What happens to soldiers once the wars end, the parades pass by, and the accolades fade away? The rent is still due, the old injuries still ache, and the nightmares remain. This is what many veterans face, but it was an even more pronounced situation for Texas native Calvin Graham, who at 12 years old in the midst of World War II had enlisted in the navy, was wounded in action, and was discharged for lying about his age. He was stripped of his medals and benefits. Calvin Graham spent the remainder of his life trying to reclaim the honors he had earned.
Graham was ejected from the navy two days before his thirteenth birthday in 1943 after having served as a gunner on a battleship and receiving minor injuries in battle. The official policy of the United States government was that no one would be drafted or enrolled into the military below the age of 18. A 17-year-old could enlist only with parental consent and would often be held back from the fighting until age 18. However, as Graham’s case showed, many young boys found ways around this age restriction.
One organization, the Veterans of Underage Military Service, founded in 1991, claims dozens of members who were between 13 and 16 who served in the military during World War II. The situation was not at all unique to the United States. The Axis Powers were notorious for using children in combat. At the height of World War II, the Soviet Union drafted boys as young as 16. Even the British organized a home guard unit that included young boys aged 16 and 17.
Graham’s story initially received some attention but faded from public view. He returned to Crockett with his family and attempted to return to school, but his view of the world had changed. After having spent months dodging Japanese patrols, seeing men die, and literally holding the lives of his bloodied shipmates in his hands, eighth grade did not have much of an appeal. He dropped out of school and married in 1944, a union that produced one child before the couple divorced.
In 1948, Graham joined the Marines – legally. He served honorably until 1951 when his back was seriously injured in an accident on duty. He was medically discharged from the Marines, but the problems surrounding his prior discharge from the navy prevented him from receiving veterans medical benefits. He eventually gained only limited disability benefits.
He had trouble finding work afterward because of his injuries. He drifted from one job to another and often struggled financially. Graham eventually remarried and kept trying to clear his name and get his full veterans benefits.
After years of lobbying the government, President Jimmy Carter announced a new program in 1977 that helped Graham’s case. That year, Sen. John Tower and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen jointly pushed through a bill giving Graham an honorable discharge. Carter signed the bill in 1978, returning all of Graham’s medals except the Purple Heart. Because of bureaucratic problems and red tape, it took another decade for Graham to receive his veterans medical benefits, back pay, and reimbursements for medical costs stemming from his injuries. Even then, he only received a fraction of what he was owed.
His story was made into a popular made-for-TV movie in 1988, Too Young the Hero, starring Ricky Schroeder. However, even with the new acclaim he received from across the country, he was again denied his full due. Writers and agents took huge shares of the money he received for the rights to his story. In the end, he only received $15,000.
International laws since the 1970s protect children from being forced into combat, though the practice does continue in isolated, war-torn nations. When it is discovered, it is prosecuted as a war crime. Graham’s case was never one of malice but a story of a patriotic young boy looking for a better life away from a troubled home and seeing his country in need in a time of war.
Graham continued to have problems with his health in his later life. In November 1992, he died of heart failure at the age of 62 at a Fort Worth hospital. Afterward, the federal government finally returned his Purple Heart, presenting it to his widow in 1994.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.