Monday, February 8, 2016

Hollywood Went to War

Forty second in our series Hollywood Went to War, is a man from a land of both shadow and substance, things and ideas, of sight and sound and of mind... Rod Serling.

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As editor of his high school newspaper, Serling encouraged his fellow students to support the war effort. He wanted to leave school before graduation to join the fight, but his civics teacher talked him into graduating. "War is a temporary thing," Gus Youngstrom told him. "It ends. An education doesn't. Without your degree, where will you be after the war?" Serling enlisted into the U.S. Army the morning after his high school graduation, following his brother Robert.

Serling began his military career in 1943 at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, under General Raymond "Joe" Swing and Col. Orin D. "Hard Rock" Haugen and served in the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division.

Over the next year of paratrooper training, Serling and others took to boxing as a way to vent aggression. He competed as a flyweight, and had 17 bouts, rising to the second round of the division finals before being knocked out. He was remembered for berserker style and for "getting his nose broken in his first bout and again in last bout." He tried his hand at the Golden Gloves, with little success.

On April 25, 1944, Serling received his overseas orders and saw that he was headed west through California. He knew that he was headed to fight the Japanese rather than the Nazis. This disappointed him, as he had hoped to help combat Hitler. On May 5, his division headed into the Pacific, landing in New Guinea, where it would be held in reserve for a few months.

In November 1944, his division first saw combat, on the Philippine island of Leyte. The 11th Airborne Division would not be used as paratroopers, however, but as light infantry after the Battle of Leyte Gulf. It helped mop up after the six divisions that had gone ashore earlier.

For a variety of reasons, Serling was transferred to the 511th's demolition platoon (nicknamed "The Death Squad" for its high casualty rate). According to Sergeant Frank Lewis, leader of the demolitions squad, "He screwed up somewhere along the line. Apparently he got on someone's nerves." Lewis also judged that Serling was not suited to be a field soldier. "... [H]e didn't have the wits or aggressiveness required for combat." At one point, Lewis, Serling, and others were in a firefight, trapped in a foxhole. As they waited for darkness, Lewis noticed that Serling had not reloaded any of his extra magazines. Serling sometimes went exploring on his own against orders, and got lost.

Serling's time in Leyte shaped his writing and political views for the rest of his life. He saw death every day while in the Philippines, at the hands of his enemies and his allies, and through freak accidents such as that which killed another extroverted Jewish private named Melvin Levy. Levy was delivering a comic monologue for the platoon as it rested under a palm tree when a food crate was dropped from a plane above, decapitating him. Serling led the funeral services for Levy and placed a Star of David over his grave. Serling later set several of his scripts in the Philippines, and used the unpredictability of death as a theme in much of his writing.

Serling returned from the successful mission in Leyte with two wounds (including one to his kneecap), but neither kept him from combat when General Douglas MacArthur used the paratroopers for their typical purpose on February 3, 1945. Colonel Haugen led the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment as it landed on Tagaytay Ridge, met up with the 188th Glider Infantry Regiment and marched into Manila. It met minimal resistance until it reached the city, where Vice Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi had arranged his 17,000 troops behind a maze of traps and guns and ordered them to fight to the death. During the next month, Serling's unit battled block-by-block for control of Manila.

When portions of the city were taken from Japanese control, local civilians sometimes showed their gratitude by throwing parties and hosting banquets. During one of these parties, Serling and his comrades were fired upon, resulting in many soldier and civilian deaths. Serling, still a private after three years, caught the attention of Sergeant Lewis when he ran into the line of fire to rescue a performer who had been onstage when the artillery started firing.

As it moved in on Iwabuchi's stronghold, Serling's regiment had a 50% casualty rate, with over 400 men killed. Serling was wounded and three comrades were killed by shrapnel from rounds fired at his roving demolition team by an antiaircraft gun. He was sent to New Guinea to recover, but soon returned to Manila to finish "cleaning up".

Serling's final assignment was as part of the occupation force in Japan. During his military service, Private Serling was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Philippine Liberation Medal.

Serling's combat experience affected him deeply and influenced much of his writing. It left him with nightmares and flashbacks for the rest of his life. He said, "I was bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service. I think I turned to writing to get it off my chest."

Private Serling, we salute you and thank you for your service to our country. Rest in peace.

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