May 28th, 2024

Rarely seen Rod Serling story, “First Squad, First Platoon,” draws upon his World War II service

By Hillel Italie, The Associated Press on May 8, 2024.

FILE - Writer Rod Serling holds the Emmy for best writing of a drama series for his work on "The Twilight Zone," at the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on May 16, 1961. (AP Photo, File)

NEW YORK (AP) – In a famous “Twilight Zone” episode from the early 1960s, a bloodthirsty World War II commander stationed in the Philippines finds himself transported into the body of a Japanese lieutenant and, to his horror, expected to help kill an entrapped and wounded American platoon.

“What you do to those men in the cave, will it shorten the war by a week, by a day, by an hour?” he pleads to a Japanese officer. “How many must die before (we) are satisfied?”

For the show’s host and writer, Rod Serling, World War II was a trauma he would re-imagine often.

Serling, born 100 years ago this December, served in the 11th Airborne Division in the Philippines and received a Bronze Star for bravery and a Purple Heart for being wounded. He left the war with lasting physical and emotional scars and, like such fellow veterans as Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, with a will to find words for what had happened. He wrote war-related scripts for “Playhouse 90″ and other early television drama series and for at least two other “Twilight Zone” stories, including one in which an Army lieutenant can predict who will die next by looking into his soldiers’ faces.

Serling’s “First Squad, First Platoon,” a fictionalized take on the war that he worked on and set aside while attending Antioch College, has now been published for the first time. It appears this week in the new edition of The Strand Magazine, which has unearthed pieces by Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and many others. “First Squad, First Platoon” is broken into five vignettes, each dedicated to a fallen peer.

“Serling wrote this story in his early twenties, yet it carries a maturity beyond his years,” Strand managing editor Andrew Gulli writes. “It’s a powerful, unvarnished look at war in all its brutality – an unforgettable study of ordinary people in an extraordinarily hellish situation.”

Nicholas Parisi, author of the 2018 biography “Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination,” helped edit the story. Daughters Jodi Serling and Anne Serling each contributed brief forewords. Jodi Serling wrote that the war “opened up dark horizons of terror” for her father and left him “gut-wrenching memories” that influenced his writing and awakened him at night, “sweating and screaming inconsolably.” Anne Serling told The Associated Press that “First Squad, First Platoon” reminded her of his innocence when he joined the military.

“My reaction was particularly painful because when I read the story, I was writing a memoir about my dad and reading the letters he wrote from training camp before he was sent to the Pacific,” she said. “He was just barely 18 when he enlisted and sounded like a kid at summer camp in his letters to his parents. He was asking for gum, candy, underwear (because he didn’t like the GI ones). Like all of the kids we send into the horror of war – he didn’t know what was waiting on the other side.”

Amy Boyle Johnston, author of the 2015 book “Unknown Serling,” found the story while looking through Serling’s papers at the University of Wisconsin. Serling, who died in 1975, had yet to start a family when he wrote “First Squad, First Platoon.” But he was already thinking about the next generation, including a dedication to his yet-unborn children urging them to remember “a semblance of the feeling of a torn limb, a burnt patch of flesh” and “the hopeless emptiness of fatigue” were as much part of war as “uniforms and flags, honor and patriotism.”

Parasi says that “First Squad, First Platoon” was an early sign of Serling’s ironic touch. One soldier is shot dead as he admires a wooden statuette of Jesus, and another – a true story – is killed by a food relief package.

In the opening section of “First Squad,” Cpl. Melvin Levy is introduced as the squad’s resident comedian, whose usual barrage of jokes had been silenced by the ongoing starvation that threatened to kill them all. But as Levy slept weakly in the mud, dreaming of pastrami and other treats back home, he is startled by the sound of motors – airplanes clearly marked as American. Levy shouts with delight as more than 100 heavy boxes of K-rations fall from on high, fatally unaware that one will land right on him.

“The heavy crates were smashing into the earth close to their holes. Men started shouting in alarm,” Serling writes. “Levy just stood where he was, waving his arms and shouting. Sergeant Etherson pulled at him from behind, trying to get him down in a hole. But Levy was oblivious to all around him except the food which poured down.”

“‘It’s raining chow, boys . . . it’s raining chow,'” his shrill voice pierced the air.”

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