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"Lost" Short Story from Twilight Zone Creator Rod Serling Published Ahead of SYFY Marathon

Reading like a precursor to "The Purple Testament," the story is a harrowing tale about the horrors of war.

By Josh Weiss
Rod Serling works at a typewriter.

An oft-discussed, but seldom seen, short story written by a young Rod Serling has finally entered our dimension. Now available to read in the latest issue of The Strand Magazine, "First Squad, First Platoon," is a semi-autobiographical tale based on The Twilight Zone creator's harrowing experiences during Pacific combat in World War II. Told from multiple perspectives, the story follows a squad of American soldiers — Melvin Levy, Deacon Sloane, Horace Regan, Warren Hubbard, and Edward Etherson — who are all killed in action while trying to reclaim the Philippine island of Leyte from Imperial Japanese forces. The only person left standing is one Corporal Rod Serling.

"The story has many of the themes that haunted and formed Serling’s work in The Twilight Zone," Strand Magazine Managing Editor Andrew F. Gulli tells SYFY WIRE over email. "Look no further than 'The Purple Testament,' where Serling wrote a haunting teleplay on the horror of war. Most importantly, he could put his feet in the shoes of the enemy — not the easiest thing to do after all he saw and experienced. He said in his last interview that he wanted to be remembered as a writer, so I think this is a fitting tribute and a chance to display his talent as a writer on the printed page."

"Rod once said that he began writing as a means of therapy after the war, to get those experiences 'out of his gut' and onto paper," adds Nicholas Parisi, author of Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination, who lent a hand in bringing the story to publication. "'First Squad, First Platoon' is the most explicit example of that process. He wrote it when he was attending Antioch College, while the psychological trauma of the war was still relatively fresh. It’s historically significant from that perspective alone."

For More on Rod Serling:
Did You Know The Twilight Zone Had a Different Narrator Before Series Creator Rod Serling?
'Night Gallery: The Art of Darkness' offers a private showing of Rod Serling's post-Twilight Zone series
The Season 1 Fan Feedback That Changed Rod Serling’s Approach to The Twilight Zone

"First Squad, First Platoon," Short Story by The Twilight Zone Creator Rod Serling, Finally Published

As any Twilight Zone fan worth their salt knows, Serling's wartime tenure as a member of the 11th Airborne Division manifested itself in several classic episodes of the groundbreaking anthology series. "A Quality of Mercy" and "The Encounter" are great examples, but as Gulli states above, the short story feels more like a direct precursor to Season 3's "The Purple Testament." Set in the Pacific Theater, the episode follows the weary Lt. Fitzgerald (William Reynolds), who gains the unenviable super-power of being able to tell when a fellow soldier will die in battle.

"Beyond Rod’s description of his war experiences, the [short] story establishes that the irony that was so apparent in Rod’s later writings, particularly in The Twilight Zone stories, was part of his repertoire right from the beginning," Parisi continues. "Each section of the story details the death of one of Rod’s fellow soldiers and each occurs with a heavy dose of irony."

The piece also features a number of surnames — particularly "Sloane" and "Etherson" — which would later be used for Twilight Zone characters like Martin Sloan in "Walking Distance" (Season 1) and Jerry Etherson in "The Dummy" (Season 3). As Serling's younger daughter, Anne Serling, tells SYFY WIRE: "My father said he based characters on people he had known. That's true about places, too. You'll see references to Ithaca; Taughannock Falls; Cortland; and Elmira, New York."

"My dad frequently gave his characters names from the past," echoes elder daughter, Jodi Serling. "Some were childhood friends or childhood landmarks. Others were names of men whom he had served with in the war. He particularly used 'Sloane,' who was one of his war buddies. These names from the past were my dad's way of honoring all of them."

Where Did This Semi-Obscure Rod Serling Story Come From?

Rod Serling holds a lit cigarette.

"First squad, First Platoon" was originally unearthed by The Unknown Serling author Amy Boyle Johnston, who came across the story while doing research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison archives. Johnston didn't waste time in sending the piece to Anne Serling, who reprinted a snippet (including the opening dedication to the writer's then-unborn children) in her memoir, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling. "Andrew Gulli wrote me after the publication of my memoir, asking about the story and he circled back a few months ago," she recalls. "As he said, he found the power of the strong narrative voice stunning."

"Reading this story was truly an awakening experience for me that connected and enhanced the knowledge I already had about my dad's war experiences," Jodi Serling adds. "My father was plagued with PTSD  from the war, but it is a certainty [true] that the loss, the trauma, the fear he experienced created this gateway for his writing career."

Like most young men of his time, Serling signed up to fight in World War II with gusto. Not only did he want to serve his nation, but he was also Jewish, itching to fight the Nazis and their virulent brand of anti-Semitism. The letters he wrote from basic training are, in hindsight, devastatingly innocent. "My dad sounded like a kid at summer camp, writing home for gum and candy and underwear (because he didn't like the GI ones)," Anne explains. "Between those letters and my father's story, it was heartbreaking to realize the horror he — and all these other young kids we hurl into wars — was about to, and did, experience."

In a twist of Twilight Zone-y fate, he was sent to the Pacific, far away from the Nazis in the European Theater. Throughout his time on the battlefield, Serling took shrapnel to the wrist and the knee and was awarded both the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Unfortunately, neither government accolade was enough to cure a wounded knee that would spontaneously bleed, not to mention all the psychological shock. The inability to return home for his father's funeral only added to such an immense emotional toll.

"Like so many vets of that time, my father didn't talk about the war," Anne Serling says. "I do remember him having terrible nightmares and shouting out. In the morning, I asked him about it and he said he was dreaming; he was back in the war and the enemy was coming at him. Clearly, he suffered from PTSD, though that wasn't even a term back then ... I think my dad was ultimately, inevitably, conflicted about his serving in the war. He said that when he came home he would never, ever again injure another living thing."

"Everything my dad had taken for granted as a child had suddenly become so precious and dear to him," Jodi Serling concludes. "This is because he thought he would never see this life again. In my father's final professional interview, just a few months before his death, he echoed this observation, saying simply he was convinced he was not going to come back. My dad acknowledged that the time in war was the lowest emotional point in his life."

Be sure to tune in for SYFY's National Twilight Zone Day marathon this weekend. Click here for more scheduling info!