Sunday, May 28, 2017

'Twilight Zone' Creator Serling Was A World War II Paratrooper

'Twilight Zone' creator Rod Serling

"The Twilight Zone" was an American television anthology series created by a former World War II paratrooper from the 11th Airborne Division, which began an original television run between 1959-1964, saw a revival from 1985-1989 and a second revival from 2002-2003. No doubt there will be yet another revival and another after that one day. 

The episodes were and are eclectic and include the genres of psychological horror, fantasy, science fiction, suspense and of psychological thrillers. Needless to say, The Twilight Zone is an American institution among many generations of the American television-watching public. The show was created by Rodman Edward "Rod" Serling (December 25, 1924-June 28, 1975).

During WWII Rod Serling served with the 11th Airborne Div.

"The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs, and explosions, and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, ideas, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy. A thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is, is that these things can not be confined to the Twighlight Zone."

Rod Serling was born in Syracuse, New York to a Jewish family. Prior to settling down and getting married, Serling's father, Samuel Lawrence Serling, was an inventor before he took up being a grocer to earn a steady income for his family. Serling's mother was the former Esther Cooper. The Serlings had two children, Rod and Robert.

Like so many other families, the Great Depression of 1929 hit the Serling household hard, so Rod's father was forced to close his grocery store and become a butcher to make ends meet.

Rod was an athletic boy, despite his 5' 4" stature, and excelled at tennis and table tennis. In high school, he attempted to join the junior varsity football team at his school but was considered too small by the coaches there. Serling was also editor of his high school newspaper and encouraged other students to support the war effort, as America entered the Second World War.
Serling as a young trooper

Serling took his own advice about the war, and enlisted in the United States Army the morning after he graduated from high school.

Serling was dedicated to the American and Allied cause during the war, which was made evident by him joining the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division. He and other troopers trained at Camp Toccoa, Georgia. The training camp actually lacked a rifle range, so airborne trainees had to march 30 miles to the Clemson Agricultural College to practice marksmanship on the college's shooting range. Serling and the other young paratroopers trained for more than a year, and the scrappy kid from Upstate New York earned the Army's coveted Parachutist Badge.

While undergoing training, Serling tried his hand at boxing. He competed as a flyweight in 17 inter-divisional bouts, and was known for his "berserker style" and for getting his nose broken in his first bout and his last one.

Finally, after God only knows how many push-ups and pull-ups, forced-marches, all-night training events, practice parachute drops and drills, Serling and the rest of the 11th Airborne Division, then under the command of Major General Joseph May Swing, received orders to the Pacific Theater on April 25, 1944.
The 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment crest

The 11th Airborne's 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, then under the command of Col. Orin D. "Hard Rock" Haugen.

The first stop for the division was New Guinea, where the force would be held in reserve for a few months. Then, in November, 1944, the division was sent up against the forces of Imperial Japan in its first combat at the landing in the Philippines. The 11th Airborne was not air-dropped during the action, but rather used as light infantry during the assault on the Japanese at the Battle of Leyte.
Shortly after Leyte, Serling was transferred to the 511th Regiment;s demolition platoon, nicknamed by some veterans as their "Death Squad" for its high casualty rate. According to Sgt. Frank Lewis, who was an NCO in the platoon, "[Serling] screwed up somewhere along the line. Apparently, he got on someone's nerves."

By Serling's own admission, his time with the 11th Airborne in the Philippines shaped his writing and political views for the remainder of his life. He saw death day in and day out while with the 511th in combat. One incident, in particular, would mark him. During a lull at Leyte, a friend of Serling's, Private Melvin Levy, was beneath a crate that was dropped by the U.S. Army Air Force. Apparently, the crate of ammunition dropped squarely on his friend, smashing him to death under the weight of the container. Serling marked Levy's grave with a Star of David to honor the soldier's Jewish heritage.

The 11th Airborne trek across the Pacific during World War II

Serling did not leave Leyte physically unscathed either.

He received two wounds during the fighting, one to the wrist and another to his kneecap. However, that didn't prevent Serling from being there when the 511th conducted a combat drop on Tagaytay Ridge, on Feb. 3, 1945. From its drop zone, the 511th PIR, along with other Allied forces, marched on the Japanese-held city of Manila. Though the Allies were met with light resistance at first, fighting became bitter and was conducted block-by-block.
Serling (center) with fellow soldiers in the 511th PIR

The Japanese had a 17,000-soldier force holding the Philippine's capitol city. During the next month, Serling and the 511th paid for every yard in blood to reclaim Manila.

The fight cost the 511th a 50-percent casualty rate, with more than 400 troopers killed in action.

During the Manilla action, grateful civilians would hold celebrations for the soldiers in blocks that were well-cleared of Japanese occupiers.

It was during one such night that a Japanese artillery mission caught many civilians and soldiers in the line of fire. According to Sgt. Lewis, Serling ran from a protected position to rescue a civilian who had been on a stage when the artillery began to rain down.

For his bravery that night, Serling would eventually be awarded the Bronze Star. But, he had also been injured by shrapnel. This time, though, he was not patched up and sent back to the line, but sent to New Guinea to recover before being sent back to Manila.

The Bronze Star Medal
Serling would return for his final assignment, which was as part of the Army of Occupation in Japan. During his term of service, Serling, who rose to the rank of Technician Fourth Grade, would earn not only the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, but also the Philippine Liberation Medal and the Army of Occupation Medal, among other awards.

Serling would later say of the war, "I was bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service. I think I turned to writing to get it off my chest."

Serling went on to a storied career in Hollywood, where his Twilight Zone stories have fueled the imaginations of untold millions for decades. Yet, it was the terrible service he saw during World War II, in the service of his country, that left its unmistakable mark on Serling and his work.

Rod Serling passed away on June 28, 1975 and was interred at Lake View Cemetery, in Interlaken, New York. Still, Rod Serling is with us today, through the many celebrated works of film he has left behind.


  1. Always loved the Twilight Zone. Especially Rod Serling. Glad to hear he was also a Paratrooper. God Bless him and his family. PTSD is a bummer...

  2. Great show another great man who tool whatever demons bothered him and put them yo useful work. Thank you for the article.


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