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Calvin Graham: The boy who became a WW2 veteran at 13-years-old

Goran Blazeski

Calvin Leon Graham was born on April 3, 1930, in Canton, Texas. He was the youngest of seven children of a poor Texas farm family. His father had died and his stepfather abused him so he and one of his older brother decided to move out.

He was selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on weekends and after school in order to support himself. He was attending elementary school in Houston before he decided to join the Navy.

But how could a 12-year-old join the Navy? It wasn’t unusual for young men to lie about their age in order to serve their country, but Calvin was only 12 years old when he decided to enlist.

Photo of U.S. Navy Seaman First Class Calvin Graham

Photo of U.S. Navy Seaman First Class Calvin Graham

He wanted to look older than he was, so he started shaving and talking in a deep voice to convince everyone that he was older.

He dressed in his older brother’s clothes to look bigger since he weighed around 120 pounds at the time. He went to enlist in the US Navy with some of his friends that were 3-4 years older than him.

Calvin Graham was in grade school when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Since he was selling newspapers he was well informed on events in Europe. He once told a reporter “I didn’t like Hitler to start with.” It’s said that the deaths of his two cousins inspired him to join.

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack.

At this time the Navy had lost a lot of men and needed whomever it could get. So at times, the service overlooked age. Graham was, therefore, able to successfully complete the course. The Navy had already suffered a high number of casualties and was desperate to build up its crew.

After he joined the Navy, he told his mother that he was going to visit his grandmother. But the truth was that he was headed to San Diego for basic training.

Graham first served on the USS South Dakota (BB-57) where he was assigned as a gunner after basic training. There he experienced the intense fighting first hand.  He assisted in fire control during the Battle of Guadalcanal.

During the naval Battle of Guadalcanal, he was manning a gun when he was seriously wounded, including burns and having his front teeth knocked out by shrapnel that ripped through his mouth.

The aircraft carrier Hornet under attack

The aircraft carrier Hornet under attack

Although he was injured, he still managed to help the other wounded soldiers. He would remove belts from the dead and use them as tourniquets for the wounded. He stayed awake all night and encouraged the wounded. As a result of his actions during this time, he received both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

His career in the Navy was going well until his mother spotted him in a newsreel. She immediately wrote to the Navy, notifying officials of her son’s actual age. After this, the Navy stripped him of his medals, revoked his disability benefits and gave him a dishonorable discharge.

At age 17, Graham enlisted with the US Marine Corps. However, he broke his back when he fell from a pier three years later, thus ending his service career.

It wasn’t until 1978 that he finally received his honorable discharge by President Jimmy Carter and President Ronald Reagan later approved disability benefits for Graham.

In 1994 his Purple Heart was reinstated, but he didn’t live to see it. He died in 1992 at the age of 62.