Star Trek Creator Gene Roddenberry Escaped Death Twice While In The US Army

Gene Roddenberry created a franchise that explored philosophical questions and moral quandaries, imagined bizarre stellar phenomena and interesting civilizations, and envisioned a human future devoid of poverty, disease, and war. But few know of his life before "Star Trek," or considered how that life may have influenced the show's development.

Roddenberry was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1921, but grew up in Los Angeles (via As a boy he would have seen the economic hardships of the Great Depression that began in 1929 and lasted through the '30s. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Los Angeles City College and joined the U.S. Army's Civilian Pilot Program. This program trained recruits to fly planes in anticipation of American entry into World War II. After the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, Roddenberry went to war. He would nearly perish more than once, and participated in the horrors that humanity, he later believed, would have to move beyond.

Gene over the Pacific

Gene Roddenberry served in the Pacific, in the 394th Bombardier Squadron (via Aviation History, posted at Military Times). He co-piloted B-17s. On one flight, he and his comrades were caught in a vicious tropical storm. With wind and rain hammering the Flying Fortress, Roddenberry and his co-pilot struggled with the controls. A downward current sent the plane careening toward the ocean waves. Crewmen and ammunition tumbled about. Just before they crashed, the plane hit a low air cushion and leveled out. Roddenberry later said he was "surprised to get out of the storm alive."

Later came an actual plane crash. Roddenberry was commanding a plane nicknamed Yankee Doodle, which experienced mechanical failure during takeoff from the island of Espiritu Santo. He could not get enough speed to take flight. He slammed on the brakes but wouldn't be able to stop before running out of runway. Then ground looping, or a sharp turn, was planned but aborted immediately when the tail wheel wouldn't unlock. The Yankee Doodle drove into the jungle and crashed, killing two crewmen. Roddenberry and others made it out while the plane burned and ammunition popped in the flames.

A crash in the Syrian desert

According to Aviation History (posted at Military Times), Roddenberry was devastated, long remaining inconsolable in his tent. Some soldiers even blamed him for the disaster, though the higher-ups did not. The squadron was removed from active duty to rest, and the war ended soon after. Roddenberry left the Army as a decorated captain.

Incredibly, however, his plane crash days were not behind him. He became a pilot for Pan American airlines in 1946. On June 18, 1947, Roddenberry was the third officer on Pan Am Flight 121, on its way back to New York from Calcutta, India, one night. Half the plane's engines failed and it crashed in the Syrian desert (via Fourteen people died. As flames swallowed the wreckage, Roddenberry and others dragged as many of the injured outside as they could. He frantically used a pillow to smother the flames of one burning passenger (via Snopes). Twenty-two were saved. Left leader of the survivors, Roddenberry directed two passengers to swim across the Euphrates River toward a source of light he had observed before the crash. The swimmers found a Syrian military base, which helped Pan Am with the rescue effort.

Though Roddenberry received a Civil Aeronautics medal for his bravery and leadership, he resigned from Pan Am. The next year he moved to Hollywood to pursue writing.