The fervor of patriotism among the youth has never been more clearly demonstrated than, especially during the Second World War. It was definitely a dark period, but the fighting spirit and eagerness to rise to the occasion and sacrifice themselves, men and women alike, for their country became the catalyst for the decisive victory of the Allied Powers. Likewise, the sheer amount of intrepidity caused millions of casualties around the globe, including boys who signed up and boosted the armed forces even before reaching the legal age.

While the same enthusiasm to join the military has significantly declined in recent years, back then, it was a career path most boys were aspiring to become. It was an honorable profession—not that it isn’t respected today. But, going to war was highly romanticized, and besides, it was almost like everyone was willingly joining the dreadful bandwagon; to fight like their grandfathers, fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers, and friends—to avenge fallen comrades and relatives and the innocent trapped between firefighting; to end the ill ideologies of the Nazis and its equally brutal allies force the world to veer into.

That’s why boys as early as sixteen tried to forge their way into recruitment camps despite not yet reaching the required age because they were that eager to serve. Boys who were old enough to understand the gist of national security and defense but too young to comprehend the difficult situation they soon found themselves in at the front.

The summer after the tragic Pearl Harbor bombing, hundreds of aspiring soldiers flock to the recruitment camp and sign up for the war. Some sneaky juveniles include a twelve-year-old Calvin Graham.

Discovered His Life’s Purpose at 11

Calvin Leon Graham, born in Texas in the mid-spring of 1930, was still in sixth grade when he devised a plan to fake his age and join the Navy. Graham lived with his older brother in a cheap house away from their abusive stepfather at the time, with their mother dropping by occasionally to check on them. The young boy supported himself by selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on weekends and after school, exposing him to overseas horrors. The country was at war.

Later, in a news report, Graham expressed how he disliked Hitler and how the tragic stories of his cousins who perished on the battlefield made him realize what he wanted to do with his life. “In those days, you could join up at 16 with your parent’s consent, but they preferred 17,” he recalled. But the young boy back then wanted to fight now, not five years later, so he began hatching a plan by shaving his barely visible facial hair in hopes that “it would somehow make him look older when he met with military recruiters.”

Dressed in his older brother’s clothes and his mother’s forged signature at hand, Graham, along with some of his buddies, went to see the enlistment officer. He was nervous as he drew closer and exhaled a relieved sigh when he passed the initial screening until the dentist peered into his mouth. Right there and then, Graham knew he was busted. But he won’t back down easily and draw an ace up his sleeve, telling the dentist that he would rat him out for passing other underaged recruits ahead of him if he won’t let him through.

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Graham, in his 50s, holding a photograph of himself when he enlisted at age 12 and served in the US Navy during World War II. (Image source: UTA Digital Library)
I knew he’d know how young I was by my teeth… when the dentist kept saying I was 12, I said I was 17,” he recalled. When Graham threatened him, the dentist eventually gave up and let him go. Graham later clarified that the Navy knew he and the others were way below the allowed enlistment age, “but we were losing the war then, so they took six of us.”

The youngest of seven bid farewell to his mother with an excuse of visiting relatives, subsequently dropping out of school, and by mid-fall 1942, found himself among the sailors sent to the Pacific aboard the battleship USS South Dakota (BB-57).

The Youngest Navy Gunner

Graham was among the pioneering sailors of the then-newly commissioned battleship. He and the rest of the USS South Dakota crew steamed to the South Pacific to join the task force alongside the legendary carrier USS Enterprise (aka “the Big E“). Calvin was one of the ship’s gunners and immediately saw action during the Battle of the Santa Cruz. During the four-day bloody Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Graham was hit in the face and arm while relentlessly firing at the Japanese destroyers. Accordingly, the young sailor picked himself up after falling off three stories of the superstructure, and despite bearing injuries, he began pulling nearby fellow crew who lay helplessly to safety.

USS South Dakota
USS South Dakota circa 1942 (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

I took belts off the dead, made tourniquets for the living, gave them cigarettes, and encouraged them all night,” Graham recalled. “It was a long night. It aged me.” He remembered not complaining and mentioned how half of the ship was dead. In that assault alone, the battleship had 38 casualties and 60 wounded, including Graham.

Although severely damaged, the ship returned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where it would be repaired. Upon arriving, newsreel cameras captured what the press called “Battleship X,” and unknowingly shot Graham. The footage eventually reached Texas, his hometown, where his mother gasped in horror as he laid eyes on his youngest on the silver screen, exclaiming, “That’s my son!”

The horrified mother went to complain to the Navy about recruiting a 12-year-old, leading to Graham’s dishonorable discharge, with all his medals taken away. Moreover, he was allegedly subjected to a three-month brutal treatment in the brig when he returned to Texas. When his sister knew about the mistreatment, she complained to the newspapers, which helped release the “Baby Vet,” however, with only a few dollars in his pocket and no disability benefits.

As the repaired Battle X steered back to the Pacific theater, Graham tried to return to school, only to drop back out again. He married at age 14 and became a father a year later, pushing him to earn a living to sustain his family. Unfortunately, neither his marriage nor his job as a welder lasted long. When his draft year drew to a close (his previous record was practically non-existent), Graham, age 17, enlisted in the Marine Corps.

In another cynical plot twist, his career as a Marine ended early when he broke his back in a freak accident when he fell from a pier during the Korean War. Graham received a 20 percent service-connected disability, which wasn’t enough, so he also went back to selling magazine subscriptions as a civilian. As he aged, his injuries from both wars began giving him trouble, pushing him to the edge of desperation to seek a win over an honorable discharge for his service back when he was 12.

After years of futile efforts, he finally received his honorable discharge thanks to two US Senators who took up the cause and all his confiscated medals except the Purple Heart, awarded to him by President Jimmy Carter. It took another ten years for his disability benefits to be approved and signed by President Ronald Reagan. Finally, his journey as a young veteran was adapted into a TV movie, Too Young the Hero, starring Rick Schroder in 1988, which earned him a little money. Eventually, his remaining medal, the Purple Heart, was only awarded to him two years after his passing in 1994, which his family accepted.

too young
(Image source: IMDb)

Watch the film adaptation of the life of Calvin Graham here.