Here’s How A 12-Year-Old Boy From Texas Became WWII’s Youngest Decorated Veteran

It’s high summer in 1942, and a group of young men wait in line at a U.S. Navy enlistment office in Houston, Texas. Some of the men are so young they’d be better described as boys. It’s easy to imagine that these would-be recruits are daunted by the momentous step they’re about to take. But one of them, Calvin Graham, is especially jumpy. And it’s no wonder, because he’s just 12 years old.

Most U.S. citizens had been understandably reluctant to become embroiled in a war that had started in Europe in 1939. After all, why should Americans get involved in a little-understood squabble thousands of miles away? But the public mood changed radically after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. That brought things a lot closer to home. Now America was ready to fight – more than ready.

Before that Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. military was in what can only be described as a sorry state. It seemed that few wanted to serve their country. And the military apparently made things worse with its recruitment policies. According to a 2016 article in newspaper The Washington Post , 20 percent of all those who tried to join the services were refused because they had “defective teeth.” Why the services were so obsessed with dental matters we can only guess.

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But Pearl Harbor changed everything. Politicians who had opposed American entry into World War Two were now falling over themselves to proclaim their desire to fight. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on December 8 – the day after Pearl Harbor – Congress had its say. In the Senate, the vote for war was 82 to zero; the House tally was 388 to one. The one was Montana’s Jeanette Rankin. Her ill-advised vote would mark the effective end of her career in politics.

And it wasn’t just the politicians who were ready for a fight. In Birmingham, Alabama, for example, 600 came forward to enlist just hours after the Japanese attack, apparently itching for a scrap. Many, just like Graham, were actually too young to fight. Graham’s own words about age limits were quoted in a 2012 Smithsonian Magazine piece. He recalled, “In those days, you could join up at 16 with your parents’ consent, but they preferred 17.”

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Age restrictions aside, the services were engulfed by a huge number of eager Americans who couldn’t wait to get into battle. On December 10 – three days after Pearl Harbor – The New York Times reported, “All recruiting records of the nation’s armed forces were shattered… as thousands of men attempted to enlist for combat duty in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard.”

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As we’ve mentioned, the U.S. military was severely underprepared for war when America took up arms in 1941. In 1939 the U.S. Army had a paltry total of 174,000 personnel, and that included the Army Air Corps which would later become the U.S. Air Force. By the end of World War Two, the army had some 8 million serving and the navy, which Graham joined, had 3.4 million. That’s a lot of soldiers and sailors.

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Just who were all those mostly youthful Americans who joined up? They came from all walks of life and, as the National World War Two Museum’s website points out, many of them had never been outside their own states. Yet thousands upon thousands would find themselves in far-flung parts of the world, from the deserts of North Africa to remote Pacific islands.

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The military had a huge job on its hands transforming these everyday citizens into fighters, even if most of them were older than the 12-year-old Graham. Of course, unlike Graham who had volunteered, the majority were conscripted: just over 60 percent in fact. But however they’d ended up in the armed forces, they had to be trained. And that was not an insignificant task.

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Obviously, training had to be angled towards the actual service a recruit had joined. But all the new military personnel had to go through a similar basic process, which was known as “Boot Camp.” The central aim of the basic training was, as the National World War Two Museum put it, to teach “a new recruit to think of himself less as an individual and more as an integral part of his unit.” That surely must have been a tall task for Americans famously rather fond of their individuality.

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Arrival at Boot Camp could be a shocking and disorienting experience. Men swapped their civilian clothes for uniforms, their heads were shaved, and they were assigned a number. The recruits now had an entirely new social group: their platoon. Drills such as weapons maintenance, marching and physical training were repeated time and time again until they became second nature.

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The National World War Two Museum website quoted the recollection of one raw recruit, William G. Dabney, a Virginian and an African-American. He recalled, “It was a little scary at first. The main thing was to obey orders… as long as you did that you’d get along.” It was certainly a long way from home – especially if you were just 12 years old like Graham.

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But Calvin Leon Graham, it’s fair to say, was no ordinary 12-year-old. The youngest by five years of six children, he was born into a poverty-stricken farming family in Canton, Texas on April 3, 1930. His mother Nora worked as a hotel maid and his father Lee died in an auto crash in 1940 when Graham was just ten. Nora remarried, but it seems that Graham didn’t hit it off with his stepfather.

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Speaking to the Chicago Tribune newspaper in 1994, two years after Graham had died, his sister Evelue Sharman recalled, “Seemed like every time our stepdad came home, he’d get on Calvin. My brother pretty much had to raise himself.” This home situation was a long way from an episode of The Waltons and the youngster decided to do something about it.

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When he was 11, Graham and one of his elder brothers felt they’d had enough of home life, which by this time was in Crockett, Texas. So they upped and left, renting a room in another part of town. Graham supported himself by finding work as a messenger, a shoe-shiner and a newspaper vendor while still attending school. He was clearly an enterprising youngster, even though he was still really a child.

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Graham was still only 11 when he began to dream about joining the Navy. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune two years after he died in 1992, his widow Mary recalled his motivation. He knew the war was going badly for the U.S. in 1942 and his wife said, “Calvin saw all that in the newsreels. He’d come out of the movie theater, thinking: ‘We could lose this war! I got to get in there and help.’”

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Graham’s burning desire to join the Navy was likely strengthened by the fact that three of his older siblings had already enlisted with the service by the spring of 1942. What’s more, some cousins of his had been killed in action. Then there were his feelings about a certain Adolf Hitler. The Smithsonian Magazine quoted his view of the Nazi dictator, “I didn’t like Hitler to start with.”

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Still, there was the problem of how a 12-year-old could possibly sign up for the U.S. Navy. But Graham hatched a cunning plan while he was still in sixth grade at school in Crockett. He teamed up with a fellow newspaper seller, and the conspirators put their scheme into action after school ended for the summer in 1942.

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The duplicitous duo started out by signing each other’s enlistment application papers, forging their parental signatures. But they needed an official endorsement confirming the authenticity of their documents. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Mary took up the story. She described how the pair had approached a hotel clerk sat at his desk. They knew the hotel from their paper round.

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Mary recalled, “They told him [the hotel clerk] there was a fire upstairs, so he went up to see about it. The boys knew he kept a notary public’s seal in his desk. While he was gone, they used it to stamp their papers.” These kids were nothing if not resourceful, and they had no apparent compunction about bending the rules to get a shot at America’s enemies.

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Graham’s elaborate plot included squaring things off with his mother. He told her he was going to stay with his grandmother. In fact, he put the next stage of his plan into operation by taking himself to the enlistment center in Houston. To do this, he had to dress for the occasion. He liberated a brown suit and a fedora hat belonging to one of his brothers who was away on naval service.

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At this point, the 12-year-old was just 5 foot 2 inches tall and weighed in at 125 pounds. He did his best to finesse his disguise, the adult’s brown suit and the hat, by trying to make his voice sound deeper. Graham’s sister Sharman remembered that the ensemble wasn’t quite the perfect fit. Truth be told, he must have cut a somewhat bizarre figure.

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Sharman said, “Calvin had to tuck those pants legs up underneath. But that grown man’s outfit evidently was good enough to convince the recruiting officer that he was 17.” Still, Graham’s visit to the recruitment office wasn’t without incident. He had to use all of his substantial wit to get past the officials.

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At his interview for enlistment, there was a problem, and it was one that Graham had seen coming. It was all down to dentistry. Graham described his trepidation about seeing the dentist, with dental checks routine at enlistment offices. Graham later remembered to The Smithsonian, “I knew he’d know how young I was by my teeth.”

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Sure enough, the dentist did indeed correctly assess Graham’s likely age by examining his teeth. He could clearly see that the would-be recruit was probably about 12 years old. Graham resorted to simply denying the fact, insisting he was old enough. He recalled, “When the dentist kept saying I was 12, I said I was 17.”

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But Graham’s assertions were not enough to convince the dentist, so the youngster tried a different tack. With a last toss of the dice, he claimed that some of the volunteers ahead of him in the line had definitely been underage. Yet the dentist had waved them through, so why not him? Surprisingly, Graham hit the jackpot with this obviously shaky argument.

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As Graham remembered, “Finally he [the dentist] said he didn’t have time to mess with me and he let me go.” Thanks to the dentist’s impatience, the youngster was now in the U.S. Navy at the age of 12 – and he was cock-a-hoop. In an undated account by Graham, “as told to Mack Brandewiede” and published on the U.S.S. Dakota’s website, he described his elation.

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Graham said, “As I left for the West Coast I was the happiest I’ve [ever] been in my life. I was a Navy man!” But he went on to recall how his time in basic training in San Diego, California wasn’t without drama. “A Boot Camp mate was the only one to question whether I was old enough for service,” Graham said. It seems this “mate” had unwisely hit a raw nerve.

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Graham’s account continued, “I flared up and socked him. He got in a stiff punch that busted my lips. I came back with a couple of solid ones before they separated us.” Still thousands of miles away from the enemy, the youngster had already started fighting. Graham also remembered that the drill instructors well knew that some of the recruits were underage. Their ruthless response was to make them train harder.

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Despite these trials and tribulations, Graham successfully navigated his way through three weeks of basic training. John Maag was one of Graham’s buddies at boot camp. He spoke to the Chicago Tribune about their time in San Diego. According to Maag, “Calvin got through boot camp because the petty officers didn’t care how old anyone was. They needed to ship out men quickly. We’d suffered a lot of casualties, and the Navy needed to build up its crews.”

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Boot camp behind them, Graham and Maag were assigned to the U.S.S. South Dakota, a recently launched 35,000-ton battleship. It wasn’t long before Graham got his first taste of action. South Dakota set sail from Philadelphia in August 1942, heading for Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. Graham’s ship was part of a task force that included the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise.

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By the beginning of October the South Dakota was at Guadalcanal where one of the war’s most intense naval battles with the Japanese was about to explode into action. Graham was assigned to a unit manning an anti-aircraft gun. In late October, the Japanese air force launched a ferocious attack on the U.S. ships.

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U.S.S. Hornet, a carrier, sank under the Japanese onslaught. South Dakota concentrated her fire on the planes attacking the Enterprise, shooting 26 of them out of the air. A Japanese plane dropped a 500-pound bomb right on to the South Dakota’s main gun turret, injuring 50 sailors. After the battle, Graham’s ship limped back to Pearl Harbor for repairs.

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After an overhaul, South Dakota returned to the South Pacific. Soon Graham’s ship came under fire from an eight-strong flotilla of Japanese cruisers. They succeeded in hitting their target 42 times. At his gunnery post, Graham was hit by shrapnel which ripped through his jaw, knocking out teeth on the way. Those were some of the very same teeth that had caused him so much anxiety when he’d enlisted.

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Another blast hurled Graham off his feet and he fell down three stories of the ship’s structure. In spite of this, he got up and began helping to rescue injured sailors. Later, he recounted to The Smithsonian, “I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night. It was a long night. It aged me.”

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Graham recalled that he was “fixed up with a couple of stitches.” But, he said, “I didn’t do any complaining because half the ship was dead. It was a while before they worked on my mouth.” Graham’s raw courage was recognized with a medal, a Bronze Star. He also earned a Purple Heart for the wounds he’d sustained.

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But despite his obvious bravery, Graham’s Navy career was about to come to a crashing halt. It seems that his mother had spotted him in a newsreel film and finally realized the stunt her son had pulled. She reported him to the Navy, confirming his actual age. The young sailor was returned to Texas forthwith and locked up in the brig, a Navy detention center, at Corpus Christi. It seems like a poor reward for his service.

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Things got worse. Now imprisoned at the age of 13, Graham was also stripped of his decorations, denied back pay and refused help with medical expenses arising from his wounds. The Navy had been happy enough to use him as a frontline fighter when it could claim not to have known his true age. Now that it couldn’t deny he was underage, its retribution was swift and brutal.

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After three months, Graham was released from imprisonment in Corpus Christi without discharge papers. His freedom only came after his sister approached the press with his story; by this time he’d become something of a local celebrity. Despite this poor treatment at the hands of the Navy, in 1948, now old enough, he enlisted with the Marine Corps. An accident that saw him suffer a broken back finally ended his military career in 1951.

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It took decades before the authorities accepted that Graham had been dealt with unjustly. In 1978 President Jimmy Carter signed a bill giving Graham an honorable discharge and restoring his Bronze Star. However the Purple Heart wasn’t returned until 1994. Sadly that was two years after Graham had died at the age of 62. Perhaps the best tribute to this extraordinary man – and boy – is the 1988 movie Too Young the Hero which tells his incredible but true tale.

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