While most of us played hopscotch, jump rope, and board games, 12-year-old Calvin Graham shaved his face so he would grow some stubble and practiced speaking in a deep voice, all so he could join the US navy and fight for his country.
But the fact that he tried to get in isn’t the crazy part. What’s crazy is that he managed to do so. Moreover, he enlisted into the army and fought two of the toughest Naval Battles in WWII, all before his 13th birthday. So how did this baby-faced boy fool everyone? And what happened when people discovered his true identity?
Before we get into the story, it’s worth noting that Graham wasn’t the only kid who lied about his age to fight the war. A lot of young boys at the time couldn’t wait for their 17th birthday (the minimum age for enlistees). And it wasn’t necessarily out of patriotism, but because they came from broken homes and troubled families.
But still, you have to appreciate the guts they had to enlist themselves in an ordeal that could end their lives. The Underage Veterans Association reported that over 200,000 youthful patriots sneaked their way into the war. But according to national commander Allan Stover, “Calvin was by far the youngest.”
Bold little Calvin Graham was born in Crockett, Texas, in 1930. He grew up in a crowded house with six other siblings, an abusive stepfather, and his mother, who worked as a hotel maid. Graham’s real dad died in a car accident, and his replacement was an angry drunk who had it out for the young boy.
According to his sister, “Every time our stepdad came home, he’d get on Calvin. My brother pretty much had to raise himself.” Graham finally decided he couldn’t take it anymore, and at only 11 years old, he moved away from home into a cheap rooming house.
Graham took whatever job he could to support himself. He worked seven days a week, with no breaks whatsoever. He worked for hours on the streets, polishing shoes and selling newspapers in the early mornings. He still attended school here and there, but his education was eventually put on the back burner. Earning money for food was more important.
Graham didn’t learn much from school, but he educated himself differently. He read the newspapers he sold and became fully aware of what was going on overseas. He read of the lost lives of soldiers and the fearful ones still struggling to stay alive. Graham felt he had to do something to help.
While it’s true Graham’s house wasn’t the best environment for him, it wasn’t the only thing that motivated him to join the army. The kid was a true patriot who was inspired by his three older brothers who had already volunteered for military service by 1942.
Things weren’t looking so good for the US at that point in the war. With Pearl Harbor’s destruction and the horrific outcome of the infamous Bataan Death March, the nation was in desperate need of brave warriors. Every passing day, Graham thought to himself, “We could lose this war! I got to get in there and help.”
So how in the world did a 12-year-old manage to enlist himself in the army? Did America have no standards at the time? Well, they did. They set the minimum age at 17. That is unless you had your parents’ consent, and in that case, you could join at 16.
So, if you really wanted to get in, you could fake your mom’s signature and pretend your whole family is rooting for you to get out there and fight. And that’s exactly what kids did. , Many youth forged signatures, and despite looking like babies, the army let them in. After all, they needed all the help they could get.
It was the summer of 1942, and Graham finally decided to go ahead with his sneaky plan. Forging his mom’s signature on the enlistment paper was step number one, but the more challenging part of the scheme was getting his paper officially stamped.
He knew that local hotels kept notary seals in their front desks, so he stepped into one and convinced the desk clerk that there was a fire in one of the rooms upstairs. The clerk then rushed up the stairs, and Graham successfully stole a few stamps. He was now ready to enlist.
Graham had his papers stamped, signed, and ready to go. But he knew that this was just the beginning. He still had to convince recruiting officers that he was a 16-year-old young man and not a 12-year-old child whose voice hasn’t matured yet.
At only 5’2 and weighing 125 pounds, Graham knew he didn’t look the part. But he did his best to prepare beforehand. He shaved his bare face in the hopes of growing some stubble and practiced talking in a low, deep voice. He borrowed his older brother’s clothes (his pants were so long they swept the floor) and hoped for the best.
Talk as low and deep as you want, but there’s one thing you can’t fake – your teeth. They uncover a lot about you, including your age. For Graham, that was bad news because his baby-ish mouth was nothing like a grown teenager’s.
The moment the dentist opened his mouth, the jig was up. He looked him straight in the eye and said, “You’re 12.” But Graham quickly snapped back, “I’m 17.” They went back and forth for a while until Graham pointed out that the two kids before him were also too young to serve but passed anyway! Eventually, the dentist gave up and agreed to let him through.
Finally, Graham was ready to serve. He officially enlisted in the Navy on August 15, 1942, and was sent to boot camp in San Diego, California. His mom had no idea and thought her little boy was off to visit his grandma in Crocket, Texas, where he claimed he would be all summer.
His six weeks of training were incredibly harsh. The drill instructors knew they had some underaged kids in the group and purposely exhausted them so they would call it quits and leave camp. They had to run faster, carry heavier packs, and stay awake longer than the rest of the group. But it didn’t break Graham’s spirit.
After boot camp, they sent Graham to Pearl Harbor at Oahu, Hawaii, where he was assigned to the USS South Dakota as a gunner. The ship was considered one of the most important ones in WWII. And Graham knew that boarding that ship meant sailing into the crossfire.
The baby-faced 12-year-old stood out on board with his child-like features and gentle voice. His fellow shipmate, John Maag, mentioned, “Calvin got through boot camp because the petty officers didn’t care how old anyone was.” Graham knew he was the odd one out, so he told everyone he was 15 to get them off his back.
Graham took part in two legendary battles, the Santa Cruz and the Guadalcanal. Why did they happen in the first place? It all began in August 1942. US forces landed on Guadalcanal’s island in Tulagi to prevent the Japanese from using the island as a base.
The area was crucial for both sides because if the Japanese were to land on that island, they would be right in the middle of the supply route from Australia to the US (and that way, they could have sabotaged any transfers). The US knew they had to act quickly, and the fight for the island began!
By early October 1942, the USS South Dakota sailed across the South Pacific along with the USS Enterprise and their escorting cruisers and destroyers. They met with Japanese forces near the Santa Cruz Islands and were instantly bombarded by their aircraft.
Graham’s ship successfully protected the Enterprise, destroying 26 enemy planes with anti-aircraft guns. Santa Cruz was considered a short-term strategic victory for the Japanese, but in the long run, the damage the US Navy caused them was difficult to repair, and they had a huge disadvantage in the next battle.
After reading war stories in the newspaper and hearing tragic tales from his fellow soldiers, the young boy finally experienced what it was like to come face to face with the enemy. It wasn’t a pretty scene, but the kid handled it well.
Even though the Japanese outnumbered US forces and Graham’s ship suffered some harsh blows to the deck, the child sailor stood his ground and fought bravely. The South Dakota recovered quickly and was ready to embark on her second battle – the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Graham wasn’t the only young spirit aboard the South Dakota. The youthful air on the battleship earned it the reputation of being “wild-eyed and quick to shoot.” The passionate sailors fired away carelessly and never bothered to look if they were aiming at the right target.
But shooting like maniacs isn’t always the best strategy. At one point, things got so out of hand that American pilots were advised not to fly above the ship. Despite everything, the South Dakota was a mean machine that did a good job protecting her fellow battleships.
In early November 1942, the Japanese made their way to the Guadalcanal to bomb US forces and take over the land. The battle began on the 12th and lasted for four gruesome days. This time, the USS South Dakota and the Washington operated together to take the enemy down.
As luck would have it (or lack thereof), South Dakota suffered a series of electrical failures, causing her to be even more vulnerable in the face of the menacing aircraft and enemy battleships. Blind and unable to fire properly, Graham’s ship suffered severe damage in the battle.
Miraculously, Graham’s battleship managed to stay afloat, and US forces rose triumphantly from the battle. But the crew was badly injured, including young Graham, who suffered a blow to the face that scarred him for life.
As he was manning his gun, Graham was struck in the face by shrapnel, tearing his jaw and mouth and knocking out his front teeth. Luckily, the adrenaline and rush flowing through the young boy’s body numbed the pain. And he pushed through until the fight died down.
Once the Japanese ordered their ships to retire, South Dakota and other US forces withdrew to Nouméa, where they repaired South Dakota’s damage. A startled and frazzled Graham was assigned to the rescue team and helped tend to his ship’s casualties.
Graham recalled, “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.” In total, 38 men aboard the South Dakota lost their lives that night, and 60 were severely injured.
The USS South Dakota was shipped back to New York City for further repair, and on arrival, news reporters flooded the scene to question the soldiers on their heroic actions. The crew received various honors for their brave efforts, and the public celebrated their return home.
But one mom wasn’t so happy with what she saw on the news. Or more accurately, with who she saw on the news. One of the celebrating sailors was none other than her 12-year-old boy, Calvin Graham. She immediately informed the navy of their irresponsible recruitment.
It’s sad to write this, but Graham was actually thrown in prison at Corpus Christi three months after his mother’s confession. Can you imagine being imprisoned after fighting such a horrific battle? But officials felt humiliated by their “mistake,” so they took it out on the young boy.
Luckily, Graham sent his sister letters of his whereabouts, and the angry sibling instantly took action. She threatened to inform the newspapers of her brother’s situation, knowing the public uproar it would cause. The navy eventually gave in and released Graham, but he was stripped of any honorary medal and veteran benefit he very righteously deserved.
So how does a 7th grader live an everyday life after taking part in WWII? Well, he doesn’t. Graham tried to go back to school, but he was so far behind in his studies and so out of focus that he dropped out shortly after.
He found work as a defense plant welder in a Houston shipyard and tried to normalize his life as much as possible. That didn’t work out so well, though. The small boy had matured so much that he married two years later at 14! A year later, he was already a dad and, at 16, a divorcee. So much for an everyday life…
Finally, at an eligible age, 17-year-old Graham joined the army once again. He trained to get in the Marine Corps but tragically broke his back when he fell off a pier. It looks like army life just wasn’t written in the stars for this youthful patriot.
He was discharged with a 20 percent disability and couldn’t do much afterward but drive cabs for a living and boost his income by selling newspapers from door to door. As the years went by, he grew more and more withdrawn and rarely spoke up about his traumatic past.
Graham went above and beyond for his country, but he saw nothing in return. He suffered from chronic headaches, terrible nightmares, and his war-damaged teeth never fully recovered. And instead of taking responsibility for this distraught veteran, the Navy never granted him an honorable discharge.
What this meant was that Graham didn’t deserve any of the benefits given to regular veterans. Finally, after years of suffering, he decided it was time to speak out. He managed to get on the phone with President Franklin Roosevelt, who promised him he would grant him his medals and honorable discharge. But unfortunately, FDR died before he could fulfill his word.
Calvin Graham wasn’t given an honorable discharge for his service, and it never ceased to bother him. Three decades after WWII, he finally mustered up the courage to demand what he deserved and spilled his heart out in a letter he sent to the newly elected President, Jimmy Carter.
He told him his story and stated that all he wished for was an honorable discharge. Although it took a while, his letter was eventually accepted, and two years later, Carter granted him his request. Not only that, but he gave him back all his medals. Well, all but one – the Purple Heart.
Graham died of heart failure in 1992, at 63, in his house in Fort Worth. Sadly, he never got to see his Purple Heart medal, but at least his family did. Two years after his passing, Navy Secretary John Dalton presented Graham’s widow with the badge.
Former shipmate Beucker was happy to hear that all of Graham’s medals were returned and stressed how important it was for people to know his story. “Matter of fact, young people ought to know his story now. These days, all that most people know about patriotism is to stand up when the national anthem is played at a sporting event.”
Graham’s life story is so unbelievable and thrilling that film directors knew they had to create something out of it. In 1988, a historical war film named “Too Young the Hero” came out. It starred Ricky Schroder as 12-year-old Graham and followed his life from the moment he forged his mom’s signature to his dark days behind bars.
Graham’s wife, Mary Graham, said she and Graham hoped the movie would provide them with financial stability. But she sadly confessed, “after the agents and everybody else took their shares, our part of it was about $25,000.”
It’s hard to imagine why over 200,000 teenagers lied their way into the army in WWII. They could have stayed in school, slept in their beds, and spent drunken nights outside with friends. According to Harry Wallace, who enlisted at 16, “During the war, everyone was patriotic, and we thought we were doing some good. I was in high school, and I saw the other kids going and wondered why I couldn’t.”
Another veteran who enlisted at 16 agreed: “At that time, it was the right thing to do,” he said, “I don’t say you should do that all the time, but I didn’t hurt anybody. I think I helped myself. I helped my country. I’m glad I did what I did.”
Here are some more incredible stories of kids who risked their lives and raced to the crossfire….
15-year-old Gerry Barlow said he didn’t feel 15 when he enlisted in the army. He felt mature and ready to take on whatever task his country needed him to do. He found himself lying to get in the Navy after running away from a Brooklyn orphanage.
Beaten down and desperate to get his life together, Barlow passed by a navy recruiting station one day and knew that was his calling. He used his older brother’s birth certificate and bribed someone to sign his enlistment papers. Easy as that. Barlow was now a seaman.
15-year-old George Brouse decided there was no reason to wait for his 17th birthday to fight for his country. The war was happening around him now, and two years is way too much to delay such a critical mission.
So, he lied about his age and found himself in Tunisia, fighting against the Germans. Brouse admitted it wasn’t hard to sneak his way into the army, “I don’t know whether it was just because they were careless, or whatever, but they didn’t find out until I was overseas.”
After hearing President Franklin Roosevelt speak about the importance of serving the country, 15-year-old James Caroll decided he had to swap his regular clothes for army suits. He tried changing his birthday on his birth certificate but realized he had no clue how.
So, he paid someone to change his birth date to 1925, turning him into an eligible 17-year-old. While his friends attended 10th grade and dealt with stuff like who’s the cutest girl in class or how to pass the silly history test, Caroll was out there fighting for his people.
At boot camp, James Caroll cried himself to sleep every night, and in the mornings, he faked shaving his face with a safety razor that had no blade. But people didn’t suspect he was any younger than what he claimed to be. At 5 feet 10 and 130 pounds, Caroll wasn’t the smallest in camp.
He was finally assigned to a battleship, and the first action he saw was the Battle of Saipan in 1944. He recalled, “I thought it was kind of funny. At 15, you’re invincible. I didn’t understand what we were doing — until the first bullets went by my head.”
The Battle of Britain in 1940 inspired 15-year-old Stan Scott to lie about his age and enlist. He managed to fool authorities, but once his mom realized her son was crawling through the mud with kids older than him, she informed his commanders, and he was kicked out halfway through the training.
But that didn’t stop him. The following year, at 16, he enlisted again and joined the commandos. Looking back, Scott admitted, “I was young and stupid and up for it.” Like many eager teenagers, Scott wanted to be part of the action.
Only 14 at the time, George Collet didn’t have to do much to convince military authorities to let him enlist at the outbreak of the First World War. He was 5ft 9ins tall and confidently told recruiting officers he was 19. They never doubted him and even commented on how well developed he was for someone under 20!
When his father found out, he begged the military authorities to let his son go. But they replied that George “has been medically examined and found physically fit to bear the strain of active service, and as he has expressed the wish to remain with his unit in the Expeditionary Force, he is being retained.”
Another rebellious 14-year-old, Allan Stover, looked his age and was repeatedly questioned by his fellow soldiers about his true identity. He proudly admitted, “I never cracked and made it through four years without telling a soul my true age.”
But he was almost caught after one seaman grabbed his razor and discovered it had no blade. “I was mortified. I’m not sure whether he thought I was too young or just embarrassed that I didn’t have enough of a beard and had to fake it. But he never told on me.”
When parents didn’t agree to sign permission slips, many boys went out to the street, bought homeless people beer, and asked for a signature in return. It’s funny to think that was enough to get in the army. But when practically the whole world is at war, no one has the time to double-check your papers.
Some kids were so small in size that they had to get creative if they wanted in. Frank McNeil (enlisted at 16) described, “To get in, you had to be 110 pounds. So that day, I ate 4 or 5 pounds of bananas and just tipped the scale. I hate bananas now.”