During World War II, it wasn’t unusual for young men to lie about their age in order to serve their country. According to the Veterans of Underage Military Service, 29 of the organization’s members began their WWII service at age 13. The youngest person to serve was 12-year-old sailor Calvin Graham.
Like many who enlisted, Graham wanted to make a difference. Born and raised in Texas, his father had died and his stepfather abused him. He was in grade school when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
Graham’s job selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on the weekends helped him stay current on events in Europe. He once told a reporter “I didn’t like Hitler to start with.”
His disdain for the Nazi leader and his cousins’ combat deaths motivated him to join immediately.
He began shaving and talking in a deep voice so everyone would think he was older. Graham weighed around 120 pounds at the time, but he dressed in his older brother’s clothes to look bigger. Lining up with some of his buddies who were 15 and 16, he went to enlist in the Navy.
Graham wasn’t worried the officers would say anything about him forging his mother’s signature because the Navy had lost a lot of men and needed whomever it could get. So at times, the service overlooked age.
Graham, however, was worried about the dentist. He later said, “I knew he’d know how young I was by my teeth.”
The dentist fought him a little, saying he wasn’t old enough, but Graham told the dentist he knew his friends—who the dentist had already passed—were not old enough either. The dentist grudgingly passed him.
After he joined the Navy, he told his mom he was going to visit his grandmother. In reality, he was shipping out to San Diego for basic training.
The USS South Dakota—famously nicknamed Battleship X and led by Navy Captain Thomas Gatch—was where Graham was assigned as a gunner after basic training.
In fall 1942, the USS South Dakota and Task Force 16, which included the USS Enterprise, shipped out from the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard and headed to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. It didn’t take long for the Japanese to launch an all-out attack on the American vessels. The South Dakota and its crew protected the Enterprise and was credited with destroying nearly 26 enemy planes.
Graham turned 13 while serving on Battleship X. During the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, he was manning a gun when shrapnel ripped through his mouth, according to Smithsonian.com. Another impact knocked him to the deck below. He quickly recovered and helped the wounded by making tourniquets out of belts.
The severely damaged USS South Dakota returned to Brooklyn Navy Yard for repairs.
For his actions at Guadalcanal, Graham received a half dozen medals and awards including a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. But trouble arose when Graham’s mother spotted him in a newsreel. She wrote the Navy, notifying officials of her son’s actual age. Graham got three months in the brig in Corpus Christi, Texas. The Navy also stripped him of his medals, revoked his disability benefits and gave him a dishonorable discharge.
He came home to minor fame, but his celebrity status soon passed. By 17, the “baby vet” was a divorced father with few job prospects and no service record. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1948, serving for three years before breaking his back in a fall.
While his Corps service qualified him as a veteran, he spent the rest of his life fighting for his benefits and awards. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter reinstated Graham’s military honors—minus the Purple Heart—and granted him an honorable discharge for his Navy service. President Ronald Reagan later approved disability benefits for Graham.
His Purple Heart was reinstated in 1994, but World War II’s youngest service man didn’t live to see it. Graham died in 1992. He was 62.