Soon after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. battleship USS South Dakota sailed off to the Pacific with a newly recruited crew of ‘green boys’. When the U.S. officially entered WWII, many young boys signed up for military service, hiding their age, out of a burning passion to serve their country. As a matter of fact, 29 members of the Veterans of Underage Military Service started at age 13.
In the summer of 1942, there was one 11-year-old Texan boy who set off from the Philadelphia Navy Yard in Battleship X, as the Japanese nicknamed it later. Calvin Graham was the youngest crew member to serve in the U.S Navy.
Calvin Graham Impersonated An Older Teenager To Get Into The Navy
Graham grew up with seven siblings and an abusive stepfather. As a newspaper delivery boy, he was always up to date on the news, including the progression of WWII. When his cousin died in the U.S. military service, he decided to enlist himself in the army.
Later, he said, “In those days, you could join up at 16 with your parents’ consent, but they preferred 17.” As an 11-year-old sixth grader, he started shaving, dressed in his brother’s clothes and tried out a deep voice to look more convincing and mature.
Calvin Graham Told His Mom He Was Going To Visit Relatives
Graham managed to forge his mother’s signature, but the real hurdle in his way was the dentist who could tell his real age by his teeth.
When the dentist caught his bluff, Graham had to play the trump card. He knew for a fact that the boys lined up before him were not 17, yet they got a pass. Graham recalled, “Finally he said he didn’t have time to mess with me and he let me go.”
Ray Jackson, founder of Veterans of Underage Military Service (over 1,200 active members, including 26 women), said that this was a way out for kids from large or complicated family issues.
After Enlisting, Calvin Graham Served On The Warship USS South Dakota, Which Was Relentlessly Attacked In The Pacific Theater
The battleship was heavily attacked by Japanese destroyers, taking 42 enemy hits. Even after his jaw was torn off by shrapnel and he got knocked three stories down, the 13-year-old still managed to save his fellow soldiers throughout the night.
All the damage caused by the Japanese Imperial Navy made them believe that South Dakota had sunk and they retreated.
Upon returning to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Graham received a Bronze Star for his heroic acts in Guadalcanal and a Purple Heart.
When His Mom Recognized Him From Newsreel Footage, She Wrote To The Navy
Unfortunately, the celebration didn’t last long. Calvin Graham’s mother recognized him from newsreel footage and reported his real age to the navy. He was soon stripped of his medals and held in a prison in Corpus Christi. After three months, when the press attributed him as a ‘baby vet’, he was finally released without an honorable discharge.
Years Later, Jimmy Carter Officially Recognized Graham’s Accomplishments As A War Hero
Years later, in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was elected President, Graham saw a silver lining. Carter granted him an honorable discharge that he deserved more than anybody and re-awarded his medals.