon realizes is pregnant and is the girlfriend of the white marine who has contacted the family after she found out he had been killed in the war and was invited to come up to New York for the plaque ceremony.
At the church service, the merchant marine senses a strange feeling and turns around only to find his wife standing in the doorway, very nervous, and almost ready to leave at the slightest chance. With some relief she finds a seat in the rear of the church and sitting quietly alone she is the first to notice the stress on the face of the young white pregnant girl. It is his wife who jumps first to help the young girl who is now in great stress and pain, along with the deceased marine’s older sister. The two of them will bond together in a brave effort to save the young pregnant girl, staying with her all night at the hospital. Almost forgotten is the fear and hate the young black wife of the merchant marine has for white people. Still, in the end, while they help save the baby, the mother dies, and while the two women have grown a strong connection they know they can never be friends, not in American in 1945.
The black woman knowns she has reverted to being a colored person again, while the white marine’s sister, with deep regrets, has no choice but to let their newfound friendship go its separate way, and so they part, back to what they had always been, living in a world apart.