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A WWII story by The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling is published for the first time

Rod Serling enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating high school. He trained to be a paratrooper and was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division's 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment
Courtesy of Anne Serling
Rod Serling enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating high school. He trained to be a paratrooper and was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division's 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment

There's a reason Rod Serling is considered one of scripted television's most daring and incisive storytellers and much of it comes from his experiences in WWII. The Emmy and Peabody Award-winning creator of The Twilight Zone spent three years as a paratrooper during WWII. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his bravery and a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds he suffered to his wrist and knee.

Serling enlisted to fight the Nazis the day after he graduated from Binghamton Central High School in New York. Even though he was a slight 5'4, he completed his training as a paratrooper and was assigned to the 11th Airborne of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He was sent to the Philippines to fight the Japanese.

"He saw major combat in the Philippines on the islands of Leyte and Luzon," says Nicholas Parisi, author of a biography of Serling and president of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation, "It scarred him for the rest of his life. He saw plenty of friends die. And it really became a defining chapter in his life."

Not long after he returned from the war in 1946, Serling attended Antioch College on the G.I. bill. There, in his early 20s, he penned "First Squad, First Platoon," a short story which is being published for the first time Thursday in The Strand. It was one of his earliest stories, starting a writing career that Serling once said helped him get the war "out of his gut."

"It was like an exercise for him to deal with the demons of war and fear," said his daughter, Jodi Serling. "And he sort of turned it into fiction, although there was a lot of truth to it."

The truth in Serling's short story

The story is set on Leyte Island in "heavy jungle foliage" and a "hostile rain that caked mud on weapons, uniforms, equipment." Each of the five chapters in the 11,000-word story is about a different soldier and how they died.

As he often did in his writing, Serling used the real names of people he knew. One of his closest friends in the squad was a fellow New Yorker named Melvin Levy. In the story, Serling describes Corporal Levy as "the humorist of the squad — the wag, the wit, the guy who lived for laughs."

After several days hiding in muddy foxholes without food and low on ammunition, the squad hears the sound of U.S. Army planes approaching.

When they get low enough, they start dropping rations. He writes:

To avoid getting hit by the dropping cargo, the men scramble back down the foxholes. Except for Levy:

Rod with his father Sam Serling c. 1943.
Esther Cooper Serling / Courtesy of Anne Serling
Courtesy of Anne Serling
Rod with his father Sam Serling c. 1943.

As in real life, a crate crashes down on Levy, killing him instantly. Serling and the squad looked on in horror.

"I knew that my father had trauma because I vividly remember hearing him wake up in the middle of the night screaming," said another daughter, Anne Serling, "and in the morning when I would ask him what happened, he told me he was dreaming that the enemy was coming at him."

"First Squad, First Platoon" was discovered in a collection of Serling's writings at the University of Wisconsin by Amy Boyle Johnston, author of a book about his career called Unknown Serling. She gave the story to Anne, who included excerpts of it in her memoir As I Knew Him.

"I was so stunned by it, first of all, that my dad was so young," said Anne Serling, "And still so aware and wanting to share his thoughts."

Adding to the trauma, Rod Serling's father died suddenly at age 52 while Rod was still overseas. Anne said he wasn't allowed to return to the U.S. to attend his funeral. "He was always very angry" at the Red Cross for this, she said.

'War should be discussed'

When The Strand asked about publishing this short story, Anne Serling said she and her sister didn't hesitate. She said her father felt strongly that, "These things about the war should be discussed."

Serling dedicated the story "To My Children," even though he didn't have any at the time. He wrote that he didn't want them to be the kind of people who "don't like to remember unpleasant things":

With wars ongoing in the Middle East, Ukraine and elsewhere, The Strand's managing editor Andrew Gulli said he believes the details of Serling's story are important to read right now. Gulli said Serling's "terse" prose includes the "brutality" of war, "Yet [the] characters always retain their humanity. You always felt that you were reading about people that were real, people that you could identify with."

Serling's feelings about war came out in The Twilight Zone. "The Purple Testament" and "A Quality of Mercy," for example, are set in the Philippines and permeated with the same sense of dread found in "First Squad, First Platoon."

"My father said when he came home that he would never, ever again injure another living thing," said Anne Serling. But she said he was also very proud of his service — he wore his paratrooper bracelet "throughout his life."

Rod Serling died June 28, 1975 following heart surgery.

This story was edited for broadcast and digital by Meghan Collins Sullivan.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.