When Japanese soldiers burn Tien Pao’s village, his family escapes to Hengyang, China, on a small boat called a sampan. Tien Pao’s parents look for work at an American military airfield. They take Tien Pao’s baby sister and tell the boy to stay on the boat until they return. The first day, the boy heeds another refugee’s suggestion and shuttles an American soldier across the river for money. Although the generous sum allows the family to eat, Tien Pao’s father is still angry at him for not staying put as he was instructed.
While Tien Pao rests the next day, the boat breaks loose and carries him back into enemy territory. He awakens in terror and prays to the river god for help. His only comfort on the stormy water is the family’s pig, which he names Beauty-of-the-Republic after his sister.
Tien Pao reaches land and hides out in caves during the dayg. He knows even his own hungry countrymen would take his pig for food. He walks at night, nearly collapsing with starvation. One day, he sees the Japanese shoot down an American plane. Tien Pao helps the wounded airman escape. He recognizes the man as the generous soldier he shuttled across the river the first night in Hengyang. The boy feels relieved to have the airman with him, and he cares for the man as they slowly hike out of the danger zone. A group of Chinese guerrillas finds Tien Pao and the American. They take the airman away on a stretcher and sneak Tien Pao and his pig back to Hengyang.
The Japanese have entered Hengyang now, and the Chinese are fleeing en masse by train. The boy tries to hunt down his parents and sister in the crowds, and two American soldiers find him just before he blacks out from hunger. They take him and Glory-of-the-Republic back to their barracks, where sixty soldiers reside. Once he’s awake, they bring in a translator and ask him to tell his story. They’re excited to learn he is the boy who saved their squadron leader, Lieutenant Hamsun. They all dote on him, and the Chinese interpreter calls them Tien Pao’s sixty fathers. Tien Pao is grateful but still determined to find his own parents. The soldiers try to help him realize this dream but feel there’s little hope.
When the recovering Lt. Hamsun returns to the base, he and Tien Pao enjoy a happy reunion. He flies the boy over the crowds so Tien Pao can get a better look for his family. Tien Pao sees his mother at the airfield and is reunited with his parents.