WWII was going on and every red blooded young man felt the urge to join the military and to fight, but this young man put a whole new meaning into the word “young.”
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Calvin Graham was, unbelievably, 12 years old when he entered the United States Navy. Of course, the reasonable questions would be, “How could he have gotten away with that?” But, he did, and before his 13th year was over he would be awarded a Bronze Star while serving on the USS South Dakota, a battleship serving in the Pacific.
First, we need to look at how Graham was able to get into the Navy at such a young age. According to the
Smithsonian, Graham was from Crockett, Texas. He was eleven years old and in the sixth grade when he hatched his plan to join the Navy. He was one of seven children, but his stepfather was abusive, so he and an older brother moved out and moved into a cheap rooming house.
Graham sold newspapers and delivered telegrams after school and on weekends to support himself. His mother would occasionally visit him and to sign report cards at the end of the semester. As a result of his situation, he already had to do things that would usually be the province of an adult. And because he was around newspapers everyday, he was fully aware of the news about the war.
He heard that some of his cousins had already died fighting in Europe. At that young age, he felt he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to join the Navy and serve like his cousins had.
During WWII the minimum age for enlistment was 17, but you could enter at 16 with your parents consent. Graham, with his pre-adolescent thinking, started shaving at age 11, hoping that that would somehow make him look older when he met with recruiters.
He and a couple of his friends forged his mother’s name on the enlistment papers, and stole a notary stamp from a local hotel to make it look official. Then they went to enlist.
Graham was 5’2” and weighed 125 pounds. He had been practicing talking in a lower, deeper voice and when he went to take the physical he dressed in his older brother’s clothes. What he worried about the most was not that the forged signature of his mother would be discovered, but that the dentist who would be checking the recruits’ teeth may also be noting signs of their age. He lined up behind a couple of guys that he knew were already 14 and 15 years old. When the dentist identified him as a 12 year old, he just kept saying “17.”
This kid was savvy. He told the dentist that the two guys he just let go through in front of him weren’t 17, yet he had let them through. The dentist, probably more concerned for himself, relented and let him go through. It was not uncommon that boys would lie about their age to get into the service at this or any other time, but Graham was one of the successful ones who would actually get in.
Graham went to boot camp in San Diego. The drill instructors were aware that they probably had underage recruits and worked them harder in an effort to weed them out. They made them run further and carry heavier packs. But Graham stuck it out.
He was eventually assigned to the battleship USS South Dakota as a gunner. The South Dakota was part of the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier Task Force 64 and she would be one of the most highly decorated ships in WWII. On October 26, 1942 the South Dakota and the carrier task force were on their way to help at the battle of Guadalcanal. When they were just off of the Santa Cruz Islands the task force came under attack by Japanese fighter planes intent on sinking the Enterprise. The USS South Dakota was responsible for helping to protect the Enterprise and during the battle it shot down 26 Japanese attack planes with her anti-aircraft batteries.
Seaman Calvin Graham, who had been in that battle on the South Dakota, turned 13 on November 6, 1942. On that day the Japanese attacked the airfield at Guadalcanal. On the 14th of November, Task Force 64, including the South Dakota and one other battleship, the USS Washington, were engaged by a large force of Japanese warships. This battle would go on for four days and would go down in history as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
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Late in the evening of the 14th the South Dakota found itself in a battle with 8 Japanese destroyers. She would take 42 hits from the guns of those destroyers, but would fire back with her 16” guns with deadly accuracy and set fire to and sink three of them. But, she would temporarily lose power because of the intense barrage from the destroyers.
Graham was manning his gun during this fight when he was struck in the face by shrapnel, tearing through his jaw and mouth. Another round struck nearby and it knocked him down and he fell down three decks. Dazed, he made it to his feet again.
Shells were still hitting the South Dakota at a furious pace, but Graham helped pull fellow crew members to safety, while others around him were being thrown overboard by shell explosions. He was taking belts off of the dead to make tourniquets for the wounded around him. One can only imagine the intensity of battle that this 13 year old found himself in, but he conducted himself like a man through it all.
The shrapnel that had hit him, knocked out his front teeth and he had suffered some flash burns from the guns and the shelling. Thirty-eight of his fellow crewmen were killed in action and 60 had been wounded. The Japanese believed that they had caused enough damage to the South Dakota to sink her and withdrew the remainder of their forces.
But the South Dakota did not sink. She limped back to the Brooklyn Naval yard for repairs. After its arrival in New York, newspapers chronicled her efforts in the Pacific. The ship and its crew received awards for their conduct at Guadalcanal and they also reported that our young seaman was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions during the battle, along with a Purple Heart. His mother saw the articles in the newspapers and wrote to the Navy revealing Graham’s true age.
Graham returned to Texas and was put in the brig at Corpus Christi for almost three months. While there, he wrote his sister and told her what was happening and she wrote to the newspapers about what the Navy was doing to this, in her words, “Baby Vet.” The Navy, affected by what they saw as “bad press,” released Graham from the brig, but stripped him of his medals and gave him a Dishonorable Discharge for lying about his age.
Graham struggled to find his way after that. He tried going back to school, got married at age 14 and had a child. But before he was 17 he would drop out of school and get divorced. He had a job as a welder in a Houston shipyard, and about to be drafted at 17, he joined the Marine Corps. During training he fell and broke his back and was discharged with a 20 percent service-connected disability. The only work he could find from then on was selling magazine subscriptions.
In 1976, Graham wrote to the newly elected President, Jimmy Carter, and told him his story. All he wanted was to be given an Honorable Discharge. In 1977 Texas Senators Lloyd Benson and John Tower introduced a bill to give him his Honorable Discharge and Carter approved it in 1978. His Bronze Star and other medals were restored, with the exception of the Purple Heart.
Calvin Graham died in 1992 at the age of 63. In 1994, two years after his death, the military awarded his Purple Heart to his family.
Calvin Graham’s life was not easy, coming from a broken family and a sixth grade education. Despite all of that, you have to respect his moxie. Though he got into the Navy by wit and a fair amount of trickery at the unbelievable age of 12 years old, when push came to shove he responded to the hellish realities of battle like a real man. His story seems improbable, but there it is. It happened. The times were different and the nation was in a struggle against two powerful foes on different sides of the planet and the military needed the personnel to fight on both fronts. In ordinary times this story would not have been possible, but this young man was a determined and unusual soul.
The Veterans site honors the memory of Calvin Graham, the youngest person to serve during WWII. We send our thanks and our condolences to his family.
May he now know “Fair winds and following seas.”
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.