Before Rod Serling appeared on television sets across America for his hit show, “The Twilight Zone”, he was a US Army paratrooper fighting for his life in the jungles of the Pacific.

Rodman Edward Serling was born in Syracuse, New York in 1924 to a Jewish family. His father worked as a secretary and amateur inventor before settling down as a grocer, while his mother was a homemaker. At a young age, Rod began putting on plays in the family home, sometimes alone and sometimes with kids from the neighborhood. He was the class clown in school and was active on the debate team and in sports.

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Serling with his father in 1944

A social activist, Serling wrote for the school newspaper and encouraged his classmates to support the War. Serling wanted to join the military before graduation but his civics class teacher, Gus Youngstrom told him to graduate first saying “war is a temporary thing. It ends. An education doesn’t. Without your degree, where will you be after the war”?  Serling waited until the morning after his graduation before enlisting. He volunteered for the parachute infantry where he could get into the fight he had supported with words for so long.

Rod Serling trained at Camp Toccoa, Georgia and was assigned to the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division. In the army, he took up boxing and tried for the Golden Gloves but did not have much success. Although Serling wanted to fight Hitler in Europe, the 11th Airborne Division was sent to the Pacific to battle the Japanese. He arrived with his division in New Guinea before it entered combat in the Philippines in November 1944.

Always talkative and a jokester, Serling was eventually transferred to the Demolition Platoon of the 511th which was known for its high casualty rate. According to the leader of his squad, Sgt. Frank Lewis, Serling “screwed up somewhere along the line. Apparently he got on someone’s nerves.”

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Rod Serling with fellow paratroopers. Serling is sitting in the front row

Serling saw action on Leyte and made a combat jump on Tagaytay Ridge. He was wounded twice in combat including a wound to a knee cap which caused him trouble for the rest of his life. Serling’s combat experience during WWII had a great effect on him. He later claimed that one reason he turned to writing was to get the bitterness and loose ends of what he had seen off his chest.

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Rod Serling in 1959

After returning from WWII and rehabilitating from his physical wounds, Rod Serling went to college. He worked in radio and theater on his school campus and tested parachutes for the US Army Air Force. He began writing freelance and submitted scripts both for radio and television before gaining fame for the series “The Twilight Zone”.

Serling’s experiences in World War Two often came up in the TV series as airplanes, boxing and military life were frequent parts of his stories. Some of his episodes were even set in the Philippines. One of Serling’s reoccurring themes was the suddenness and unpredictability of death. This came from an experience Serling had on Leyte when a fellow Jewish paratrooper named Melvin Levy was giving a comic monologue for the platoon under some palm trees when a food crate dropped from above landing on Levy, killing him. The incident shook Serling, who held the funeral for Levy and placed the Jewish Star of David over his grave.

Rod Serling rose to great fame after the war as a writer and television personality, but he never forgot his time fighting in the Pacific facing death every day, when he was in a young man in the twilight zone of war.

Pictures: Carol Serling

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  • Very interesting. The Twilight Zone was probably my favorite TV show as a kid. I later joined the Marines, serving in Vietnam as a rifleman until wounded three times in one day. After the war, after years of living in a fog, I became a freelance writer of articles to magazines. My first book was a memoir of my time in Vietnam. I then turned to fiction. I often wonder if, like Serling, I write to get the wartime memories off my chest.

    1. admin says:

      Thanks for sharing your story. I suppose people write for many reasons but it is a way to express yourself in ways you cannot always communicate otherwise. I am glad you found an outlet for your memories. Thank you for your thoughtful post and for your service.

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