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Calvin Leon Graham (April 3, 1930–November 6, 1992)

Calvin Leon Graham (April 3, 1930 – –November 6, 1992)

Medal of Honour

Calvin Leon Graham was the youngest U.S. serviceman, during World War II. Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, he enlisted in the Navy in May 1942, at the age of 12. He was wounded at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, while serving aboard USS South Dakota. During the battle, he helped in the fire control efforts aboard the South Dakota, but suffered fragmentation wounds in the process. For his actions he was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

For Calvin Graham, the summer of ’42 marked a terrifying rite of passage. The young seaman first class was aboard the U.S.S. South Dakota when the battleship was attacked by the Japanese during the battle of Guadalcanal. In the bloody fight that followed, the muzzle blast from the ship’s own 16-inch guns set sailors afire and hurled them into the sea while the enemy riddled the South Dakota with shells. Graham was blown off an upper deck while trying to rescue a wounded shipmate and tumbled 30 feet, shattering his upper jawbone. Half the ship’s crew of 3,300 were killed or wounded, and Graham emerged with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He was, at the time, 12 years old.

Several months earlier Graham, one of seven children, had left home in Houston, Texas after telling his widowed mother that he was going to visit relatives.

In Calvin Graham’s case, patriotism was a family affair. Calvin supported himself by selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on weekends and after school. He was just eleven when he first thought of lying about his age to join the Navy.

Graham made his decision. The question was how to do it.

He started by shaving, as he thought it would ultimately make him look older. (And, note: Contrary to popular belief, shaving has no effect on hair growth rates or thickness.)

Three older brothers had already volunteered for military service by spring 1942, when the war was going badly for the U.S. Much of our Pacific Fleet had been destroyed at Pearl Harbour. Japanese armies had overrun the Philippines, then starved and killed its captured American defenders in the infamous Bataan Death March.

Calvin saw all that in the newsreels. He’d come out of the movie theater, thinking: `We could lose this war! I got to get in there and help.’ ”

There wasn’t much to hold him at home. Graham’s father had died in a car accident, and his mother, a hotel maid, had remarried. Her new husband and Graham didn’t get along.

“Seemed like every time our stepdad came home, he’d get on Calvin,” recalled his sister, “My brother pretty much had to raise himself.”

After school, Graham shined shoes and sold newspapers on the streets of downtown Houston. Finally, those gloomy headlines got to him and to another newsboy-patriot. So when school let out for the summer, they concocted a scheme for getting into the service. Each signed the other’s enlistment papers where it listed “parent’s approval,” then they went to see a desk clerk in a hotel on their paper route.

They told him there was a fire upstairs, so he went up to see about it, the boys knew he kept a notary public’s seal in his desk. While he was gone, they used it to stamp their papers.

To explain his absence, Graham told his mother he was going to see his grandmother in Crocket, Texas, about 100 miles north of Houston. He surreptitiously borrowed a brown suit and a fedora belonging to his brother Jim, who was away in the service.

Calvin had to tuck those pants legs up underneath, But that grown man’s outfit evidently was good enough to convince the recruiting officer that he was 17.

Despite all his efforts, there was one problem- a dentist who helped screen the new recruits. Graham stated, “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. Finally, he said he didn’t have time to mess with me and he let me go.”

On August 15, 1942, Calvin Graham was sworn into the Navy. He was twelve years, four months and twelve days old, the youngest individual to enlist in the U.S. military since the Civil War and the youngest member of the U.S. military during WWII.

After spending time in San Diego for basic training, he sailed aboard the USS South Dakota as a loader for a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun, a “green boy” from Texas who would soon become the youngest to serve.

Graham was sent to Pearl Harbour for assignment to the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, which was being rebuilt. John Maag, of Welling, Okla., was part of the same transport of seamen apprentices. Graham and Maag wound up serving together on the South Dakota. Maag said lots of people had to know the baby-faced Graham, who had yet to shave, couldn’t be 17.

“Calvin got through boot camp because the petty officers didn’t care how old anyone was,” Maag said. “They needed to ship out men quickly. We’d suffered a lot of casualties, and the Navy needed to build up its crews.”

The drill instructors were aware of the underage recruits and often made them run extra miles and lug heavier packs.

Henry Buecker of Cincinnati was a Marine stationed aboard the South Dakota. As the battleship was steaming for the South Pacific, he met Graham, who confided in him.

“Calvin asked me: `Can you keep a secret? I’m 15,’ “Buecker said. “After that, he took me as his best friend. I didn’t find out he was only 12 until 35 years later.”


With powerful engines, extensive firepower and heavy armour, the newly christened battleship USS South Dakota steamed out of Philadelphia in August of 1942 spoiling for a fight. The crew was made up of “green boys”—new recruits who enlisted after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour—who had no qualms about either their destination or the action they were likely to see. Brash and confident, the crew couldn’t get through the Panama Canal fast enough, and their captain, Thomas Gatch, made no secret of the grudge he bore against the Japanese. “No ship more eager to fight ever entered the Pacific,” one naval historian wrote.
In less than four months, the South Dakota would limp back to port in New York for repairs to extensive damage suffered in some of World War II’s most ferocious battles at sea. The ship would become one of the most decorated warships in U.S. Navy history and acquire a new moniker to reflect the secrets it carried. The Japanese, it turned out, were convinced the vessel had been destroyed at sea, and the Navy was only too happy to keep the mystery alive—stripping the South Dakota of identifying markings and avoiding any mention of it in communications and even sailors’ diaries. When newspapers later reported on the ship’s remarkable accomplishments in the Pacific Theatre, they referred to it simply as “Battleship X.”

That the vessel was not resting at the bottom of the Pacific was just one of the secrets Battleship X carried through day after day of hellish war at sea. Aboard was the gunner from Texas who would soon become the nation’s youngest decorated war hero. Calvin Graham, the fresh-faced seaman who had set off for battle from the Philadelphia Navy Yard in the summer of 1942.

He and an older brother had moved into a cheap rooming house, and Calvin supported himself by selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on weekends and after school. Even though he moved out, his mother would occasionally visit—sometimes to simply sign his report cards at the end of a semester.  The country was at war, however, and being around newspapers afforded the boy the opportunity to keep up on events overseas.

“I didn’t like Hitler to start with,” he said.

By the time the USS South Dakota made it to the Pacific, it had become part of a task force alongside the legendary carrier USS Enterprise (the “Big E”). By early October 1942, the two ships, along with their escorting cruisers and destroyers, raced to the South Pacific to engage in the fierce fighting in the battle for Guadalcanal. After they reached the Santa Cruz Islands on October 26, the Japanese quickly set their sights on the carrier and launched an air attack that easily penetrated the Enterprise’s own air patrol. The carrier USS Hornet was repeatedly torpedoed and sank off Santa Cruz, but the South Dakota managed to protect Enterprise, destroying 26 enemy planes with a barrage from its antiaircraft guns.

Standing on the bridge, Captain Gatch watched as a 500-pound bomb struck the South Dakota’s main gun turret. The explosion injured 50 men, including the skipper, and killed one. The ship’s armor was so thick, many of the crew were unaware they’d been hit.  But word quickly spread that Gatch had been knocked unconscious. Quick-thinking quartermasters managed to save the captain’s life—his jugular vein had been severed, and the ligaments in his arms suffered permanent damage—but some onboard were aghast that he didn’t hit the deck when he saw the bomb coming. “I consider it beneath the dignity of a captain of an American battleship to flop for a Japanese bomb,” Gatch later said.

The ship’s young crew continued to fire at anything in the air, including American bombers that were low on fuel and trying to land on the Enterprise. The South Dakota was quickly getting a reputation for being wild-eyed and quick to shoot, and Navy pilots were warned not to fly anywhere near it. The South Dakota was fully repaired at Pearl Harbor, and Captain Gatch returned to his ship, wearing a sling and bandages. Seaman Graham quietly became a teenager, turning 13 on November 6, just as Japanese naval forces began shelling an American airfield on Guadalcanal Island. Steaming south with the Enterprise, Task Force 64, with the South Dakota and another battleship, the USS Washington, took four American destroyers on a night search for the enemy near Savo Island. There, on November 14, Japanese ships opened fire, sinking or heavily damaging the American destroyers in a four day engagement that became known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

Later that evening the South Dakota encountered eight Japanese destroyers; with deadly accurate 16-inch guns, the South Dakota set fire to three of them. “They never knew what sank ‘em,” Gatch would recall. One Japanese ship set its searchlights on the South Dakota, and the ship took 42 enemy hits, temporarily losing power. Graham was manning his gun when shrapnel tore through his jaw and mouth; another hit knocked him down, and he fell through three stories of superstructure. Still, the 13 year-old made it to his feet, dazed and bleeding, and helped pull other crew members to safety while others were thrown by the force of the explosions, their bodies aflame, into the Pacific.

“I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night,” Graham later said.  ”It was a long night. It aged me.” The shrapnel had knocked out his front teeth, and he had flash burns from the hot guns, but he was “fixed up with salve and a coupla stitches,” he recalled. “I didn’t do any complaining because half the ship was dead.  It was a while before they worked on my mouth.” In fact, the ship had casualties of 38 men killed and 60 wounded.

Regaining power, and after afflicting heavy damage to the Japanese ships, the South Dakota rapidly disappeared in the smoke. Captain Gatch would later remark of his “green” men, “Not one of the ship’s company flinched from his post or showed the least disaffection.” With the Japanese Imperial Navy under the impression that it had sunk the South Dakota, the legend of Battleship X was born.

In mid-December, the damaged ship returned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for major repairs, where Gatch and his crew were profiled for their heroic deeds in the Pacific. Calvin Graham received a Bronze Star for distinguishing himself in combat, as well as a Purple Heart for his injuries. But he couldn’t bask in glory with his fellow crewmen while their ship was being repaired. Graham’s mother, reportedly having recognized her son in newsreel footage, wrote the Navy, revealing the gunner’s true age.

Graham returned to Texas and was thrown in a brig at Corpus Christi, Texas, for almost three months.

Battleship X returned to the Pacific and continued to shoot Japanese planes out of the sky. Graham, meanwhile, managed to get a message out to his sister Pearl, who complained to the newspapers that the Navy was mistreating the “Baby Vet.” The Navy eventually ordered Graham’s release, but not before stripping him of his medals for lying about his age and revoking his disability benefits. He was simply tossed from jail with a suit and a few dollars in his pocket—and no honourable discharge.

It would seem the plan was to keep him there until his service time was up, but he was ultimately released when his sister threatened to go to the media and tell them about her brother’s imprisonment, despite his distinguished service. Graham was released, his medals stripped from him, and then dishonorably discharged, which is significant as it made it so he couldn’t receive any disability benefits, despite his injuries.

Back in Houston, though, he was treated as a celebrity. Reporters were eager to write his story, and when the war film Bombadier premiered at a local theatre, the film’s star, Pat O’Brien, invited Graham to the stage to be saluted by the audience. The attention quickly faded. At age 13, Graham tried to return to school, but he couldn’t keep pace with students his age and quickly dropped out. He married at age 14, became a father the following year, and found work as a welder in a Houston shipyard. Neither his job nor his marriage lasted long. At 17 years old and divorced, and with no service record, Graham was about to be drafted when he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He soon broke his back in a fall, for which he received a 20 percent service-connected disability.

This unfortunate event ended his service career and left him selling magazine subscriptions for a living.

Neither time nor the government treated Graham kindly. Despite recurring headaches and chronic problems with his war-damaged teeth, he was refused Navy medical treatment and has never received the honourable discharge that would entitle him to the full range of veterans’ benefits. He remembers vividly a 1944 telephone conversation with President Franklin Roosevelt arranged by a congressman. “He had a real warm, friendly voice,” Graham recalls. “He said I was a hero, and he was going to see to it that I not only got my medals back, but that I also got the Navy Cross and an honourable discharge.” Unfortunately, FDR died before keeping his word.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter announced an amnesty program for those who avoided military service during the Vietnam War. Graham wrote in, hoping to clear up his military record. He never heard back, but that inspired him to write various Texas politicians, asking their help in getting his decorations returned. Occasionally his crusade made the newspapers.

In 1978, with the help of two Texas’ U.S. senators, the Navy was persuaded to give Graham back his medals, except the Purple Heart. By then, his Marine injuries and heart problems had left him an invalid. He was worried about his wife Mary not having enough to live on after he was gone.

In 1988, his story was brought to the public via the television movie, Too Young the Hero.  This prompted President Reagan to grant Graham full disability benefits.  As a result, he received $4,917 increase in his back pay, $18,000 to cover past medical bills (though he was required to provide medical receipts).  Unfortunately so much time had passed that many of the doctors he had seen had already passed away and many of the bills had been lost.  As a result, he only received $2,100 of the original $18,000.

Despite his rights to the movie amounting to $50,000, after ½ the money went to two agents and another 20% went to a writer of an unpublished book about him, his total – before taxes – only amounted to $15,000.

To the end, Graham also fretted about that Purple Heart. Two men he served with repeatedly submitted affidavits testifying to having seen Graham wounded on board the South Dakota. But always the Navy replied that there wasn’t enough documentation, until it suddenly reversed itself in 1994 and, without explanation, announced that Graham’s Purple Heart would be returned.


Henry Buecker, who was a Marine stationed aboard the South Dakota with Calvin Graham said: They should’ve used Calvin for recruiting during the war, saying: `You guys ought to have enough patriotism to sign up. Look what a kid of 12 did.’

“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.”

There were thousands of underage veterans who joined the military during the World War II, and Korean War eras. Most joined out of patriotism or to seek adventure. Others did so for financial reasons. Some of these guys came from large families and there was not enough food to go around, and this was a way out. Others just had family problems and wanted to get away, or were not old enough to do a mining job or do any other work. Others decided that the food was quite acceptable; they paid them regularly, and provided them clothing. Some just felt they just needed to do it.

But for all the guys, the reasons were pretty much the same. They came from bad neighbourhoods and were looking for a little adventure, and had a lot of patriotism.

While underage enlistments were fairly common during the era of both world wars, such occurrences would be unlikely today. The information age has made it much simpler to find out if the information given by the candidate is accurate. Also there’s not such an immense pressure to join the military service as there was in 1941, following Pearl Harbour, or there was in previous wars.

Although thousands of other veterans “fudged” their ages to get into the military, they do not consider that to be a typical case of lying.
They broke the law to serve; it’s a badge of honour for them.

Graham died of heart failure in November of 1992. Two years later, his Purple Heart was reinstated and presented to his widow. The youngest serviceman in World War II, was recognized as receiving not only the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, but also the National Defense Service Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with bronze Battle Star device and the WWII Victory Medal.


The Sailor’s Creed

I am a United States Sailor.

I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and I will obey the orders of those appointed over me.

I represent the fighting spirit of the Navy and those who have gone before me to defend freedom and democracy around the world.

I proudly serve my country’s Navy combat team with Honor, Courage and Commitment.

I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all.

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