By Brooke Scanlan

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 a 12-year-old sailor named Calvin Graham.

Who was Calvin Graham?

Like many who enlisted underage, Calvin 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.

At 12, Calvin Graham was the youngest person to serve in the U.S. military during World War II.

Graham’s job selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on the weekends helped him stay up to date on events in Europe. He once told a reporter, “I didn’t like Hitler to start with.”

The combination of his disdain for the Nazi leader and his cousins’ deaths in combat motivated him to join the armed forces immediately.

Growing up fast

Graham began shaving and talking in a deep voice so that everyone would think he was older. He 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 comment on him forging his mother’s signature, because the Navy had lost a lot of men - it needed whomever it could get.

However, Graham was worried about the dental exam. He later said, “I knew he’d know how young I was by my teeth.”

The dentist fought him a little, protesting that he wasn’t old enough, but Calvin Graham told the dentist he knew his friends — whom 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.

Calvin Graham ships out

The USS South Dakota — famously nicknamed Battleship X, and led by Navy Captain Thomas Gatch — was where young Calvin Graham was assigned as a gunner after his 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 were credited with destroying nearly 26 enemy planes.

The USS Enterprise, left, and the USS South Dakota, right, are attacked by Japanese bombers during the Battle of Santa Cruz in October 1942. | Photo credit National Archives photo

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 Another impact knocked him to the deck below. Graham 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.

Forgotten Honors

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 true age. Graham served 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 allowed Calvin Graham to qualify 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.

Calvin Graham’s Purple Heart was reinstated in 1994, but World War II’s youngest service man didn’t live to see it, since Graham died in 1992. He was 62 years old.

Help the USO tell the incredible stories of service members like Calvin Graham by supporting our fundraising campaigns, and join our email list today to receive more USO stories and updates.

–Brooke Scanlan is an Air Force spouse and former On Patrol intern.