Rod Serling: World War 2 Veteran, Father, Creator Of The Twilight Zone
Serling On Censorship
Binghampton, New York
Map of Binghampton NY
The Life That Made The Man
Rodman Edward Serling was born Christmas day 1924 in Syracuse, New York. A series of odd coincidences surround his life making the seguey into becoming the creator of The Twilight Zone one of the more normal by comparison. As mentioned, Serling, a Jew, was born on Christmas day. In later years he would joke about this saying "I was a Christmas present that was delivered unwrapped." Shortly before his birth his mother Esther explained that she and Sam did not intend on following the Jewish custom of naming a child after a relative because, “I can see his name in lights: Rod Serling!”, she proclaimed. How right she was.
In an effort to gain a little elbow room from his in-laws Sam moved the family from Syracuse to Binghampton, New York where he opened a new branch of his father-in-law’s grocery chain. The new store was to be called “Serling’s Sanitary Grocery,” a strange name for a grocery store, one that could be easily imagined on a marquis in a Twilight Zone episode.
Roddie, as he was called in those early years, had an idyllic childhood. The family grocery store was enjoying the fruit of Sam’s labor and Esther’s support. Mother and father doted on their youngest and the adoration was mutual with Rod referring to his mother as “Dearest” and meaning it. With his father he enjoyed similar interests, such as a love for words (Serling had an amazing vocabulary as is seen from the interview video above) and a strong work ethic. There is an older sibling, Bob, that was born 6 years before “Roddie.” Esther was not expected to be able to have more children after Bob due to a life threatening bout of Yellow Fever she contracted in Panama. Her reproductive organs, she was told by her physician, would be too weak to facilitate the birth of another child. Just as the future writer would have a knack for surprise endings and surreal twists so did his entrance into the world raise eyebrows and cause jaws to go slack. It seemed as though a die was being cast. The boy that was never supposed to be, was; and the boy was making an impression.
The Serling boys got along well for the most part despite their difference in age. One exception is that Rod could well be described as the “pest” most younger brothers can be. Biographers agree that Rod was the center of attention in the Serling home. He was funny, smart, cute with piercing dark brown eyes. He was engaging and precocious. He was also a practical joker and had duped his older brother on more than one occasion with an amazing talent for voice mimicry. On one such occasion Bob was home from Antioch College. The phone rang and Bob answered. On the other end was the shrill, high-pitched voice of a local acquaintance whom Bob despised.
“Bobby, how are you?” the caller asked. “Please, while you’re in town, come have dinner with me.” No matter how hard Bob tried the caller would not relent in his request until Bob finally came up with a ridiculous excuse. Finally, he hung up. A few minutes later, Rod appeared with their father.
“You’re not going to believe this; that jerk Tom called me,” Bob said. “I couldn’t get rid of him!”
Upon hearing this, Sam Serling doubled over with laughter and only then did Bob realize he’d been tricked by his little brother.
“I didn’t know before then that he was that good,” Bob said. “He was perfect.”
Local theaters had been a sanctuary for Serling during cold winters and "nothing to do" days. It was on one such December day in 1941, watching a double feature with high school friend, Sue Fischer, that he heard the news that would forever change the course of his life. Near the end of the second feature the projectionist stopped the film. The manager ran to the front of the theater and announced, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Japanese have ferociously attacked our military at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. We know only that there has been much damage and tremendous loss of life."
Immensely patriotic, Rod decided to drop out of school to join the Army. He was persuaded to wait until after graduation by civics and history teacher, Gus Youngstrom. "War is a temporal thing. It ends. An education doesn't." Youngstrom advised. Serling saw the point and heeded wise counsel. His date with destiny was postponed, but not cancelled. He graduated in late January, 1943, from Binghampton Central High School. He ranked 35th out of a class of 180 students. He was inducted into the Army the very next day. His eighteenth birthday, December 25, had just passed and brought with it the anticipated Christmas gift of his draft notice. It is ironic that what could easily have proved his death certificate was given eighteen years to the day that he received his birth certificate; another ominous piece of décor in the motif that would ornament his life.
Airborne Trooper Rod Serling. (The round patch on the left side of his cap bears the Airborne insignia though not visible here)
The Toughest Training
Rod was set on proving his patriotism as well as his manhood. He opted for the toughest training the Army had to offer. It was a new program called "Sky Troopers" at the time. Large C130 aircraft would carry well trained, heavily armed young men into combat zones, drop them behind enemy lines from five thousand, two thousand and even five hundred feet in the air. The rigorous training for paratroopers was to begin in at Camp Toccoa, in Georgia. Fans of Stephen Ambrose's brilliant book and subsequent HBO mini series "Band of Brothers" will recall Toccoa (as well as Mt. Currahee) as the very same place, in fact the very same regiment, the 511th, where the members of "Easy Company" trained. One has to wonder if Serling ever ran into any of the members of E Company such as Lt. Dick Winters. While possible, it is unlikely given the fact that units that trained together typically shipped out together. Winters and his group went to fight in Hitler's Europe (which is where Serling wanted to fight) while Private Serling saw action in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Regardless of their wartime destinations, using "Band of Brothers" as a point of reference one will recall incredible fortitude required to make it through the program. The would-be airborne soldier would endure extended periods of training, learn more than the average soldier in just about every area of military specialty: map reading, weapons, demolitions, as well as the arduous physical demands. "Wild Bill" Guanerre, Joe Toy, Dick Winters- Serling was equal to these brave men of E Company. He passed the same training, fought the same war with distinction.
While Serling had the heart to be a paratrooper, the brass doubted he had the ability. More than the opinion of military men, by regulation Rod was a full inch too short to join the elite fighting force. He stood a meager 5'4. He was initially rejected for the program by one Colonel Haugen. Devastated by the rejection, Rod barged into the Colonel's office and insisted he be accepted into the program. He threatened to "sit forever" until the Colonel changed his mind. Such efforts proved persuasive and successful. That and a good word from one of Serling's enlisted superiors did the trick.
"Any man who wants it that badly is welcome in this outfit." Haugen was reported as saying.
Just as it was at school and at home, Rod made friends fast. He was extremely well liked. He was charming, funny and tough. He could make others laugh and laughed easily himself when others made attempts at humor.
Though he had not been particularly athletic in school, the young soldier found he had an uncanny hidden talent as a pugilist. He competed as a flyweight and won sixteen out of seventeen matches. His final bout left him with a bad cut over one eye and a broken nose. It was the end of his boxing career.
Papua New Guinea- North of Australia, 16 days by freighter to the Philippine Islands. It was via this treacherous route that Serling made his way to the combat
Fighting in the Pacific Theater of Operations: First Stop Papua New Guinea.
With his airborne training complete Private Serling and the rest of the 511th was shipping out to go to war. They left Ft. Polk Louisiana on a train bound for Sacramento, California. There, 1,800 paratroopers boarded the S.S. Pike, an old cargo ship converted into a troop carrier, on the Sacramento River. They were headed for Papua New Guinea where they would continue combat training over the next few months. However, between New Guinea and the Philippines lay 1,000 miles of treacherous waters being patrolled by the Japanese. Legendary destroyer of troop morale, Tokyo Rose, was picked up via radio transmission: “Welcome men of 511 Parachute Infantry Regiment aboard the S.S. Pike. You are on your way to New Guinea and you will be attacked by Japanese submarines.”
Though the prediction was wrong the men nevertheless suffered psychological hardship aboard the Pike as well as extreme nausea and seasickness for most of the 16 day trek. Perhaps the waves of cramps and vomiting took their minds off Rose’s fatal forecast. Those that didn’t get sick from the sea’s undulations became ill from the pervasive oil and gas fumes emanating from the old vessel. Neverthless, the rickety transport brought the 511th safely to their destination without naval escort. It wasn’t pretty, but it was fast with it’s top speed at 21 knots. Speed was certainly an asset given the onboard living conditions as well as the fact that the Japanese knew where they were, given the Tokyo Rose welcoming broadcast.
They arrived in late April of 1944 and began practicing maneuvers and combat simulation. However, nothing could have prepared them for the malaria ridden, bug infested, hellishly hot jungle of Leyte island; the place where Serling would see his first combat.
Leyte: Serling's island destination; one in an archipelago of over 6,000.
On October 20, 1944 several divisions of Allied forces landed on Leyte and drove the Japanese, who had been occupying the island, back into the dense jungles and mountains.
With the beachhead secured the 511th received their orders and began the week long voyage from New Guinea to Leyte Island. They landed on the east side of Leyte and set up camp on Bito Beach. There they bivouacked in relative serenity for the next 8 days with only the occasional sound of mortars finding targets in the mountains, the weapon that would, weeks later, wound Serling granting him the right to a purple heart.
It was now November and the regiment ate a large Thanksgiving meal on Thursday the 23rd, then boarded amphibious crafts to cross a river. Once across they spent the night in a small town approaching the mountains called Burauen. From there, the following morning, they began marching toward the enemy in what would be, as biographer Joel Engel eloquently put it, “…the longest thirty days of their lives-no matter how long they lived.”
The Japanese had managed to cut off supply lines to Serling’s unit by destroying roads and bridges. The 511th was now in danger of, if not starvation at least extreme hunger, making the soldiers more susceptible to malaria and malnutrition.
This problem was addressed by the Air Corps sending supplies via Piper Cubs. Crates containing K-rations, ammo and medical supplies were parachuted down to the hungry troops. Unfortunately, there were many occasions when American soldiers would see the falling crates, but by the time they could get to them the Japanese had already been there leaving only broken crates and broken hearts. “If I ever get back to Binghampton,” Serling said to some buddies, “I’ll never pass a Dinty Moore’s again.”
One particular tale, as gruesome as it is sad, involves one such supply drop. Melvin Levy, Serling’s best friend in the outfit, was the comedian among them. Always joking and making the men laugh, he began a humorous commentary as the crates began falling from the sky. “Getcha scorecards,” Levy joked, “Ya can’t tell a Piper from an L-5 without ya scorecards!” Seconds later, a fellow soldier turned toward the sound of Levy’s voice only to see that a falling crate had smashed his skull. Levy was dead, victim of what seemed an arbitrary accident. Rod helped bury his friend and placed an arrangement of twigs forming a Star of David on the temporary grave. Serling would also help with exhuming his friend's body for permanent burial stateside as he would for many fallen comrades.Four such incidents were documented in that region during the war. The lack of visibility made it difficult to see the falling crates (it was foggy and misty most of the time) and the Pipers dropped them at an especially low altitude of 600 feet.
Attacks from the Japanese would come primarily at night. Troops would hear a Japanese NCO shouting orders from the left, then a response from other Japanese troops from the right, then they would come. Grenades were the most effective weapon of the G.I.’s, tossing them toward the sound of the approaching enemy. Shots were also chosen judiciously as the unit was running low on ammo thanks to the destruction of supply lines. Serling witnessed Bonzai charges where Japanese soldiers would charge in suicide attacks screaming as they came. Upon hearing the screams American soldiers would rise to the top of their foxholes and shoot the attackers at point blank range.
During an afternoon patrol a Japanese soldier popped out of the dense underbrush and saw Serling first. He had the drop on Rod and he knew it. Sure he was about to die Serling froze. Just then he heard a crack and whizzing sound as another G.I. shot the Japanese soldier dead from behind.
Accounts by members of his platoon describe terrifying nights with the days being not much better, the main difference being that the Japanese tended to restrict their attacks to after hours. The days were hot and miserable, but at least one could feel relatively safe until nightfall.
At night, when the only light was by that of the moon, stars, and muzzle flashes, screams of the dead and dying filled the air. It usually could not be known until daylight whether or not you’d lost a buddy.
The smells, sounds, insects, heat, constant danger, fear, sleeplessness, and all the other contaminants that make for war kept the men tense and on edge.
It was here during these harrowing days and nights on Leyte that the seeds of story telling were finding purchase in Serling’s fertile mind. Surrounded by the dead, dying, and curious; wouldn’t it be a relief if there were some way of knowing who would be next? This embryonic thought found it’s birth many years later in one of Serling’s most chilling episodes of the Twilight Zone titled “The Purple Testament.” In it a lieutenant in the Philippines (it always seems to be a lieutenant) is gifted (or cursed) with a strange ability to see who will be the next to die. As the saying goes, “write what you know,” and Serling did. Many of his teleplays involve the war, some in Germany and some in the Pacific where he fought.
The Purple Testament. You may recognize a young Dick York, one of many unknown, or little known, personalities getting airtime on TZ.
Excerpt from "A Quality of Mercy"
Though a soldier with a duty to kill, Serling never lost his sense of humanity. In another poigniant TZ episode titled “A Quality of Mercy,” a brash young lieutenant orders a squad of bedraggled men to attack a small, wounded contingency of Japanese holed up in a cave. The American sergeant tries to dissuade the lieutenant to no avail. Then, in one of Serling’s unexpected twists the lieutenant is transformed into one of the Japanese soldiers. The lesson of this parable seems to be the idea of trying to view life from the perspective of the other guy, another theme Serling would maintain throughout his life.
Wounded in Action
Serling was wounded twice in action and received the Purple Heart. He was hit once in the wrist which seems to have healed, but the other was a shell fragment from a Japanese anti aircraft gun that hit him in the knee. It was being fired horizontally to the ground directly at his patrol. He was fortunate to escape at all. Three others in the patrol group were killed.
He was sent back to New Guinea to recover from his wounds, which while relatively serious, were not so debilitating as to keep him from a brief relationship with one of the staff nurses.
Once healed he was sent back to the line to help in "clean up" operations. During that time he continued to see friends killed and crippled. To him the war was becoming increasingly meaningless, as it surely was for many G.I.'s who had fought long and hard and had lost so many friends. Part II to follow.