From WWII Paratrooper to The Twilight Zone's Creator: Rod Serling

From WWII Paratrooper to The Twilight Zone's Creator: Rod Serling

Screenwriter, playwright, and TV producer Rod Serling’s greatest legacy is probably The Twilight Zone, which he executive-produced and served as its head writer, penning 92 of the show’s 156 episodes. To the viewing public, Serling is best-known as the series’ host and the narrator who delivered monologues at the beginning and ending of each episode. In them, he often summarized events and explained how the characters had entered the Twilight Zone. Less known about Serling is that he was a World War II paratrooper who saw combat in the Pacific Theater of Operations.

A Precocious Performer Itching to Fight the Nazis

Rodman Edward Serling was born to a Jewish family on Christmas Day, 1924, in Syracuse, New York, and was raised in Binghamton after his family moved there in 1926. He exhibited a precocious knack as a performer from an early age. His parents encouraged that by setting up a basement stage where he performed with – and many times without – neighborhood children. Sterling entertained himself for hours by acting out dialogues from movies and pulp fiction magazines and often asked questions without answering. On one hours-long road trip, the family stayed mum to see if he would notice that nobody was engaging him, and Serling kept talking nonstop throughout the entire ride.

He participated in public speaking extracurricular activities in school such as the debate team and was the speaker at his high school graduation. Serling was also good at sports and excelled in tennis and table tennis. He tried to join the football team,  but he was turned down because he was too small at 5 foot 4 inches. When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust America into WWII, Serling wanted to drop out of high school to enlist, but a teacher talked him into sticking around at least until he graduated.

As the pedagogue put it to the eager Serling: “War is a temporary thing. It ends. Education doesn’t. Without your degree, where will you be after the war?” He heeded the advice and graduated in 1943, then enlisted in the US Army the very next morning. Serling ended up in Toccoa, Georgia, where he trained as a parachutist with the 11th Airborne Division’s 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR). There, and in subsequent training stations in Camp Mackall, North Carolina, Fort Benning, Georgia, and Camp Polk, Louisiana, Serling earned his paratrooper jump wings and became a demolitions specialist.

The physical rigors of combat parachutist training did not come close to wearing out Serling, and to burn off excess energy and vent pent-up aggression, he took up boxing. More of a passionate boxer than a particularly skilled one, he competed as a flyweight and fought 17 bouts. What comrades recalled most was that Serling got his nose broken in both his first and last bouts and that he fought with wild abandon, throwing caution to the wind and going after his opponents with a berserker style that was something to behold.

Serling’s crazy man boxing style was good enough to get him to the second round of the 11th Airborne Division’s boxing championship, where he was finally knocked out. He took a stab at Golden Gloves boxing, but it did not pan out, and his boxing career came to an end. The real aggression he felt, however, was directed at America’s enemies, particularly the Third Reich. As a Jew, the young paratrooper was understandably itching for a go at Hitler, but on April 25th, 1944, he received orders that sent him out west, to California. A disappointed Serling realized that meant he would end up fighting Japan instead of Nazi Germany.

Sidelined for the Third Reich, Serling Lets Loose on Japan

In May 1944, Serling, his 511th PIR, and the rest of the 11th Airborne Division were sent to New Guinea in the Pacific Theater of Operations. There, they underwent a period of intense training and acclimatization until November, when they were finally judged combat-ready. On November 11th, 1944, the 11th Airborne boarded a convoy of transports escorted by warships to the Philippines, where they arrived on the 18th. There, Serling and his comrades had their baptism by fire at the Battle of Leyte, the amphibious invasion of Leyte Island.

The Battle of Leyte kicked off the 1944 -1945 Philippines Campaign to recapture and liberate the archipelago – and fulfill Douglas MacArthur’s “I shall return” pledge after he fled in 1942 – and end three years of Japanese occupation. Serling and the 11th Airborne fought there, but as infantry, not as paratroopers. Attached to the XXIV Corps, the 11th Airborne’s first assignment was to relieve the 7th Infantry Division, track down and destroy all Japanese forces in their area of operations, and protect the XXIV Corps’ airfields and rear supply dumps.

The task of destroying the tenacious and often fanatical Japanese in the division’s area of operations fell to Serling’s 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment. However, the Japanese were not the only obstacle that the 511th had to deal with, as the terrain and weather conditions were rough, to say the least. Serling and his comrades went into combat beneath torrential monsoon rains and fought for weeks in steep, heavily forested terrain. At any given moment, the enemy could be concealed just a few feet away, yet remain unseen until he opened fire, tossed a grenade, or lunged at a GI with his bayonet.

At some point, the highly vocal Serling, never shy about expressing his opinions and still possessing the knack for talking a mile a minute, nonstop, ticked off and got on the nerves of somebody higher up. So he was transferred to the demolitions platoon of the 511th PIR,  nicknamed “The Death Squad” because it suffered exceptionally high casualties. He fought with the requisite courage, but years later, his platoon sergeant recalled that Serling was not exactly cut out to be a field soldier. His head often seemed to be somewhere in the clouds, and he frequently went off exploring on his own – against orders and in an area teeming with the enemy – and would get lost.

Finally, after a month of protracted combat during which it suffered severe casualties while fighting the Japanese, the terrain, and the weather, the 511th PIR fulfilled its mission shortly after Christmas Day – and Serling’s 20th birthday – in 1944. After a short break to catch their breath, get resupplied, and receive reinforcements, Serling and his comrades were sent to Mindoro Island to prepare for their upcoming part in the Battle of Luzon. On February 3rd, 1945, the 511th was parachuted near Manila and took part in the ensuing heavy fighting to liberate the Philippines’ capital city.

A Trauma in The Philippines Influences Rod's Future

On February 23rd, 1945, elements of the 511th PIR took a break from the Battle of Manila to participate in the Raid at Los Banos. A surprise attack in coordination with Filipino guerrillas, the raid deep behind enemy lines liberated 2147 civilian and military prisoners from a Japanese internment camp. Back in Manila, Serling and his comrades battled block by block to recapture the city in the face of fanatical Japanese resistance. He was wounded twice, in the wrist and knee, including an injury severe enough to require his evacuation to New Guinea for recovery, before being sent back into the fight.

Combat in the Philippines greatly influenced and shaped Serling’s writing, outlook, and political views for the rest of his life. One of his most traumatic experiences occurred during a lull in the Battle of Leyte in 1944. He was posing for a photo with his arm around a good friend when an Army Air Forces plane on an aerial resupply mission dropped a box of ammunition intended for the 11th Airborne. It landed on Serling’s buddy and flattened him so completely that he could not even be seen beneath the box. A slightly different version has it that one of Serling’s friends, a Private Melvin Levy: “was in the middle of a comic monologue as the platoon sat resting under a palm tree when a food crate dropped from above, decapitating him as the men watched.

However it happened, the event had a profound impact on Serling and stayed with him for the rest of his days, influencing both his private life and his professional career. Many Twilight Zone episodes are about similar split seconds of fate, wholly random and with no rhyme or reason; somebody is either arbitrarily spared from disaster or is absurdly doomed. He also borrowed from his wartime experience to write “The Purple Testament,” a Twilight Zone episode about an American lieutenant fighting in the Philippines, who gained the ability to detect a mysterious glow on men who are doomed to die in combat.

On June 23rd, the 511th PIR took part in the final combat jump by American forces in WWII as part of an effort to seal off a Japanese retreat in northern Luzon. Serling and his comrades then began training for the planned invasion of Japan, which was fortunately averted by the Japanese surrender after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead of parachuting into Japan, Serling was sent there as part of the occupation force. When he was discharged from the Army in 1946 with the rank of Technician Fourth Grade, equivalent to a sergeant, he left not only with searing memories that shaped his subsequent career but also a knee injury that bothered him for the rest of his life.

In later years, Serling’s family grew accustomed to the sound of his falling downstairs when his bum knee buckled beneath him. He received disability benefits and used them and the GI Bill to pay for his higher education. To earn extra money in college, Serling worked part-time testing parachutes for the US Army Air Forces and was usually paid $50 per jump. For one particularly dangerous jump, he was paid $500, half upfront and a half if he lived. The most he got paid was $1000 to test a jet ejection seat that had killed three previous testers.

Although Serling went on to have a great career in showbiz after the war, the war never left him. As his daughter Anne put it years after his death: “I remember my dad having nightmares and in the morning I would ask him what happened and he would say that he dreamt the enemy was coming at him … It was part of his everyday life. He was also wounded in the war, hit by shrapnel in his wrist and his knee. His knee would frequently go out when he was going down the stairs and he would fall, or it would spontaneously bleed. So he had not only all the emotional wounds but the physical ones as well.


Some Sources and Further Reading

Engel, Joel – Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone (1989)

Holm, Jeremy C. – When Angels Fall: From Toccoa to Tokyo, the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II (2019)

Hot Springs Daily, March 9th, 2016 – “Celebrities Who Served:  Rod Serling”

MeTV – 15 Fascinating Facts About Rod Serling

Military Dot Com – “Famous Veteran: Rod Serling”

National WWII Museum – Combat in Twilight: Rod Serling’s World War II

Parisi, Nicholas – Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination (2018)