During World War II, the United States was encouraging every able-bodied man to enlist. However, swept up in the patriotism of the time and seeing the dangers the nation faced, many boys under 18 also enlisted, often without the military ever realizing. The youngest of these enlistees was a 12-year-old Texas boy named Calvin Graham, who was decorated for bravery and for injuries at Guadalcanal.


Calvin Leon Graham was born on April 3, 1930, in Canton, east of Dallas. He was one of seven children into a troubled family that faced many hardships. His father died when he was still very young, and his mother remarried to a man Graham later described as very abusive. The family moved to Crockett, north of Houston, where Graham began attending the local schools.


At the age of 11, he ran away from home with an older brother – moving to a rented room across town. Being quite resourceful, he managed to find work selling newspapers and working as a messenger while out of school. In August 1942, now 12, he enlisted in the navy. He told his mother he was going to live with distant relatives but instead had his grandmother lie about his age so he could enlist.


He showed up at his induction in Houston wearing his brother’s suit and disguising his voice. In a story he recounted years later, Graham claimed he stood in line with a number of young boys he knew for certain were only 14 to 15. As part of the induction process, all recruits had to be examined by physicians and dentists to check their overall health. Young men grow and physically mature at vastly different rates, making it possible to appear older or younger than their actual age. With dentistry, rates of maturity tend to be much more uniform, making it easier to determine chronological age from examining teeth. A navy dentist immediately saw that Graham could not be much older than 12, but Graham insisted he was 18 and pointed out that several minors had just been examined without questions as to their ages. So the 12-year-old boy talked a navy dentist into letting him enlist.


After his basic training, he was assigned as a gunner on the battleship USS South Dakota. In November 1942, the ship was sent into the bitter Guadalcanal campaign. In one fierce battle, the South Dakota found itself in a fight with 8 Japanese destroyers. It sank three while suffering critical damage. Many sailors were killed on the South Dakota, and Graham spent most of the night trying to tend to as many of his wounded crewmates as possible even though he had minor injuries himself. For his valor, he was awarded the Bronze Star, and the entire crew was cited for their courage under fire. Graham also received the Purple Heart for his injuries. The South Dakota then limped back to port in December.


While the ship underwent repairs, he learned his grandmother had died. Distraught, he raced back to Texas, missing the funeral by one day. His mother learned by this point he had lied about his age and joined the navy. His problems only grew worse. Since he left his post without permission, the navy had him arrested and imprisoned him for three months for desertion, refusing to give him access to his family or an attorney. Since the navy believed what he initially said about his age, he could not get anyone to believe otherwise. Eventually, his mother and sister managed to get him released after threatening the navy with a publicity campaign.


The navy threw him out of the service, voiding his enlistment and stripping him of his medals and benefits. From the military’s perspective, it could not have a child serving in combat. The law prohibited it, and the military could not be seen to be encouraging children to lie about their ages and enlist. He was released two days before his thirteenth birthday, now the youngest veteran of the war but with few prospects ahead of him.


Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.