By Joel Searls
Lightning flashes outside the airplane window as rain pelts the glass. The nervous man looks on, staring outside at the wing of the aircraft. Did he see something?
He did. It’s a grotesque creature. Some type of “gremlin.” Standing on the wing of an airborne plane! It’s … tearing the engine apart. The man must tell someone. Anyone.
His wife is awakened and thinks he is having another nervous breakdown aboard a plane. The flight attendant grows tired of his comments. Even the flight engineer tries to calm him. When the others look out the window, the wing is empty save for rain streaming across the glass. He is alone at 20,000 feet.
The gremlin continues to wreak havoc. The man must do something! He steals a pistol from a sleeping police officer on board. He pulls the emergency release, opening the hatch next to his seat. The cabin decompresses as he is sucked halfway out the window, held only by his seatbelt. He fires six rounds, injuring the gremlin, which falls off the plane. It’s over now. They’re on the ground. The man is strapped to a gurney and loaded into an ambulance. We pan back up to the wing to see the damage done. It was real all along.
The original “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of “The Twilight Zone” aired on TV almost 60 years ago, and then was remade as part of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” It’s lived on in parodies, including one on “Saturday Night Live” in 2010, and got new life in the 2019 reboot of the “Twilight Zone” series.
It’s a television classic, but it’s also based on a widely prevalent bit of World War II lore, in which pilots would complain about “gremlins” for all kinds of unexplained mechanical failures, some of which cost U.S. troops their lives.
The man who created “The Twilight Zone” series, who wove his narratives with his own experience of peril drawn from his service in WWII, was Rod Serling. He is credited with 71 scripts of the original series out of 156 episodes in total and received “created by” credit on all of them. The series has been revived three times: in the 1980s, in the early 2000s featuring Forest Whitaker, and in 2019 with Jordan Peele.
Serling also adapted screenplays for movies such as “Planet of the Apes” (co-written with Michael Wilson); “The Man,” starring James Earl Jones; and “Seven Days in May” with Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner.
A thread that runs through much of Serling’s work is the impact of his service in WWII as a paratrooper with the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which fought in the Pacific Theater in New Guinea and the Philippines.
He was assigned to a roving demolition squad nicknamed the “Death Squad” for its high casualty rate. Serling experienced combat in the Battle of Leyte and in Manilla in intense urban warfare. The randomness of the death he saw, and likely some type of survivor’s guilt, lingered well after the war, according to his family. He witnessed one of his fellow platoon mates, Melvin Levy, killed when a food crate being air-dropped to their location landed on Levy’s head while he was telling a joke to the platoon.
Anne Serling says that those experiences, that trauma, never left her father.
“I vividly recall my dad having nightmares and, in the morning, I would ask him what was wrong,” she said in an interview. “He told me he dreamt the enemy was coming at him. … I know that like so many, the war changed him. He went from an idyllic childhood to all that horror, and undoubtedly it was those experiences that made him a writer.”
Serling was wounded when his demolition unit was fired upon by a Japanese anti-aircraft gun during maneuvers. Three of his squad mates were killed, and he was sent to New Guinea to recover. He quickly returned to combat for the final cleanup in Manila and then the occupation of Japan by the Allies at the end of the war. Serling’s decorations and medals include the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Combat Infantryman Badge.
His daughter said that he was awarded the Bronze Star for his bravery in the Battle of Leyte and that he wore his silver paratrooper bracelet his entire life.
That reminder of service was with Serling when he largely fell into writing, by his own account, and some of his most notable “Twilight Zone” episodes deal directly with combat, death and its psychological effects — including “The Purple Testament” and “A Quality of Mercy.”
In the “Purple Testament,” we witness a young Army lieutenant, Fitz, in the infantry in the Philippine Islands in 1945. He is able to see which member of his platoon will die next, which manifests as a strange glow on their face. His claims are looked at with incredulity by his captain, Riker. Fitz is taken to be seen at the hospital.
Anne Serling recalls the episode vividly in her book, “As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling.”
“As I watch this episode years later, I understand what my father is saying: You can’t experience the deaths of your fellow soldiers without a piece of you dying as well.”
Fitz sees the glow on his captain’s face, but the man refuses to believe that his number is up. He forces Fitz, in front of the platoon, to renounce any ability to see who will die next. Then, the captain dies on their next mission.
Throughout the episode, Fitz seems to be dealing with survivor’s guilt, the inability to stop death, even when it appears to be in his power to do so. He also shows the telltale signs of grief and a strong form of battle fatigue. Finally, while staring into a mirror, he catches sight of the glow on his own face, just as he has been ordered to division headquarters for needed rest. Fitz recognizes his fate as he sees that his driver shares the same glow. We overhear a discussion about the roads being riddled with land mines that haven’t been cleared.
The two soldiers drive away, then moments later we hear an explosion off screen. Fitz’s fate is sealed, and he is now free of his combat trauma, guilt and inability to save his men from death’s jaws.
Serling lived through some of the toughest fighting in the Pacific and knew what it was like to be tired of war on a deep level and uncertain of your own survival. He lived with the effects of his service for the rest of his life and seems to have had the pressing need to share it with his audience. One archetype of the Army that comes up repeatedly in his writing is glory-seeking officers. He likely witnessed glory hounds who sacrificed their men needlessly.
The episode “A Quality of Mercy” directly grapples with death in war. Here, we have another young lieutenant, Katell, in the Philippine Islands in August 1945, close to the unleashing of the first atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Katell takes over a platoon of combat-weary soldiers, showing up with a sprightly stride and a refusal to take “no” for an answer. Katell is determined to kill Japanese soldiers, especially the ones held up in a cave close by. The troops he takes command of show disinterest and belligerence to Katell when he wants to charge the cave of Japanese soldiers.
During the episode, Katell’s anger and insecurities come to a head when he is transported into the Twilight Zone and goes to pick up his dropped binoculars. When he does, he is transformed into an Imperial Japanese Army lieutenant, Yamuri. He is with fellow Imperial soldiers in the Battle of Corregidor in 1942, which was known for fierce fighting between U.S. and Japanese soldiers in the Malinta Tunnel.
Katell as Yamuri is informed that Japanese forces are going to kill U.S. soldiers hiding in a nearby cave, an inversion from his time in an American uniform. He tries to stop the attack on the U.S. troops and is relieved of his command by his captain. The attack commences, and Katell then is transported back to his initial platoon. Upon returning, he finds out that the atomic bomb has been dropped. They have been ordered not to attack the cave. Katell then wishes there will be no more wars nor loss of life in combat.
Anne wrote about her father’s own brush with death, an experience that may well have created a certain nihilistic view of conflict.
“Suddenly, out of the jungle a Japanese soldier is standing right before him, his gun pointed directly at my father,” she wrote in her book. “My dad freezes, staring back. He can’t move; there is nothing he can do. The soldier has a perfect shot, and my father knows that. In that instant, his war buddy, Richard, seeing the enemy, shoots him over my father’s shoulder.”
The U.S. soldiers in 1942 at the real battle of Corregidor were cornered in the Malinta Tunnel and then surrendered to the Japanese after they largely ran out of supplies. In turn, when the Japanese in 1945 held the Malinta Tunnel and it was apparent the Allies were going to retake the island, they instead used suicide bombs as a last stand.
Knowing that history, Katell’s plan of taking out a group of cornered Japanese soldiers may well have ended in his and his men’s deaths, something many viewers would have known.
A theme with many veterans and those who carry trauma from their service is the desire to change the past. Some who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder have flashbacks or dreams of the traumatic event that is seared into their nervous system. Serling’s own trauma clearly lived in his writing, where he had an opportunity to grapple with some of that history, contorting how history unfolded in ways few veterans can do.
Anne quotes her father in her book: “You can’t go back,” he said. “You return as a tourist just to observe. Like visiting a cemetery. Nobody’s around to talk to you and reminisce, even though deep in your gut you have this urge to tap some ghost on a shoulder and say, ‘Hey, buddy, remember that afternoon.'”