Calvin Graham: The Youngest Decorated Serviceman of World War II

Photo Credit: 1. US Navy Historical Center / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 2. U.S. Navy Photographer / Navy Memorial / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (Colorized by DeepAI)

It wasn’t uncommon for boys to lie about their age to enlist in World War II. Some attempted to convince recruiting personnel they were legally old enough to join up without parental consent. A teenager could enlist at 16 if they had the approval of their parents – but a 12-year-old? That seems much too young. However, Calvin Graham did exactly that.

Enlisting in the US Navy after Pearl Harbor

Calvin Graham. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy Photographer / Navy Memorial / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Calvin Graham, like many other Americans, felt the need to join the US military. Born in Canton, Texas in April 1930, he was quite mature for being just 11, having had to financially support himself after escaping an abusive father, and looked older than he was – he was already shaving!

The first part of Graham’s plan was arguably the easiest. He forged his mother’s signature on the enlistment papers and stole a notary stamp from a hotel. After telling his mother he was going to visit relatives, he traveled to Houston, where, on August 15, 1942, he lined up with others looking to do their part for their country.

It was at this point that the objective became more difficult. At just five feet, two inches tall, he was small, and the clothes he was wearing (borrowed from his brother) were likely too big for his frame. Then there was the dentist, who would immediately realize the individual standing before him was way younger than he was claiming after one look at Graham’s teeth.

Sure enough, the medical professional caught Graham in the lie, but the youngster knew what to do. Aware the teenagers ahead of him weren’t 17 – they were 14 or 15, at the most – he confronted the dentist, who reportedly said “he didn’t have time to mess with” Graham; he was free to continue with his enlistment.

Calvin Graham was assigned to the USS South Dakota (BB-57)

USS South Dakota (BB-57), 1943. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Dropping out of school, Calvin Graham was shipped off to San Diego for weeks of boot camp. His instructors were aware some of the recruits were below the minimum age of service and singled them out, making them run extra laps.

After training to be an anti-aircraft gunner, he was assigned to the USS South Dakota (BB-57), based out of Pearl Harbor. The fast battleship was assigned to the same task force as the legendary aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) and under the command of Capt. Thomas Leigh Gatch.

Before long, the vessel and her crew were on their way to the Pacific Theater, where they’d participate in many notable battles.

Taking shrapnel during the Guadalcanal Campaign

Japanese bomber aircraft crashing into the USS San Francisco (CA-38) during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, 1942. (Photo Credit: USS President Adams – AP-38 / U.S. Navy / Naval History and Heritage Command / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Calvin Graham first saw combat during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands toward the end of October 1942. The engagement saw losses on both sides, including the USS Hornet (CV-8), and ended in a veritable stalemate.

Just a few weeks later, the USS South Dakota participated in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Part of the larger Guadalcanal Campaign, the engagement began with the Japanese sending bombers to attack Henderson Field. What ensued was a four-day fight that saw both sides lose a lot of their naval strength.

South Dakota suffered 47 strikes, with shrapnel hitting Graham in the face while he was delivering a message to an officer. The piece sliced through his jaw and mouth, after which he was struck with more shrapnel, which sent him down three stories of the superstructure. Despite his injuries, which would have likely incapacitated a man well his senior, Graham kept going, putting his own well-being aside to assist his injured comrades.

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“I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night,” Smithsonian Magazine reports him as saying. “It was a long night. It aged me.”

South Dakota returned to the United States to undergo repairs. For his heroics, Graham received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

Calvin Graham’s family realized what he’d done

USS South Dakota (BB-57), 1943. (Photo Credit: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

After the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Calvin Graham’s mother saw newsreel footage and recognized one of the faces as her son. She contacted the US Navy to inform the service just how young he was, resulting in him spending three weeks in the brig. While he attempted to return to the USS South Dakota, this never occurred, as his sister had threatened to go to the media.

Instead, Graham’s medals were revoked and he was dishonorably discharged.

When he returned to Houston, Graham was a hero. Before long, however, he was struggling. He tried to return to school, but was too far behind the other kids his age to keep up. He married very young, at only 14 years of age, and became a father the following year. By 17, he and his wife were divorced.

Petitioning for an honorable discharge

Jimmy Carter, 1978. (Photo Credit: Department of Defense / Department of the Navy / Naval Photographic Center / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Following his divorce, Calvin Graham, now of the legal age to enlist in the military, joined the US Marine Corps. Just like his marriage, this was short-lived, as he fell and broke his back in 1951.

Graham never got over his dishonorable discharge and, in 1976, decided to do something about it. He wrote to Jimmy Carter, a fellow US Navy veteran, and pleaded his case. It worked and, in 1978, his discharge was changed to “honorable.” He even got his medal back, sans the Purple Heart – that wouldn’t occur until 1994, after his death.

Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law that would allow the veteran to receive disability payments from the military.

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On November 6, 1992, at the age of 62, Calvin Graham passed away. He was laid to rest at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Fort Worth, Texas.